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Halifax comes to grips with its growing rat problem

A mild winter and a surge in downtown construction projects have made for an increasingly visible and mobile rat army


 
A construction site near the old library, top right, is seen in Halifax on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. The city is planning to establish a specialized team to combat an increasingly visible and highly mobile rat population. The port city's rat population seemed to explode last summer, mainly because of a mild winter and a spike in downtown construction projects that drove thousands of rats out of their old haunts near the waterfront. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

A construction site near the old library, top right, is seen in Halifax on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. The city is planning to establish a specialized team to combat an increasingly visible and highly mobile rat population. The port city’s rat population seemed to explode last summer, mainly because of a mild winter and a spike in downtown construction projects that drove thousands of rats out of their old haunts near the waterfront. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – Gary Julien conjures an unnerving scene when describing his experience with Halifax’s growing rat problem.

“They’re the size of small kittens — or somewhere between kittens and cats,” the downtown busker says with a laugh while taking a break from playing the drums on a set of small, plastic buckets.

“I’ve seen rats running around as common as pigeons, looking for something to eat. They even cross the paths of pedestrians, mostly in the early evenings, and sometimes in the daytime.”

Julien, a part-time musician known as Caesar the Bucket Drummer, says the problem was particularly bad last summer.

“They need to do something about it,” he said, adding that he fully expected to see some rats on Friday afternoon as the temperature in downtown Halifax rose to about 10 C under bright sunshine. “The problem is crazy. It’s out of hand … Watch where you walk.”

Experts say a combination of a mild winter in 2015-16 and a surge in downtown construction projects made for an increasingly visible and mobile rat army.

Digging and building near the waterfront has driven thousands of rats out of their old haunts. And the rodent problem seemed particularly bad near the city’s old, empty central library, where Caesar can often be found playing his buckets.

Next week, a community council will discuss a newly released report that is recommending the creation of a new rodent control team.

“The key to a successful rodent remediation will be to co-ordinate the approach across municipal departments,” says the report, submitted by Public Works director Bruce Zvaniga.

The proposed team should look into what other municipalities are doing and review existing practices, the report says. Zvaniga is also calling for an education program for residents, and requiring developers to include rodent control in their construction mitigation plans.

Brian Betts, branch manager at Ace Pest Control in Lawrencetown, N.S., says he’s been tracking a population explosion across Nova Scotia for the past four years, though he’s confident virtually every other province has been having the same problem — except Alberta, which invests heavily in a rat extermination program.

However, he agreed the problem is severe in downtown Halifax, where construction of a large convention centre started more than four years ago.

“Anything on the periphery of that has felt more rodent pressure than they have in a long time,” he says. “We’re undergoing a construction boom and there’s lots of new development … and I would also attribute some of it to mild winters.”

Andrew Hebda, zoologist at the Museum of Natural History in Halifax, says rat populations tend to be quite stable. The appearance of more rats in public spaces may not indicate a population boom, but rather a symptom of a changing landscape, which rats abhor.

“It’s a sign of good economic activity,” he says, adding there are typically 50 to 70 rats per city block. “There’s been a lot of change, and rats like stability.”

Virtually all of the rats in question are Norway rats, which are also known as brown rats or sewer rats — all of which are descendants of rodents unwittingly imported by European settlers.

Hebda says these animals have long shown a preference for the waterfront because much of the flat land there was filled in using coarse rubble, which offers plenty of voids for the rats to live.


 
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