Vancouver Province column: Rats may not be a huge health threat, but they certainly can hurt tourism

Monday, September 01, 2008

A couple weeks ago, I found out that a neighbour in my condominium building was having problems with some urban wildlife, and I’m not talking about squirrels.

It turns out that rats have been hanging out on his otherwise idyllic patio.

Worse, during one of the few hot days this August, when his sliding door was left open, a long-tailed rodent brazenly scampered into his living room.

In the spirit of keeping these supersized mice away from our premises for good, my neighbours and I have banded together and hired the services of a pest-control company.

Apparently, we’re not alone.

Earlier this month, TransLink had to call exterminators to deal with a thriving rat population that had overrun a garbage storage area underneath the Broadway SkyTrain station.

By all accounts, these pest- control companies are doing a booming business this summer. Some report that customer calls are up by as much as 50 per cent over previous years.

So why now for an invasion of the rats? Last summer’s garbage strike in the City of Vancouver, as well as frenetic construction activity across Metro Vancouver, have created a perfect environment for the creatures.

Even our region’s leafy university campuses are not immune to the rat menace, including the Burnaby Mountain campus of Simon Fraser University. Earlier this summer, SFU’s student newspaper The Peak reported rodents were a common sight in classrooms, computer labs and student housing areas.

Even the newspaper’s own office was under siege from the “widespread rodent infestation,” leaving editors “disturbed” and “scared.” I’ll be the first to admit that my reaction to seeing a rat is fight or flight. After all, rats are historically a harbinger of disease, even death. During the Middle Ages, black rats took the blame for spreading the bubonic plague.

According to the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, rats should be avoided — as should any food they might come into contact with.

But it also says our West Coast rats are relatively clean-living, and are more of a nuisance than a health threat.

Still, this perfect storm of rat activity shouldn’t be taken too lightly.

Last year, video showing dozens of rats running loose in a popular fast-food restaurant in Manhattan was viewed by millions globally on the Internet. It was not only a black eye for the infested chain eatery, but for the entire New York City restaurant industry.

Given the importance of our local tourism trade, this is the last thing visitors to Metro Vancouver should be worrying about. If not a threat to public health, rats at least threaten our region’s public relations.

In the meantime, West Coasters should get used to the idea of living in proximity to more rodents than usual. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, 2008 is the Year of the Rat.

Which is why I’m holding out for a rat-free 2009.

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