By Kristen Bates
If Remy from the animated Pixar film Ratatouille were to live in Boston, he’d probably live in the North End. It’s an area where rats are seen diving through copious amounts of trash like dolphins in the ocean. When the sun goes down, the rats come out.
Luckily, rodent control technicians like Chris Graham from Yankee Pest Control are there to prevent rats from overrunning the city. Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they wear cargo pants and a green polo.
Graham has been in the pest control business for 12 years. He’s no stranger to how rats operate, and he’s testing out a new machine that will hopefully keep these rats under control. It’s a BurrowRX Machine that pumps Carbon Monoxide into rat burrows. Rats hiding in these burrows will breathe in the Carbon Monoxide and fall asleep before dying. According to Graham, it’s a more humane approach to getting rid of rats rather than feeding them poison or setting up traps.
Norway Rats, called Rattus norvegicus, are the most common type of rats seen scurrying around Boston. They have brown fur and are larger than other types of rats. Their burrows are easy to spot if you’re looking for them. They are two inches in diameter and are usually close to a source of food. Soil is kicked out next to the entrance of the burrow. In the Public Garden, rat burrows tend to be hiding underneath the plants and shrubbery alongside Boylston Street.
The first area Graham is testing out is a small Boston neighborhood near Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Graham has been coming to this neighborhood every two weeks since January of this year in order to fight off the rat infestation.
“One week, there will be just a couple of rat burrows in the area,” says Graham, “then the next week I’m dealing with up to five or six burrows.”
Before Graham gets the machine out, he has to inspect the crawl space underneath a few houses to get an idea of how many rat burrows he’s dealing with. He also has to make the rounds and check rat traps that have been placed throughout the neighborhood. If any unlucky rats met their demise in these traps, Graham has to clean out the traps and reset them for the next unlucky bunch.
“This is one of the dirty aspects of the job,” said Graham as he pulled a maggot covered rat from one of his traps. In a trap close to one resident’s basement, one rat was smart enough to clear out the poison pellets and set up its own nest. Graham kicks the trap and the rat races to the other side of the yard and wedges itself into a small hole in some concrete beneath a chain link fence.
Graham hates rats. To him, the only good rat is a dead rat. They look dirty, eat trash and carry disease. However, to experts like Bobby Corrigan, rats are fascinating creatures. Corrigan holds a PhD in Urban Rodentology and has been studying rats for years. He says that rats are great adapters and that they can utilize all components of the city around them.
“The whole city is the rat’s domain,” said Corrigan. “Rats are in the sewers below the streets, and they are also in beautiful gardens like the Boston Common.” Rats are everywhere. There are very few places that rats cannot be found. Whole cities like Boston are what Corrigan calls “the rat’s toolbox”. They can adapt to anything.
Rats are more similar to humans than we realize. They can feel emotion, make decisions and feel regret if they make bad decisions. They also help each other out. Corrigan says that rats can laugh when they are tickled.
“Just because they are rats, it doesn’t make them lesser than any other cool mammals like whales or dogs and cats,” said Corrigan.
But city rats still carry disease and create problems. Until there are ways that trash can be reduced around places like neighborhoods and parks, pest control workers like Graham will still have to do their jobs.
So, Graham puts on some heavy duty gloves and grabs a flashlight before crawling underneath a home to look for rat burrows. He shines a flashlight and immediately sees three rat burrows in the crawl space. This is just one out of 26 units he needs to go through.
He has a hunch that all of these burrows are connected but he can’t know for sure until he turns on the BurrowRX Machine and sees where the carbon monoxide goes. Graham places heavy bags of sand over all of the burrow holes underneath the house so, if there are rats in these burrows, they won’t be able to escape.
Graham inserts a hose into one of the holes of the rat burrows and turns on the machine. Carbon Monoxide fills the crawlspace in smoke form and, sure enough, Graham is right. The smoke escapes out of several holes at once and Graham starts to cave in each entrance of the rat burrow.
“If there’s rats inside, they’ll be sleeping soon,” said Graham. “Humans can be exposed to about 100ppm of Carbon Monoxide before they are effected by it. Rats only need 10ppm.”
Just as Graham is about to turn off the machine, a lone rat slowly crawls out of one of the holes. There’s a dazed look in its eyes as it makes its way from underneath the crawlspace and into open air. The Carbon Monoxide has already gotten to the rat and its movements are slow. Graham lets the rat go knowing he will find its corpse down the road.
Graham takes the machine to a few other burrows around the neighborhood before filling a few holes in basement walls with copper mesh and caulk. “We don’t want the rats comin’ inside and the mesh will make it harder for them to chew through,” said Graham.
If absolutely necessary, rats can bite through concrete. The mesh provides a temporary hold until something more can be done. Graham hopes the rats won’t get desperate before then.
“This area was so bad that, at one point, we cleared out about 40 to 60 rats,” recalls Graham. He believes the construction around Brigham and Women’s Hospital could be contributing to the displacement of rats in the neighborhood but he has a stronger hunch that the pizza joint, Penguin Pizza, down the road is responsible for the rat infestation.
“I think they are trying to do their own rat control,” Graham said pointing at a box of store-bought poison pellets. “But it’s not working.”
The grease trap in the back area of Penguin Pizza has rat burrows around it and has a strange smell to it. Trash is carelessly stacked outside and the open backdoor to the kitchen reveals clutter. Graham says he offered services to Penguin Pizza but they did not accept.
As to the possibility of the rat population decreasing in this neighborhood, Graham says he’s “hopeful but not optimistic.”