Rat Race

They’re wily, smart, and can swim like Michael Phelps. Sightings of the relentless rodents are increasing, even in the most upscale suburbs
Rat Race
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

As urban legends go, it’s a doozy. Rats can crawl into your home through toilets and basement drains. Creepy, but true.

Rats are nothing if not relentless. They do what’s necessary to survive. They can live anywhere you live — a skill reflected by sightings in upscale Detroit suburbs and elsewhere. And specially bred strains find work as laboratory critters and treasured pets.

But rats are mostly beady-eyed villains, a downer with a high yuck factor, blamed for spreading disease. They star in horror movies like Willard and in antique zingers like “you dirty rat.”

Pest-control experts say rats, the wild and nightmarish kind, can be found in any city, no matter how posh.

“It’s an everyday issue,” says Dean Krotchen, of AntEco Pest and Wildlife Management in Livonia, which operates under the slogan, “What’s in your attic? “We’re finding them all the way up through Birmingham, especially around the downtown section there. And occasionally in Bloomfield Hills.

“We had a house in Royal Oak last winter that actually had one come up through the drain tile. It popped the drain out and was running around the house. Probably the drain pipe was broken underground.”

Kenneth Matheny, president of the Roseville-based Elite Pest Management, says his number of rat-related jobs was up more than 25 percent for the first nine months of this year, to a total of 1,700.

“It’s getting worse and worse and worse as we go along,” he says. “A lot of people don’t want to believe it, that they have rats in the neighborhood.”

But some do, with Matheny reporting one rat so big the homeowner mistook it for an opossum. Spotting a rat in your yard could mean that the problem originates, say, six doors down. Effective anti-rat programs should include a proactive approach over a wide area, he says.

Rats are smart. Studies at the University of Georgia link rats to “metacognition.” That means they know what they don’t know, a useful survival skill. And rats are credited with a version of episodic-like memory, roughly translated to remembering personal unique experiences, such as where they once found food in a maze.

So, crawling out of a toilet bowl should be no trick, especially since rats are good swimmers. They can paddle along for up to three hours, no problem, Matheny says.

Multnomah County, Ore., which sits astride a river, reports two or three complaints of rats in toilets a year. The frequency varies from place to place.

“I’ve lived in South America, and that’s a very common occurrence in which rats come up the toilet on a regular basis,” says Emilio DeBess, Oregon’s public health veterinarian. “If you think about pipes in different systems, they can certainly fit their body in and they’re flexible enough to get in. I have seen them [come up in toilets]. It’s not a story somebody came up with, not a fairy tale. It’s a reality. People see them come up the toilet all the time. People also see them coming out of drains and different water pipes. We have a river running through the city of Portland, and that’s always an opportunity for rats.”

In the Detroit area, pest-control experts and city officials cite several factors to explain the uptick in rat reports. One is an increase in home foreclosures, which sometimes leads to a property being ill maintained, providing rat harbors. Also cited is a comparatively mild winter earlier this year, which, coincidentally, is also the Chinese Year of the Rat.

An increase in sewer repair and, in some cities, building demolition drive rats out of those locations and they’re spotted, says Matheny of Elite Pest Management. A number of suburbs have signed on with Elite to battle rodents and the company set up a Web site to help advise residents on rat-free living.

On the bright side, rats have an upside — a cute and clever reputation milked from selective breeding aimed at domestication.

“They make great pets,” says Saginaw resident Sarah Paterson-Farrand, who breeds domesticated rats. “They compare more to a really tiny little dog than any other cage rodent like hamsters and gerbils. They’re very intelligent. You can teach them tricks. You can litter-train them to go potty in a litter box. They’ll come when called. They actually bond very strongly to people, where they want to be out and with you.”
Paterson-Farrand links rats’ unsavory reputation to the “false information that they carried the plague.”

“They didn’t cause the plague,” she says. “It was the fleas. But obviously a New York sewer rat is going to be different than 60 generations of a domesticated rat that’s been bred for a pet or laboratory.”

Carrie Noring, president of the Society of Michigan Rat Fanciers, says pet rats are clean, groom themselves, and don’t require much upkeep. But they still raise eyebrows. Quips Noring: “Most of the time people say, ‘You have what for a pet?’ ”

Other groups that promote pet rats include the Rat Society of America and the North American Rat Registry. The latter keeps records on a pet rat’s pedigree and facts on color, health, temperament, and other traits.

Pets are one thing. But be on guard for those wily wild rats. The Web site for Multnomah County, Ore., provides a particularly sage piece of plumbing advice: “Keep toilet lid closed when not in use.”