Rat race



ou can go your whole life without ever seeing them, but if your path takes you near a dumpster in the wee hours of the morning, you’ll probably see one of Halifax’s many, many rats scurrying around.
And whether you see them or not, rats are usually around. They could be right under your feet, just above your head, or spelunking in the walls that separate the rooms in your home. The worst part is you would probably never know. Let’s look at what a day in the life of an average Halifax rat looks like.
Surprisingly, it’s not all that dissimilar to a day in the life of an average Haligonian human.
“The problem with rats, as far as we’re concerned, is they’re too much like us,” says Andrew Hebda, the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History’s long-time resident zoologist. “They eat the same kind of stuff, they live in the same kind of dwellings, they like the same kind of climate, they prefer inside versus outside. It’s one of those situations where we’ve got a species that really likes to share our space, and we don’t like sharing.”
Rats need just a few things to be happy: water, food, and shelter. In nature, those things take a lot of work. But given our tendency to build ourselves shelter and keep stores of food and water, we save rats a lot of trouble.
“We’re great at throwing food out,” says Hebda, who says the average garbage can gives the omnivores a lot of options. “What do you do when you go to the grocery store? Walk up and down the aisles and say, ‘OK, this looks good.’ That’s exactly what they’re doing.”
There are plenty of us who would be content to lounge about the house on a day off, if our fridges were stocked and we had everything we needed. The same is true of rats. They can travel far and wide, but if they’ve got everything in the den they’ve set up in your basement, why would they?
“They won’t travel far unless they have to,” says Hebda. “They tend to be centred around a particular area, and they probably won’t shift from there for most of their life. The rats in your house are probably your rats.”
A day in the life of most rats isn’t all that exciting, then: they’re homebodies, until something makes them get up and go. That’s
pretty relatable.
But aren’t rats wicked, disease-ridden pests that spread the Black Death and can get as big as dogs?
“There’s a lot of myths and a lot of half-truths about rats,” says Stephen Taylor, general manager for Target Pest Control. “Your wharf rat, your sewer rat, your house rat, guess what: they’re all the same…a typical Norway rat.”
Taylor says the fear we’ve come to associate with rats is a learned one that dates back to when Norway’s cousin, the black rat, was saddled with the blame for spreading the Bubonic Plague. But a lot of those fears are unfounded.
“They don’t outwardly attack humans,” says Taylor, adding they only bite if cornered. “The average city rat is not carrying major, serious pathogens. However, from time to time, they do transmit disease
to humans.”
Property damage is your more realistic concern. They don’t have to chew through wires and cables (another myth), but they certainly can, which can lead to electrical fires. And rat urine and feces present a host of health and hygiene worries.
People are worried about a population boom of late, according
to Taylor. Lots of people say they’re seeing more rats around. He suspects there aren’t actually more rats; the city’s building boom is to blame for their higher visibility.
“As soon as you start doing construction work, you’re starting to disturb things,” says Hebda, who estimates that the Halifax rat population is pretty stable at 50 to 75 rats per city block. Rats are prolific breeders anyway, with one momma rat able to have upwards of 50 pups in a year. But they also don’t live very long—1.5 years is about the maximum life expectancy.
Which makes Oliver something of a Methuselah rat, at 2.5 years. Oliver could never reach that age on the mean streets of Halifax. He belongs to local rat enthusiast Amanda Smith, an accountant who runs a small side business babysitting rats and other small pets.
Oliver, along with Smith’s four other pet rats, live a safer and more luxurious life than their vagabond brethren. Not much else separates them.
“All of the domestic rats that people buy, keep, and breed are basically Rattus norvegicus, except they’ve been bred specially to have certain physical traits that are more desirable,” says Smith. “If you gave me a wild rat pup, it would be fairly tame if it was socialized to be among people from birth.”
Smith says that, like us, rats have distinct personalities. “Even if they were all identical, any rat owner would be able to tell them apart,” she says. “Some are very smart, some are kind of dumb. Just like people.”
Unfortunately, domestic rats tend to share the same stigma as their wild counterparts, so abandonment is an issue. Smith has occasionally helped re-home abandoned rats; she says there are some rat rescue efforts in the city, but they’re usually fly-by-night enterprises.
“They’ll operate for a few years, and then they’ll sort of collapse and fizzle out,” she says. “It really comes down to rescuer burn-out and lack of funds,” says Smith. “More people…don’t really see them as an animal in need of help; they just see them as a pest.”
Despite her love for rats, she knows an infestation is a hazard. “I don’t begrudge anyone who’s eliminating rats,” says Smith. “Rats as a pest is just an unfortunate byproduct of urbanization…I think that it’s going to be a constant battle.”
Where there are people, you’ll always find rats. But you can keep them at a distance.
“There’s tons of things a homeowner can do to keep rats out,” says Taylor. “Clean alleyways, clean backyards, don’t leave places for them to nest and burrow, make sure the outside foundation is sealed up solid, entry points are sealed up solid…It’s due diligence.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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