My thoughts

by Pat Bradford
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The cause of Tokyo’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant’s extended blackout this week has been attributed  to a rat that had somehow short-circuited the switchboard, possibly by gnawing on cables. Inside the faulty switchboard, they found burn marks and the rodent’s scorched body.

An ongoing rat problem has plagued the town of Wrightsville Beach for well over a decade. Problem areas include the north end, the south end and Seacrest Drive behind the old MOI restaurant. These rats come in small, medium and large; some have been seen in the 12- to15-inches-long range, tail included. 

A letter from an exterminator, Jay Taylor, written to the town as far back as July 2001, describes what rats need to survive: water, harborage and food. Wrightsville has an abundance of each.

Harborage is brush and low, dense vegetation that is adaptable for nesting. The town instituted a lot cleanup several years ago, which was successful, and it is ongoing but complaint based. 

With the wide-open natural areas, there are quite a few acres of dense brush that could shelter rats. Those like Mike Vukelich, town public works director, feel the rats may nest in the dune areas, but Andy Wood, Coastal Plains Conservation Group director, says no, the rats are a delicacy for the foxes living in the dunes. He believes rats are living around the houses. Wood says rats also live in the English ivy growing up the sides of homes and walls.

Water is provided by the ever-present landscaping sprinkler systems, which when overdone, allow for the pooling of water that the rats can drink. Without water they will move on. 

Now for food: The obvious culprit one would first think of might be the commercial district — hotels, Motts Seafood and marinas. But nope, sanitation on the exterior of these properties has been deemed good, although the dumpster outside Motts can be “odorous,” says Vukelich, and that area does have a rat infestation. 

However, what rats are feeding on in Wrightsville, according to the experts, is the ever-present dog poop. The exterminator’s letter details this by saying dogs cannot metabolize the proteins, fats and carbohydrates they ingest. These nutrients pass through the dog’s digestive system to be deposited in yards, on right of ways and public and common areas as dog poop. Almost every street-end at any given time is loaded with it, Vukelich says.

It is no secret that visitors and residents alike, in spite of the park warden’s best efforts to enforce the ordinance, disregard the scoop-your-poop dog ordinance. 

And then there is the abandoned cat-feeding program, which sets out containers of cat food in and around the town. Sadly, Wrightsville is the locale of choice for abandoning unwanted felines, which are fed humanely. 

Wood says the two rats that are a problem on the island are European — the black and the Norway rat. Both were introduced here in the 1500s. They are the ones that transmit disease — think plague — and they travel. He says the black rat prefers high elevation, and likes to live in trees.

“The rats are an ongoing problem. I feel it is important the root cause of these problems be dealt with, as I do not believe we can make progress by attempting to eradicate them,” says Vukelich.

While rats are not problematic in my neighborhood, I do have a rat story. I was the problem in this tale but not in the way you may think. One Friday I purchased a bag of birdseed from Craft to use to construct pinecone /peanut butter /birdseed feeders in my 1-5 grade children’s Sunday School class. On Sunday morning, as I grabbed the bag from my car to take it into the church, birdseed spilled out everywhere. I thought in my haste I had poked a hole in the bag. But cleaning it up later, I noticed eaten seed that had been cracked open and left in my floorboards.  When examined, the hole in the bag turned out to be perfectly rounded, as if chewed by a critter. I found a gnawed chicken bone in my car, too. 

I removed all the food from my garage-kept vehicle and put a few mousetraps baited with cheese under my seats. For several days the traps were sprung and the bait eaten. 

A few days later the thick rubber floor mat on the passenger side had a sizable hole chewed through it; some insulation was on the floorboards and I realized with horror that a rat had moved into my car. Thus commenced a tedious battle to trap this creature. I tried every rattrap sold, the new clever ones, the sticky ones, the humane ones, but these were obviously only making the rat laugh at my efforts. I finally resorted to the Mac-daddy, old-fashioned, spring-loaded kind, baited with peanut butter. This rat would trip it, eat my bait and disappear for a few days, but with perseverance and a lot of peanut butter, he was finally careless and it cost him. 

Rats tend to set up housekeeping in pairs, so the trap remained set, but no further problems have occurred in the garage. 

I did try for several months to compost the pulp from my vegetable juicer, and along with it I’d add eggshells and any other biodegradable food items. I had a pretty good pile going in my side yard. And then my neighbor saw a rat cross her porch. She put out some rat poison, and I ceased my composting. Not only is the idea of poisoning another living creature reprehensible to me, poisoned animals seek out water and my very real fear was they would go, even though it is salty, to the sound and die there, thus poisoning everything the carcass came in contact with. 

The rat problem needs human intervention or it will continue to grow. Each property owner needs to survey his or her property, pick up all feces, stop feeding pets outdoors, readjust sprinklers so they don’t puddle in the driveway or street, keep the brush out of their yards and side yards, and keep compost in a galvanized metal container with a tight-fitting lid, no plastic. Even PVC pipe is no problem for a rat to chew through, just ask Wrightsville Plumbing. Andy Wood says rats chew PVCs and other hard plastics in acts of self dentistry; to file their incisors. Oh, joy. 

“I believe in treating the problem, not the symptom, killing rats is killing the symptom — more will come,” Vukelich says. 

And he is right. 

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