Garbage overflowed the large cans which lined the alley of a run-down area on the Near North Side of Chicago. The rubbish lay loosely against the rear fences, blocking gates and yard entrances along the way.
Dark red, worn smooth, the cobblestone floor of the backstreet was mapped with the indentations of underground rat tunnels which twisted their way into the distance.
With Chicago’s current rodent invasion in full swing, the scene outlined above could have been viewed this week in the posh Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods.
But these words, describing a rat-infested alley in Old Town, were written more than five decades ago when this columnist was a college student enrolled in a feature-story writing class at the University of Missouri Journalism School.
Homeowners, apartment managers, restauranteurs, retail shop owners, hotel and office personnel, proprietors of small and large businesses, even hospital staff—and, of course, the city of Chicago—have been battling the furry devils since the 1800s when the first waves of creatures came from Europe to the docks of the Windy City on cargo ships.
Apparently, we aren’t winning. In 2016, Orkin, the nationally known pest control firm, named Chicago the most rat-infested municipality among 50 U.S. cities, based on the number of rodent treatments performed by the company in the prior year.
In 2016, USA Today reported that more than twice as many rat sighting were reported in Chicago than in New York, which has more than three times the human population.
Rat complaints in Chicago soared 30 percent between November of 2016 and February of 2017, compared with a year earlier, the Dept. of Streets and Sanitation reported.
Apparently, Chicago rats are breeding faster than rabbits. A female rat can give birth to as many as six litters a year, with each litter containing up to nine pups. And it only takes two or three months for a female rat to become old enough to breed, so in a year a single rat could have hundreds of off-spring.
Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), whose ward was overrun with rats after the demolition of Children’s Memorial Hospital, said Lincoln Park residents recently reported success using ferocious feral cats as a rat-control device.
The city has budgeted $5 million this year for rodent control operations, including 22 crews and supplies.
Last year, city crews put dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide—into rat burrows and sealed the holes with dirt and newspaper. As the dry ice melted into a gas, it suffocated the trapped rats, leaving them to decompose in the burrow. Unfortunately, dry ice has not been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, as a last ditch solution, City Hall has turned to “Contrapest,” a poison designed to make rats infertile.
The city is testing the new poison for the next six months in 25 bait boxes containing liquid contraceptive at a waste transfer station at 34th Street and Lawndale Avenue. The bait boxes used in the pilot program will cost $15,000.
However, city residents really can’t appreciate the immensity of the rat problem until they meet it face-to-face in a dark Old Town gangway.
It was just past sunset on a chilly January evening. My youngest son, who usually rolls the garbage containers to the curb from the gangway of our land-lock 3-flat, was out of town.
So, I volunteered for the mission, which usually only takes two or three minutes even if there is snow on the ground. It’s not back-breaking work. You just grab the handle at the top of the container, tilt it back on its wheels and roll it out to the street. I didn’t expect what happened next.
At least a half dozen large, dark gray beasts with fangs glistening in the streetlights, came swarming out of the holes they had chewed in the top of one of the garbage cans. They leaped to freedom and scurried past my feet into the darkness.
Fear of rats overcame me. It was the same fear I experienced while hunting them as a youth with my flashlight-equipped pellet gun in a Halsted Street alley.
I pushed the garbage can forward and jumped backwards three feet. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It felt like I was in that torch-lit mountain mine shaft with Sylvester Stallone, covered with squealing rats in the 1982 movie, “Rambo—First Blood!”
The following morning I donned my black beret and Rambo fatigues and returned to the gangway. The rats had burrowed a 20-foot-long tunnel in the sidewalk along the adjoining luxury townhome development. The creatures had set up their own rat condo adjoining the garbage-can “restaurant row” that I had unwittingly provided.
After a consultation with Steve Loew, a seasoned pest-professional from Rose Pest Solutions, we decided to pour a couple of gallons of bleach and broken glass down the rat hole and seal it with foam insulation. Loew also baited three “rat garages” on the property with his tasty poison packets.
The bleach didn’t work. Within a few days, the hardy rats had dug their way out of the tunnel. So the next job was to break the concrete sidewalk, and fill the foot-deep tunnel permanently with gravel and quick-drying concrete. That solution finally quelled the rat invasion. At least for now.
Experts say the most important common sense rat-control rules are to take away what they need—protein-based foods and a harborage area. Some suggestions follow:
• If you cut off the food sources, the rats likely will eat the rodenticide in those rat garages, said Loew.
• If rodents have chewed holes in your garbage containers call the city of Chicago and request replacement cans.
• Make sure you clean your barbeque grill, especially the drippings tray underneath. One homeowner reported that rats burrowed through the metal bottom of his Weber grill cabinet to dine on those tasty steak drippings.
• Buy a 12-pack of old fashioned Victor-brand rat traps on Amazon.com. Load the traps with a spoonful of peanut butter.
Set the traps and put them out along your deck and backyard fence. Next morning you will be shoveling up dead rat carcasses.
• Make sure you and your neighbors pick up dog poop on a daily basis from yards, parkways and alleys. Experts say poop is an alternative food source for rats.
“Some rats would rather eat dog poop than ribeye steak,” quipped one exterminator.
For more housing news, visit www.dondebat.biz. Don DeBat is co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” the ultimate survival guide for condominium living. Visit www.escapingcondojail.com.