As part of the 2020 Citizens’ Agenda project, WBEZ is reporting on the issues you told us you care about most ahead of November’s elections. Many of you wanted your officials to address the large number of rats in your neighborhoods. This reporting was driven by audience responses to our Citizens’ Agenda Survey.
For six years now, Chicago has landed at the top of Orkin’s “Rattiest Cities” list, and rat complaints to the city and pest control professionals have only grown during the pandemic. Some rat experts believe this may be driven by new foraging patterns as rats find less food near restaurants and are now forced to scavenge in more residential areas. Others believe the increased complaints stem from people just being home more.
Regardless of the reasons, residents are complaining about the vermin in high numbers with good reason. Rats can destroy property and transmit dangerous diseases to humans and pets. Female rats can have several litters a year, so rat populations can grow quickly.
And people want to know what can be done to reduce the number of rodents in the city.
So Curious City recently talked to a variety of experts who offered some good news, bad news and details on what both the city and residents can do about the problem. There are also some really good reasons to start teaming up with your neighbors.
First, the bad news: Rats are very resilient and we will probably never be rid of them entirely.
“Virtually no city on Earth has figured this out,” said Lincoln Park Zoo wildlife ecologist Maureen Murray. “Most cities on Earth have had rats for hundreds of years and continue to still have issues with rats. I think this is a really difficult issue to solve because rats are so adaptable that they can use a lot of different types of habitats.”
Rat biologist Bobby Corrigan agrees that rats “will always be with us.” But he stresses he believes that cities can reduce their problem to a manageable level. What would that look like? Corrigan says it means people might see one rat a month, rather than multiple rats sightings in a single night.
“That’s unacceptable and that is a public health issue,” he said.
What can you do to keep rats away from your home?
Rats, like a lot of pests, are on the hunt for food and shelter and a place to build their nests.
“We don’t have control as individuals of rat populations outside of our property but on our property we do to some degree,” said Rebecca Fyffe, director of research for Landmark Pest Management.
Josie Cruz, the head of Chicago’s Rodent Control Bureau, says many residents are harboring rats simply because homeowners don’t know what they are doing wrong.
So her rodent control crews use their visits to neighborhoods to do lots of education on how residents can reduce rats, including doing the following:
Cruz says, if one of her crews finds a lot of these problems in someone’s yard the residence could be served with an abatement notice.
“[With the abatement notice] we give them five days to make the repairs and get rid of the harborage [hiding places] and whatever is causing the rodent problem,” Cruz said. “Then we will be back in five days to do the inspection. If we find that they are not complying, that is when we will be citing them.”
Cruz says her staff can give residents the technical information on how to fix all of these issues but homeowners have to pay for the repairs. One renter asked WBEZ what her rights are when it comes to getting her landlord to address rat problems and we learned there are standard rules in place. Renters simply need to present landlords with a written notice of the problem and give them 14 days to fix it. If the rat issue is not addressed in 14 days, tenants can break the lease, leave the premises and get back all prepaid rent and security deposit.
More details on renters’ rights can be found here.
What can your block do to get rid of the rats?
Rat-proofing your own home is a good first step but experts note that if you really want to reduce rats in your immediate area, you’ll need to get the cooperation of as many homes on your block and the block across the alley as possible.
“If you make an entire block free from food for rats and free from shelter for rats, they will not stick around,” Murray said. “They follow the food. And it is worth knowing that rats have very small home ranges, typically on the order of like one city block. So if you make that whole area really unfriendly to rats, they are not likely to stay around.”
Rat biologist Corrigan agrees that a whole-block approach can be very effective.
“What they want is food that is easy and accessible,” he said. “Like all of us they have an energy budget and if they have to forage for five minutes instead of 25 minutes for food then that is where they will go.”
But Murray stresses that even one house on a block that isn’t doing everything it can to keep the rats away can ruin it for the entire block.
“You could have nine or 10 households doing great but have one household that has piles of garbage, food all over the ground, bird seed spilled and stuff like that and then the rats are just going to come back.”
So even though it can sometimes be difficult to work with your neighbors, Corrigan stresses it’s really important when it comes to reducing the rat population.
How does the city handle rat complaints?
It’s clear that citizens have a big part to play in keeping rat populations down but Corrigan says elected officials also have an important role to play and a municipal strategy is also key.
“The mayor has to endorse a strong citywide program that filters down into all the neighborhoods,” said Corrigan. “There has to be in most cases a rodent task force made up of all the players that run that city: park people, sewer people, sanitation people and the business department.”
Chicago’s Rodent Control Bureau had been tucked into the Bureau of Sanitation for years but in 2016, Mayor Rahm Emanuel restored its status (and funding) as a standalone bureau. As Corrigan suggested, the bureau does work with multiple departments to address the rat problem. But officials say their work is largely dependent on calls they receive about rats through 311.
“We are mainly complaint driven,” said Department of Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Cristina Villarreal, “which is why we continue to encourage people to call 311.”
And yet in a survey she conducted, Lincoln Park Zoo’s Maureen Murray says she found that two-thirds of people who saw rats weekly in their homes never called 311.
“So even though the city gets a ton of rat complaints a lot of people are not complaining about the rats that they see,” Murray said.
When a citizen does call in a 311 rat complaint, Cruz says, her bureau sends out a crew within one to five days. If the resident isn’t there, the crew will leave a notice to call to make an appointment. After a visit, Cruz says her crew returns in one to two weeks to see how the remedies worked. You can track the status of your request here.
Murray also suggests looking at the rat abatement posters in the alley, which include the dates of the last visit by city crews. If you notice continuing rat issues in the alley and it has been several weeks since the last visit, it’s probably time to call 311 again and report this to your alderman.
What role does your alderman play?
In some cases, often at the request of an alderman, rodent control crews will do what is called a “rat abatement project.”
That’s what Ald. Michele Smith, 43rd Ward asks for anytime she receives a rat complaint from a resident. This involves putting in a call to the Department of Streets and Sanitation and requesting that they bait the whole alley, Smith said.
For this reason Ald. Michael Rodriguez, 22nd Ward says he recommends that citizens call both 311 and their alderman when they notice rat problems.
“First call 311 and get the service request in … so you can track it,” he said. “Then call your local aldermanic office because we need to be aware of the situation.”
Rodriguez says his ward has been active in battling rats with abatement but also public information about how to reduce infestations. He says signs about dog poop have been especially effective.
“We printed about 500 of these dog poop signs with the ordinance that mandates cleaning up after your pet and we have those all over the ward,” he said. “Residents really like those.”
Both Alds. Smith and Rodriguez say calls to the ward office are important because aldermen can often get swift local action through someone called the “ward superintendent” who is in charge of making sure garbage pick up and garbage receptacles are working well in specific wards. The superintendent works for both the Department of Streets and Sanitation and the ward office.
“Many people know the ward superintendent as the alderman of the alley,” Rodriguez says. “They tend to be industrious problem solvers and they may be able to locate a new garbage cart before the city can.”
Rodriguez stresses that replacing damaged garbage carts is essential to rat abatement, “because a garbage can with a hole in the bottom is not a garbage can anymore. It’s a rat restaurant.”
Alderman can also play a role when it comes to making sure that businesses are properly disposing of their garbage, which can attract rats.
“If there is a store or restaurant that is not ordering trash pickup as much as they should we frequently come down on them and insist that they get more frequent pickups and we do that on a ward level,” Smith said. “It is against the law to have an overflowing dumpster. We occasionally take them to court but we don’t like to do that — we just want to get compliance.”
Residents should make sure to let their alderman know about ongoing problems and potential violations. Aldermen can work with the city and ward superintendent, who can issue tickets for violations like overflowing dumpsters, failure to pick up pet waste, failure to bait an excavation site and failure to bait near a water infrastructure project.
But despite all of these systems in place to reduce rat populations, serious problems remain in many neighborhoods.
And if there is any big takeaway from our interviews with experts and officials, it’s that rat reduction in Chicago is going to take cooperation from all of us on the individual, block, ward and city level.
“We’ve got to have everyone working to create a cleaner city with less rats,” Ald. Rodriguez said.
Be sure to email CuriousCity@wbez.org to let us know if officials are not responding to calls for baiting and abatement.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.