Rats feasting in our green bins and backyard tomato patches. Rats scurrying through our living rooms. Rats popping out of our toilets. An investigation into how Toronto became a vermin breeding ground
I’ve lived in Toronto for 25 years, off and on, and I have seen maybe half a dozen rats, both living and dead. Like most people, I don’t seek them out. This chilly Monday morning in early fall, however, I’m at a midtown food-production facility that I must leave nameless—the owners would prefer to stay on good terms with their neighbours. I’m in the company of Daniel Mackie and Ron Forbes, two pest control professionals, both attired in the crisp, pinstriped uniforms of GreenLeaf Pest Control. GreenLeaf bills itself as the “number one eco-conscious pest control service in Toronto.” They’re here to inspect the 30-odd traps they’ve laid for the rats that have plagued this establishment for months. They do this once a week, unlocking the hard black plastic boxes and extracting the two Jawz snap traps that they’ve baited with soy butter or pepperoni or a daub of Provoke gel, a so-called rat attractant. If they find a rat, its lifeless body is dropped into a black garbage bag, double-bagged and then taken back to their main office and thrown in a dumpster.
Today every single trap is empty. Over at a nearby woodpile, nesting material is scattered everywhere, as are fresh droppings—evidence that the rats are still here. While the traps have been ignored, the woodpile’s been transformed into a rodent boutique hotel. As I stand with the exterminators, one rat runs tauntingly past our feet and into the woodpile. It’s a sleek, brown, nimble thing—and absolutely fearless. “Bold little bugger,” Mackie says.
Rats are nocturnal. As with raccoons, it’s usually only when the population is very large that less dominant or juvenile rats, which aren’t getting enough food at night, venture out during the day. They are also neophobic, which means they avoid anything new in their environment. But cocky juveniles will sometimes sample unfamiliar food or investigate foreign objects. Mackie, who is the co-owner of the company, instructs Forbes to re-bait the traps, but to leave them unset for a couple of weeks—over time, the rats will take the bait and become accustomed to the traps’ presence. “Then you go Rambo,” Mackie says. “Set all the traps at once, and really knock down the population quickly. I have tremendous respect for rats—they’re very clever—but it’s a war.”
It’s a war that the rats might be winning. According to Mackie and other pest control professionals, the rat population in Toronto is rising steadily. Some weeks, it seems that the entire city’s in the midst of a massive wildlife boom, with creatures both cuddly and creepy dramatically asserting their superiority over hapless human urbanites. This past spring, a possum spent the season camped out on a friend’s Queen West deck, defecating in his eavestroughs, and there have been numerous possum sightings under porches and in alleys in Cabbagetown and Parkdale (another friend’s dog caught one—the possum predictably played possum and escaped unscathed). Last year, a coyote faced down a man doing yoga in Riverdale Park. White-footed mice, which are new to Canada and carry deer ticks, invade homes with fall’s first temperature dip. Raccoons, already notorious for their immense numbers and insatiable appetites, have become such a pernicious menace that one Little Italy resident, desperately fed up with the damage the animals have caused to his home, is preparing to sue the city for what he calls its irresponsible management of the population. The raccoons themselves are successfully fighting city hall—several of them recently infiltrated the building, requiring costly repairs and increased raccoon-proofing (and unleashing predictable jokes about vermin on city council).
Everyone, it seems, has a vermin story. Sometimes it’s a multi-part narrative, as with my friend who found a dead rat floating in her toilet two weeks after she moved to Toronto and who then endured a maddening, 10-month-long bedbug infestation in the apartment she moved to next. Another family I know had a mouse problem—until rats moved in and took care of the mice. To take care of the rats, an exterminator set traps, and it was only the sudden appearance of enormous clouds of houseflies that alerted the family to the decomposing creatures hidden deep in the house. Others I know have seen mice in their toasters, roaches in their phones.
Toronto has always had roaches, but in the last couple of years, probably thanks to climate change, the Oriental cockroach, far larger and more fearsome than the German cockroach we’re accustomed to, is moving in even greater numbers into our basements and sewers. An acquaintance of mine, living in Kensington Market, owned a radio so congested with roaches that the tuning dial appeared to move by a ghostly hand. I myself once worked at a publishing house near U of T whose ramshackle offices were overrun by rodents—squirrels, rats and mice—and whose routine post-poisoning putrefaction was so odoriferous it overpowered even the eye-watering smell of bookbinding glue.
Long before this, when I was a kid, I lived with my parents in Singapore. The first house we rented backed onto a literal jungle, and during our four years in the city, we accepted and endured all manner of exotic pestilence: Malaysian house geckos that popped out of cereal boxes at breakfast, snakes that swam in the streets during monsoons, ticks that covered the living room ceiling as thickly as a coat of reddish-brown paint. The most undesirable critters, however, the ones that always come up whenever we talk about our life there, were the rats. They crawled across my father’s face as he slept, lured by the odour of food on his breath, and poked their heads out of the open drain in our bathtub, terrifying my mother. (She still remembers them being as “big as cats.”) When I moved to Toronto in 1987, I didn’t anticipate confronting such creatures again. But the Toronto of today is a bigger, denser and in many ways more desirable place to live. And, as it turns out, not just for people.
The Toronto rat is no different than the New York or Paris rat. Rattus norvegicus, also known as the Norway or brown or sewer rat, is considered to be the most common mammal in the world. In his comprehensive and fascinating book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, Robert Sullivan, a New York journalist, says that Norway rats first arrived in North America from Europe in the late 1700s. Despite legend and eyewitness accounts to the contrary, city rats typically weigh around a pound and are just under a foot in length from snout to rear. Their tails are nearly the same length as their bodies, however, making them seem much larger. They’re resolutely omnivorous—their affection for protein-rich dog feces makes parks the rodent McDonald’s—but, like humans, they prefer the highest quality produce, meat and grains. They eat voraciously. According to some estimates, rats consume one third of the world’s food supplies. They have an approximate life expectancy of one year, and during that time they mostly just eat and have sex—rats can copulate up to 20 times a day. “One pair of rats,” Sullivan writes, “has the potential of 15,000 descendants in a year.”
Until recently, if Toronto was associated with any member of the rodent family, it was the frolicsome, bushy-tailed squirrel. That’s largely due to our enduring, if now wholly outdated, reputation for cleanliness and order. The squirrel might be a rodent, but it’s a cuddly, gentle and seemingly clean one. As Toronto continues to grow and evolve as a city, to become less gentle itself perhaps, we might need to get used to vermin. As Sullivan points out, the oft-touted statistic that for every human New Yorker there is one New York rat was long ago debunked. The true number in that city is believed to be closer to one rat for every 36 people—so, 231,583 rats. Toronto doesn’t have an official count, but if we apply the New York formula, it would be in the neighbourhood of 70,000. As anyone who has seen a rat trying to climb out of a toilet bowl or scurrying across a lawn at night will tell you, even one rat is one too many. The very idea of rats is too much for a lot of people.
A decade ago, it was unheard of to see a rat in your backyard. Now it’s an everyday occurrence, particularly if your backyard is in Leslieville, the Beach, Forest Hill or Rosedale. Rats love water—in fact, they need water every day—and they prefer to nest near it. The Don River and the residential neighbourhoods that surround it are prime rat territory. The older parts of the city—especially Chinatown and Little Italy—are also appealing, with their aging homes and easy entry points in cracked foundations and leaky basements. “They’re basically everywhere,” says Waheed Ahmed, the owner of Pesticon, a Brampton-based pest control company. “This planet belongs to them.” Ahmed says his business is growing accordingly—in 2012 he had three employees; he hired two more last year and expects to hire another two this year. Kevin Diamond, of GTA Wildlife Removal and Pest Control, says that when he started in the business in 1985, he received maybe one rat call a year; he now gets them daily, and mostly from residential areas.
The city doesn’t seem as concerned. Or, at least, it hasn’t publicly acknowledged any rise in rat numbers. Toronto doesn’t have a rodent task force, as New York does, or a Bureau of Community Hygiene, like Washington, D.C. Those cities fine businesses and individuals who create rat-friendly conditions like overflowing garbage. Toronto has no central municipal department designated to handle rats. Parks and Rec takes care of rats in public parks, and Property Standards reacts when rats jeopardize public safety. Public Health, which responds to complaints in restaurants, supermarkets and other “food premises,” got 71 rat complaints in 2012—hardly an insignificant number. Officials describe the city’s rat infestation only as “low-smouldering.”
Given city hall’s nonchalance, local politicians are sometimes forced to take matters into their own hands. City Councillor Joe Mihevc began receiving complaints about rat sightings in the northern end of his ward (which includes Forest Hill, Wychwood Park and Hillcrest Village) this past September. His office hand-delivered a letter to some residents advising them of the problem, listing precautions they could take to protect their homes and emphasizing that “controlling rats is a community effort”—in other words, making your home rat-proof will help protect your neighbour’s. When Mihevc was on the Public Health board a couple of years ago, he experienced his own rat invasion and had to remove a backyard composter that had become their favourite eatery. He blames the rat boom on a variety of factors—residents not properly cleaning under their porches, excavation work in commercial areas and general decay. “It’s like weeding,” he says of the problem. “Every now and then, you have to weed your garden.”
He coaxed the rat onto a trap and then beat the animal until it was dead. The episode took a half-hour
One of Mihevc’s constituents, who asked not to be identified, was quite a bit more perturbed. In the 40 years she’s lived in her home, she says, she’s never experienced as much as an ant infestation. Last July, however, her basement was flooded, and during the subsequent repairs in the fall, while the walls were left open, she saw her first mouse. She and her husband quickly trapped and killed it on their own. A month later, however, while the couple were watching TV on their main floor one evening, an enormous rat ran across the floor. “I screamed,” she says. “I’m a pretty brave person, but this was horrible. It’s a personal invasion, like a robbery. You feel unclean.” To get rid of the mouse, her husband, in a moment of prescient overkill, had bought large, rat-sized sticky traps. Swiftly, he grabbed a few and a broom, and closed the den door. With the broom, he coaxed the rat onto a trap and then beat the animal until it was dead. The episode took a half-hour.
The woman had received Mihevc’s letter a week before seeing her rat. She had also observed pest control trucks in the area. She knew all too well that, despite having killed one and laying bait around her home, many more rats could lurk out there—and her basement was still not finished. “I feel that the city knows this is a problem and they’re covering it up. It’s a scary thing, a public health issue, and what are they doing about it?”
Exterminators I spoke to expressed a similar sentiment, and reminded me of the city’s slow grasp of the bedbug problem. Little was done about that until bedbugs began to dramatically affect the disadvantaged and elderly—a couple of years after pest control professionals started sounding the alarm. Rats can spread disease, destroy gardens, damage electrical wires, send real estate values plummeting. If they are, in fact, everywhere, they’re everybody’s problem.
What’s really behind the rise of rats? The construction boom is likely disturbing nests. With shorter, milder winters, all kinds of pests have longer life cycles. Then there’s the city’s aging infrastructure. But at bottom, because there are more people living in Toronto, there are also, consequently, more rats living in Toronto. Simply put, rats have always lived where humans live. And because there are more of us, there’s more garbage (“food sources” in pest control parlance).
In an effort to make our lives more enjoyable and ecologically friendly, we’re making their lives more enjoyable. The conventional thinking is that rats prefer habitats where the sanitation is poor. This is partly true, but rats are opportunists—they also love the verdant oases that many of us are turning our yards into. They relish native grasses, flowers and vegetable gardens, the never-empty bird feeders and bird baths. If motivated, rats can chew through a plastic green bin, but in many parts of the city they don’t need to—there’s plenty of fallen fruit, overflowing composters, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers ripe for the pillaging. And then, once they tire of the menu at your home, there’s the farmers’ market down the street or the new taco joint. Rats love good food as much as we do. Take a look behind almost any grocery store, candy factory or restaurant and you’ll find a bait station—a flat black container, not much bigger than a lunch box.
One Hillcrest resident had an infestation of 250 rats. They’d scratch at his basement door
This is the theory of the exterminator Daniel Mackie, anyway. The biggest culprit is what he calls “the green movement.” “We’re transforming the city from a hard, concrete landscape,” he says. “Naturalizing the area. There are more birds, more butterflies. But you can’t have the pretty things and say you don’t want the ugly things. Mother Nature is Mother Nature.” We are certainly diverting more waste into composters and green bins, something we rarely did a decade ago. (In 2012, 105,491 tonnes of organic waste was collected through the green bin program, while about 19,000 tonnes ended up in backyard composters.) Aside from humans and the occasional hawk or overly ambitious cat, rats don’t have many natural predators here. In many cases, people refuse to use rodenticides, which cause internal bleeding and severe anemia, despite the fact that they’re generally considered more effective, opting instead for more costly, time-consuming snap traps. Mackie calls rodenticides a useful, occasional tool—“like antibiotics or chemotherapy”—but primarily uses them in commercial buildings or parts of homes that kids and pets can’t access.
Kevin Diamond of GTA Wildlife Removal is not quite so discriminating. He told me he’s never used a snap trap in his 28-year rat-catching career. A couple of weeks after my conversation with Mackie, I arranged to meet Diamond, a gregarious 46-year-old, at a rat-infested home in Hillcrest Village. Diamond’s client, a professional cook named Eric Martyn, had first heard the animals scratching at his basement door a couple of days earlier. “It was not a good feeling,” he said. After inspecting the place, Diamond planted enough rodenticide to kill at least 50 rats, instructing Martyn to leave his basement door sealed. The rodenticide was gone, remarkably, within a few days, and he raised his estimate to an infestation of 250 rats. He had now returned to replenish the supply. As he walked into the kitchen, like a medium entering a haunted house, he said, “I can feel the energy of rodents, and it’s not as strong now.”
He opened the door to the dank, unfinished basement and, while the smell of rat urine was overpowering, Martyn said it too had lessened. Diamond shone his flashlight down the stairs and pointed out the insulation the rats had torn out for nesting material, the fist-size holes they had created in the walls and their droppings, now coloured a post-poisoning dark blue. Instead of laying bait stations, Diamond used an unorthodox technique. He fashioned daisy chains out of 16-gauge wire and turquoise-coloured rectangular bait blocks containing horse feed and rodenticide—each one enough to kill four or five rats—and multiple packets of soft bait (soya bean fat, a rat favourite). He placed these booby traps near the various holes and then, for good measure, chucked a few more blocks and bait packets like hand grenades into an open crawl space under the kitchen. When I asked Diamond how bad Toronto’s rat problem really was, he conjured a troubling image: “I suspect there’s a network of rat tunnels under the entire city and they’re all connected to each other. It’s like the mother ship in Aliens.”
And as long as we’re here, they’ll be here, too—and most likely long after we’re gone. A few years ago, Diamond bought a pair of Norway rats as pets, so that he could study their behaviour up close. He was most struck by how remarkably resilient the animals were. The rats were sometimes allowed to roam the house, and one day, Diamond accidentally closed the bathroom door on one of them, seemingly breaking its back. Diamond watched with amazement as the rat somehow regenerated itself—“like a self-chiropractor,” he says—slowly clicking its vertebrae and hips back together and then scurrying back out of the bathroom. “Unlike a dog or a cat, they’ll never ever back down,” he says. “They’re stubborn as hell. It’s like, screw you, we own you.”