‘They Look Like Cats’: Northeast Philadelphia Residents Battle Rat Infestation

They're one of our greatest fears yet rats have helped human for thousands of years

The rats were everywhere.

They ran across a small yard, dove into the bushes and scurried toward the street.

Northeast Philadelphia residents living on Howland Street lost count of how many rodents they’ve seen just this summer, though one woman estimated she killed at least 10 on her own.

In the last two months, these scampering, furry creatures became so brazen that they practically invited themselves to barbecues, according to one resident.

“Medium ones, big ones, diving under cars, running down the street,” neighbor Antoinette Bethel-Danzy said. “They just out here like they run the block.”

The terror started sometime earlier this summer when rats the size of cats moved onto Howland Street. Burrows, which can house up to eight rats at a time, appeared throughout the block and seemed to duplicate overnight.

“They are huge,” Damaris Rivera said. “They look like cats to me. I’m not exaggerating.”

Shudder.

For more than 100 years, the Philadelphia Department of Health’s Vector Control Program has fought to keep rodents at bay. They’re never quite gone, instead hiding in the shadows searching for their next meal.

Philadelphia is currently at the height of rat season, which runs roughly from April to October, according to Philadelphia environmental health program administrator Raymond Delaney.

He became aware of the “rat issue” on Howland Street earlier this week and deployed staffers to the neighborhood immediately, he said.

But it can take up to five days for rats to succumb to the poisoned bait waiting for them in their burrows, Delaney said.

“Unfortunately this is not a unique situation,” he said. “I wish it was.”

Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who represents the 9th District, said she was "appalled" by the situation and that her "constituents should not be held hostage by rodents."

The problem is not necessarily specific to Northeast Philadelphia, however. Delaney estimated that his department receives several thousand rat complaints every year.

Generally, the rats are not quite as visible as the ones on Howland Street.

“That’s life in any city,” he said.

The Department of Health does not know what attracted the rodents. They could have been displaced or there could be a break in a nearby sewer, Delaney.

Still, humans have been living alongside rats for most of our history.

There is evidence suggesting that humans domesticated rodents some 15,000 years ago, according to National Geographic. We don’t always see them, since they prefer to stay hidden most of the time, but they’re in our basements, attics, cabinets and alleys whether or not we want to believe it.

In fact, Philadelphia ranks No. 1 in the nation for rats, according to the 2015 American Housing Survey. That’s not an awesome statistic, but at least we’re not associated with the dreaded Rat King.

Double shudder.

Throughout history, rats have been blamed for much of humankind’s health scares. They leave urine and feces behind, which can cause life-threatening illnesses such as Weil’s disease. It attacks major organs and can lead to death if untreated.

Rats were thought to have spread the plague, wiping out entire towns in Europe. Modern research has wavered on that theory, however, and researchers now suspect flea-ridden humans actually spread the disease to each other.

But rats have their virtues, as well.

“I’d say it’s important to understand that mice have been accompanying us for a very long time,” Israeli zooarchaeologist Lior Weissbrod told Nat Geo. “We’ve been changing them and they’ve been changing us in ways that are not immediately apparent.”

In parts of Africa and Cambodia, rats were trained to sniff out landmines. With their highly developed sense of smell, these little heroes wear special harnesses and detect explosives in fields.

There’s even a rat temple in India where humans bring them milk and other snacks. Researchers have also discovered that rats like their tummies tickled. (I mean, who doesn’t?)

And of course there are lab rats. PETA estimates that more than 100 million mice and rats die in the name of science every year. They are subjected to physical and psychological testing that can lead to painful deaths.

They are easy to train and their neural networks closely resemble our own. For decades, these rodents helped make great advancements from cancer drugs and HIV antiretrovirals to the yearly flu vaccine.

Given their contributions to humankind, there are humane ways to deter rats from entering your home. Patch existing holes, store leftover food in secure containers, trim your yard and discard its waste, keep lids on outdoor trash cans and consider humane traps to catch and release indoor visitors.

If all else fails, call the Philadelphia Department of Health and schedule an in-person visit.

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