Jordan: It’s called musophobia, and it is the technical term for the shiver that goes through your body when I play this sound. Those are rats, and rats are gross. I’m sorry if you personally don’t mind them or even if you have a cute pet rat or whatever, they are dirty little things and they’re actually not even that little. But in most cities in the world, they’re everywhere and for various reasons in almost all of those cities, they are multiplying. So those cities need a plan, they need information, and consultation and ways to if not eradicate the pests, then to keep them out of homes and schools and keep their population under control. Many of those cities do have plans for battling the invasions, but Toronto currently does not, which leads to moments like this.
News Clip: The video was short and grainy but shows many rats running back and forth and in between garbage bins in the alleyway at Bloor and Bathurst. They were swarming, swarming in and out of the holes they were swarming back and forth across the alley. A carpet of rats. I mean, it was really bad.
Jordan: I’m sorry I had to do that to you but it’s not likely to be the last viral rat story out of Toronto. So what needs to happen now? Should a city be responsible for rats on people’s private property? How have other cities countered rat infestations? And why in God’s name did these things get to us so badly?
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is a big story I shuttered like six times while researching. Amy Dempsey is a feature writer for the Toronto Star who somehow spent weeks focusing on rats. Hi Amy.
Jordan: Can you start? I don’t even know why I’m asking you this, but it was so disturbing. So rats crawling up your toilet, that is not an urban myth.
Amy: No, that happens, and you know I have, Ah, live in the East End of Toronto. I’m part of a Facebook community group, these wonderful places where people come to tell scary stories and I’ve seen at least a half a dozen people say that it has happened to them and often provide photo evidence. And just to be sure, I asked a few exterminators like, can this really happen? And how does it happen? And yeah, it happens regularly. Pest control professionals will get a call in the morning from someone screaming in hysterics because the rat has come up their toilet and sometimes people find it, they’re dead, and that’s frightening enough, and other times it’s come up and the toilet seat is open so the rat has gotten into the house that way, and is running around the house having come up through the toilet. In one case, somebody wrote about having a rat come up while they were using the toilet, so that would be the next level frightening.
Jordan: How did you start your deep dive into Toronto’s horrendous rat problem?
Amy: That community Facebook group actually inspired it. I think probably that group probably inspires a lot of stories. So I kept seeing in my local community Facebook group reports of rats, of people having rats on their properties, and of people who have lived in Toronto for decades and had never seen rats before and now all of a sudden had them, and so that’s where it started. I wanted to see well, is this a problem that’s increasing? Is this something that I need to worry about? That’s usually where a lot of my stories start, is something I need to worry about? And then I find out the answer.
Jordan: So compared to five years, 10 years ago is Toronto’s rat problem worse?
Amy: We don’t have good data on this, but we do have what I think is pretty decent anecdotal evidence that it is worse. First of all, we have pest control professionals in Toronto saying, 10 years ago or 20 years ago, I got no calls for rats, and now rats could be my main business. Or they’re saying, we’ve seen reports for treatment for rats increase in the past few years in particular, but particularly over the past decade. An international expert known as New York City’s rats R told me that this is the case around the world, and it’s because of increasing populations in urban areas and a number of other factors. It would be great if we had data to back this up in Toronto, but we don’t have a good pool of data, but…. we don’t really collect all the data we could. We have property standards complaints, we have records of property standards complaints in the city of Toronto, but that’s a very specific type of complaint. It’s when I might live next door to you, Jordan, and I see that you have a dilapidated shed, and it’s really gross and you’re not keeping it up, and maybe I think there might be rodents in there and I would call the city of Toronto and complain about my neighbour Jordan’s shed, and the City of Toronto would then investigate. It’s a property standards complaint to municipal licensing and services, but if I call as a resident and say that I’ve seen rats in my property going through my yard I’m worried, Where are they coming from? I don’t know. The city doesn’t take that information at all. They don’t collect data on rat complaints like that, and they’re missing out on a lot because I’ve seen a lot of people post on different online groups that they’ve tried to make a complaint and the city just won’t accept their information. The city basically says, Oh, you have to call a private pest control company.
Jordan: Is that standard? How do other cities handle it in comparison?
Amy: Other cities seemed to do a better job. Chicago is a really interesting example. They have extensive data on the rats in their city, and in fact, they have so many rat complaints that they’ve been called the rat capital of America, a dubious distinction. But I’ve been told that this is largely because they’re just so good at collecting data about rat complaints, they really encourage citizens to report any rat sighting at all. They will investigate your rat problem on your property if you call them so there’s an incentive, you’re getting sort of a free assessment of your potential rat situation, somebody to help. Whereas in Toronto, that’s not gonna happen. They have just an enormous amount of complaints, and they use that data to track where they’re seeing the most rat activity in the city, and to anticipate where they might see more red activity of the future. So they’re using it to tackle their problem.
Jordan: What is Toronto doing?
Amy: We are in the midst of a rat study. So last April, counselor Anna Barlow asked the city in a motion to investigate the rat problem because she had been seeing a really big increase in the number of complaints from residents and business owners around businesses on Bloor Street in the West End. She sort of said something has got to be;We have to find out what is happening here if we are having an increase in rats, and what to do about it. So that was more than a year ago now, and that study is still ongoing. It’s expected to come at the end of the year, which is, you know, it’s been two summers, it’ll be two summers that people have still gone with having their rat problems.
Jordan: When you talk to, I guess pest control experts what kinds of things could be driving rats to people’s houses? If the number of anecdotal complaints are up, they offer any, like, how does that actually happen?
Amy: Well, first of all, people are messy way. With more people in the city, comes more trash, and some people store their trash really well, and other people don’t. So in one neighborhood you could;It could be one problem property owner who isn’t really taking care of their trash, who’s leaving food out, who’s creating a space that in which rats can thrive, like maybe an old junkie garage that isn’t well maintained, and rats have chosen to live there and are eating whatever is being offered on the property, and then the rats can become a problem for the entire surrounding area. So more humans, more trash, more rats. Another thing is construction. Demolition can send rats scattering, you know can disturb their underground burrows and send rats scattering into the communities surrounding those new construction projects. Another thing is climate change has warmed to planet and created more favorable conditions for rats to mate. Rats can mate year round, but in the summer they really liked to mate and they can thrive in the summer. So the more warmer months and weeks we have, the better for rats. So…
Jordan: Chalk up another one for climate change.
Amy: Ya, it’s ruining everything.
Jordan: Why do rats produce this kind of reaction in most people? I won’t say all people, but when our producer Claire talked about doing this episode she was visibly grossed out. My wife is terrified of rats, I just find them icky. But I’m fine with mice, fine with squirrels, I don’t even think pigeons are that bad. We have to live with these animals in cities like why rats, why do rats provide this incredible reaction?
Amy: Well, I think pigeons are terrible. For the record….
Jordan: Everybody has their own thing. They’re rats with wings, but they…. I don’t know, they don’t bother me as much.
Amy: Well, it’s a good question, and when I first moved to Ontario, like 10 years ago, my first time seeing an Ontario squirrel, a grey squirrel, we don’t have them in the east coast of Kenner, we don’t have them in Nova Scotia where I lived anyway. Our squirrels look like little chipmunks like Chip N’ Dale. They’re super cute, and they don’t bug you um… so when I first saw squirrels here I thought, this is disgusting. How are people living with these creatures just running around their property? To me, they were like rats with big bushy tails.
Jordan: Squirrels are cute.
Amy: They are… they’re not so cute. I don’t know. They to me, you know, squirrels seemed at the time to be, you know, not so different from rats. However big difference between rats and other urban pests, like raccoons. I mean, I would take raccoons getting into my trash every single night over rats in my house every night for the rest of my life. I would clean up raccoon garbage if it kept rats out of my house. So the difference is that rats carry pathogens that cause disease. They are a threat to human health, and they are an invasive species. Rats are incredibly destructive, they can gnaw through car engine wires and destroy your car, they’ve caused power outages, they can tunnel into your home and leave you know, trails of urine and feces that’s, you know, contaminated. They can destroy the foundation of your home if they tunnel enough around it. I’ve heard stories of rats tunneling into people’s basements under their bathtubs and then just creating big nests and making it necessary for them to, you know, renovate their entire basement. These are expensive pasts, usually not covered by insurance. Yeah, they carry disease, they carry pathogens that cause disease and their destructive. That’s what makes them different. You know, a squirrel might get into your attic and live there. You might have to pay, as I did $500 earlier this year to get squirrels that out of your soffit but you can keep them out, and it’s easy to get them out and keep them out. But rats are really difficult to get out of your house, and to get off of your property, and they will destroy things.
Jordan: Has anybody told you why or offered any explanation for the city not responding to calls about rats and individual households or in individual neighborhoods?
Amy: The only explanation if there is any in one, I think it’s just what we’ve always done, it’s been the policy for a long time. Maybe when rat problems weren’t as big of a thing, and the kind of idea is the city can’t necessarily afford to go out to every property and investigate every private property owners rat complaints, and I mean on the one hand, it makes sense. I mean, I don’t think that any city is trying to eradicate its rat problem. I don’t think that’s reasonable or feasible, I think we’ll probably always have rats in the city. But when you look at a city like Chicago, there’s a recognition that rats on one property are not just a problem for that person, and not a problem that can be solved by that person. So if I have rats on my property and I call a pest control professional, they could come to my house and trap a couple of rats, but if the problem is coming from somewhere else, then it’s not being solved. You know you can’t… so it’s a strategy that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you want to curb the overall problem of rats in the city.
Jordan: What options are there that are being done in other cities if Toronto wanted to take steps to curb the population?
Amy: Trapping and baiting….. I mean, a lot of people in Toronto want to see baiting happen in the sewers. So I don’t know how we have done it here in the past, and I don’t know how we would do it in the future, but baiting would involve laying out poison for rats, and sometimes it can be done using baiting stations that you’ll see pest control professionals putting them in people’s backyards. They have to meet very specific standards because you don’t like, bait, the poison inside is very dangerous, you don’t want it to be carried away by other animals, you don’t obviously; I would not want children anywhere near these things, so the baiting stations have to be; They have to have cement on the bottom, they have to be heavy, and the bait has to be put inside them in a certain way so that it cannot be removed. I don’t know how that would work in the sewers. Now what Toronto Water has said, what the city of Toronto has said about baiting the sewers is that they’ve told residents who’ve asked for this to happen, that it hasn’t been effective. It’s not proven to be effective in the past, but they also haven’t tested whether it’s been effective. They say there aren’t a lot of rats in Toronto sewers which is just comforting to me I guess, but I would want to see more information about in what areas are there not a lot of rats, and how often do we test this? And I don’t think that they have that information right now, I think that those are things that they’re exploring. In Chicago they have rat patrol officers who will go to neighborhoods and go into alleyways. Alleyways they’re a big place where rats can thrive and crash burrows so they apply; Rats can burrow into the ground, and they will put poison inside the burrows in some cities,reporting dry ice inside the boroughs to kind of try to eliminate the rats inside those burrows and eliminate the bur-roughs is a problem.
Jordan: What about other places in Canada? Alberta says they have zero rats.
Amy: Well, Alberta has no mating rat population. That’s what they claimed have so they might at any given time, have a rat or….
Jordan: How did they achieve that? Or claim to achieve that?
Amy: Alberta started tackling the rat problem before it had a problem. So when rats were sort of making their way across North America, as the story goes, Alberta recognized that this would be a threat to farming and d way back in the 1950’s they started to aggressively tackle this problem of rats, and so that’s why. It’s because they started when there was not much of a problem, and they’ve been able to keep it that way, and they’re really keen to keep it that way. So it’s a lot easier to keep rats out of your, you know, out of your area if you don’t have rats there to start with.
Jordan: If somebody…. some unfortunate person is listening to this podcast in Toronto and has rats on their property, what should they do? Aside from call an exterminator and pay a lot of money. What are their options?
Amy: Oh boy…. it depends on the extent of the problem. But, I mean, I really sympathize with people because not everyone can afford an exterminator, and I think that’s a big part of the problem with the city saying private property owners are on their own, because not all private property owners have the money to hire an exterminator. I spoke with one person who’s paying $70 a month just to have baiting stations on her property because she has two properties near her that have rat problems and aren’t taking care of them. And so she’s paying $70 a month, she’s been doing this for a year just to try and keep rats away from her house. You know, she has a kid, she doesn’t want rats in her yard, she certainly doesn’t want them getting into her house. She’s very frightened. So you know, that’s a person who can afford to do that, a lot of people can’t. These are expensive problems especially if they get inside your house. So with all of those caveats, the question of what should people do…. I mean, what what would I do? I would call an exterminator. I mean, in all the conversations I had with pest control people for this story, what really made an impression on me is how quickly rats can multiply and how fast, like a small problem can become a big problem. One exterminator said to me, you know, mice are one thing. You know, if people want to try and get rid of mice on their own, mice are kind of easy. But even we, and he’s an exterminator, even we have trouble with rats. We have trouble getting rats out of properties. You know, it can take months sometimes because they get trap shy. So if you don’t necessarily know what you’re doing and you’re putting out maybe like mice traps for rats, and a rat gets kind of like nipped in the nose or gets the little rat fingers snapped, that rat will probably never go near a trap again. I mean, we’ve heard reports in the east end of some of rats flipping traps over to kind of keep them out of the way. So if you have rats in your house and they’re, you know, in the walls and whatnot and you’re laying out traps, but they’re not going after them, meanwhile, they’re mating and multiplying you can see how that…. so I would call an exterminator, and I really feel for people for whom that’s not an option. I think that there should be something else that people can do, I don’t think that anyone should be forced to have to live with rats if they can’t afford to get them out of their house.
Jordan: You’re terrifying like the population of the city right now.
Amy: Well, yeah, and I’ve also been terrifying my neighbors and my spouse. You know, working on this story, I came home every day for weeks in kind of like a militant mode.
Jordan: You report on crime.
Amy: I do.
Jordan: Which messes you up more.
Amy: Well, I thought that this was going to be a nice little break from you know, like, sleepless nights over over harder stories. But I had some real sleepless nights over this story, and, you know, I looked at my backyard in a different way. I look out my window in my kitchen and I’d see like a robin, which is sort of a brownish color similar to the brown rat, and I’d gasp like, oh, my God, What is it? Oh, it’s a bird. Okay, we’re fine it’s a bird. Because I saw a rat in my yard once last summer. It was a dead rat, and my brother had to get rid of it for me. So yeah I mean, the story was terrifying. I actually…. I went out with an exterminator one day on, you know, for, like, four hours visiting different properties with rat problems, and I was so shaken by that experience that when I got home I called another exterminator and hired that person to come to my house to, do a walk through to tell me hey….
Jordan: Even though you hadn’t seen a rat.
Amy: Yeah, haven’t seen a rat in a year, but I was like, you know what? They could be here, they could be anywhere. They could be under the porch, they could be in the neighbour’s garage. So I hired somebody to come and tell me about, like, the vulnerabilities on my property, and then I used the excellent excuse I have right now because I’m pregnant, and I I said, well I can’t do any of this rat stuff on our property so I got my supposed toe to fortify our house, and crawl in to gross spaces to fill holes.
Jordan: Well give us some practical tips then before rats show up. If you’re a homeowner in Toronto, what should you do?
Amy: If you have rats in your neighborhood, if you know that rats could come, I would say you probably shouldn’t have a vegetable garden. I know people aren’t going to like this. It’s not not great news. People wanna have vegetable gardens, people want to have com-posters because they’re great for the environment. But everyone…. I spoke to so many people who had com-posters, and were like, yeah, a week later the rats showed up and 1 woman told me you know, they put up a composter, and within two weeks the rats were inside their house, eating bread out of their bread bags in their kitchen. So composters, any trees with berries on them pick up that fruit immediately. Dog poop…. don’t leave that lying around in your yard because rats will eat it and its protein rich and they will… they’ll go for it.
Jordan: These are all the things that people buy a house with a nice backyard to be able to do.
Amy: Yes, you want to be able to let your dog crap in your backyard and just leave it there for a couple of days.
Jordan: Have a composter, and a vegetable garden, and a cherry tree.
Amy: It’s true. These are the things that make your little urban space cozy, and you know you think oh, it would be nice to put out a bird feeder, but you shouldn’t if you’re worried about rats, because you could put out a feeder that doesn’t let spillage spill down to the ground, and that’s fine, but if there’s any kind of spillage, the rats will come and eat the bird seed. I’ve heard from people who have laid grass seed in their backyard, and all of a sudden their backyard is swarmed by rats. Now these are areas that have a rat problem to begin with, rats aren’t just going to come out of the sky or, you know, but…. so that’s one thing is making sure your garbage is stored and even your recyclables are rinsed out really well. So eliminating all possible food sources and encouraging your neighbors to do the same and then the second thing is not having any areas where that would provide harbor-age. So harbor-age for rats is places where they can burrow or hide. So wood piles, crawl spaces that are not covered or protected by the kind of wire mash you get to keep animals out. You don’t wanna have cracks, exposed cracks in your foundation or, you know those old downspout spaces that people have in their yards. Like if you have a hole in the ground from an old downspout that’s been removed because most of our houses in the cities have downspouts, you want to fill that, you want to find a way to fill that. You don’t want holes going into the ground around the foundation of your home, and you don’t want tall weeds, or grass, or plants into which rats could sort of hide and then create burrows under the ground.
Jordan: I’m never moving out of my condo.
Amy: Well, that’s the thing. If you live in a condo;I started to think during reporting this story like, maybe a condo would have been better. Or, you know I looked at real estate in other cities. Really my mind went rolling and rolling and rolling.
Jordan: What is the timeline for anything happening in the city? I guess we’re waiting for that report and then we’ll see?
Amy: So there should be a report by the end of the year, and then the report would go to council for consideration, and then council will decide how much it wants to invest in this problem, how much it can invest. We’re facing a lot of issues with cuts in the city, cuts to vital services and programs, and so it’s a really difficult time to have this rat problem come up you know. I can empathize with counselors who might be like, oh my gosh, you know, there’s a lot of other stuff going on, and now rats, okay, great, you know, but everybody I spoke to for the story said, you know, the longer you wait to tackle this kind of problem, the more expensive it gets.
Jordan: Thank you for this terrifying interview.
Jordan: Amy Dempsey, a fearless evidently feature reporter for The Toronto Star. That was The Big Story. You want more not about rats head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, or find us on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. You can find our whole network at frequency podcast network. com, and all of them are wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. Claire Broussard is the lead producer of The Big Story, Ryan Clark is our associate producer. So is Stephanie Phillips, while Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor, and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening, enjoy the weekend.
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