PROVINCETOWN — Rats are both intelligent and resourceful, requiring those same traits in the humans who would like to get rid of them without also poisoning pets and wildlife.
On the Outer Cape, the problem is particularly difficult in Provincetown, where the downtown offers the rodents some tasty dumpster-diving when trash is not properly stored.
Rats are able to scale brick buildings, squeeze through pipes no wider than a quarter, paddle for a half mile in the ocean, and even survive getting flushed down a toilet. The rodents can gnaw through bone, wood, or a slab of concrete.
In Provincetown, the focus of rat control is education. For humans, that is.
Aaron Hobart, the town’s code compliance officer, distributes flyers with instructions in areas where rats have been reported. Residents are advised to get rid of bird feeders because bird food is a major food source for rats. Trash and recycling containers should have tight lids. Home owners should stack firewood 18 inches off the ground and get rid of outdoor compost piles or use rat-resistant tumbler composters.
Sometimes it’s a matter of clearing brush, wood pallets, or other junk that rats use for shelter.
“We don’t really solve the rat problem; we just try to mitigate the rat problem,” Hobart said. The town offers guidance but doesn’t “actively do rat control,” he said.
When something more is needed, licensed pest control experts may be called in.
“We’re not out there trapping, so we suggest vendors,” Hobart said.
One resident of the East End sent Hobart a complaint along with a video showing eight rats milling around between Commercial and Bradford streets. Hobart, who said the area was “in the 400s” of Commercial Street, went to take a look for himself in October and spotted two rodents.
“There was some feeding of wildlife going on there,” he said. “If you have a rat problem, you shouldn’t be feeding birds.”
At a recent meeting, members of the town’s animal welfare committee talked about the challenge of eliminating the rats. “If you put out rat poison, it can be eaten by a bird or fox,” said Elizabeth Brooke. “It’s a fast way to take care of the rats, but it has other impacts. It could get into the aquifer.”
Products classified as “second generation anticoagulant rodenticides” (SGARs) work by stopping the blood clotting process, thus causing a lethal hemorrhage. Consumers are prohibited from buying these products in Massachusetts, but their commercial use by pest control companies is widespread.
The poisoned rats, which don’t die immediately, can become lethargic and become prey to a raptor or a fox, which then gets sick.
“Sadly, secondary poisoning in wildlife from anticoagulant rodenticide exposure is far too prevalent,” said Stephanie Ellis, executive director of Wild Care in Eastham, in an email. Nearly every large raptor treated at Wild Care shows some level of rodenticide exposure, she said.
“We see rodenticide poisoning in large hawks and owls — primarily red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls,” Ellis said. “We don’t treat large mammals at Wild Care, but red fox and Eastern coyote are also highly susceptible to secondary rodenticide poisoning due to ingestion of tainted rodents.”
New England Wildlife Center’s facility in Barnstable is treating a great horned owl for poisoning; it was found in the area of Old Jail Lane in Barnstable a few days ago. Since the owls have a hunting range of a couple of miles, it was not necessarily poisoned in that neighborhood.
While that owl is expected to survive, its recovery will be slow. “There are no medications to pull poisons out of the body, so they have to eliminate it,” said Dr. Priya Patel, New England Wildlife Center’s medical director.
The raptors who have ingested the pesticides, either directly or by consuming a rodent, suffer uncontrollable bleeding. “They can bleed spontaneously or from a minor cut,” Patel said. “They show extreme signs of bruising, are covered in blood, and have trouble breathing.”
Executive Director Zak Mertz said mice and rats thrive on the Cape and controlling the population is like “playing a game of Whac-A-Mole.” The anticoagulant rodenticides are “the number one go-to for pest control agencies,” he said, which makes secondary poisoning a common occurrence. “We see hundreds of suspected cases a year come through the door,”
State Rep. James Hawkins of Attleborough has sponsored “An Act Relative to Pesticides” that would require pest control companies to provide customers with written information on the effects of SGARs on wildlife and the environment and institute an electronic reporting system on its use so that effects can be better monitored.
New England Wildlife Center, Mass Audubon, and the Mass. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have all endorsed the bill, along with a large number of legislators. After a hearing on Dec. 14, it was referred to the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
One safe alternative the Provincetown Animal Welfare Committee looked at was liquid birth control, said Elizabeth Brooke. SenesTech’s rodent birth control program was suggested to local officials by her panel, Brooke said, but the idea “fell flat.”
On its website, SenesTech, an Arizona-based company, estimates that 15,000 baby rats can result from the coupling of one pair of rats in a single year. Its liquid product, ContraPest, works by decreasing the reproductive capacity in male rats and accelerating the natural egg loss in female rats. The company says its product is unlikely to affect predators that eat rats because rats quickly metabolize and eliminate the active ingredients from their bodies.