RELATED: Alternative Poisons
By Sondra Murphy
Forget about driving around looking at Christmas lights this winter. One Meiners Oaks neighborhood is becoming an infamous nocturnal attraction.
Residents report hundreds of feral rats multiplying out of control, roaming the streets in search of food and shelter, jumping out at people from the bushes and dropping from trees. Inhabitants hear rats screaming at night and see their dead carcasses in the middle of the road the next morning.
Usually, a variety of possibilities could be the cause of a rat influx. Nearby construction, severe weather or weed abatement can flush rodents into the open. In this case, however, neighbors are pointing at one residential property operating as a rabbit and rat rescue facility as the source of hundreds of rats spilling into the neighborhood around El Conejo Drive.
As reported in the OVN last February and March, more than 200 rats were removed from an El Conejo Drive home after months of neighbor complaints about the population and stench.
Unfortunately, an unknown number of rats — then estimated by Animal Control workers to be in the hundreds — evaded capture and sought refuge nearby. Ventura County agencies advised residents about rodent abatement techniques, but by then, a rat population explosion had taken place.
Catherine Essel lives with her parents, both in their 80s, at the house neighbors say is the cause of the infestation. “These are not our rats. They have never been our rats,” said Essel. She does not know where the rats originally came from. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to resolve this.”
Her efforts include working with the Humane Society in trying to find homes for the rats. Meanwhile, she said that she has caught neighbors throwing poison under her fence, killing 20 rabbits and poisoning her dog.
Essel said that, since last February, she has worked with the Humane Society to try to solve the rat problem without killing any of the animals. “We’re setting out flats of pennyroyal, which works as a rodent contraceptive,” said Essel about the aromatic herb. “We have cleared food from outdoors and feed our cats inside. We pick the fruit from our trees as soon as it is ripe, but the neighbors leave theirs hanging there.”
Her father added, “We feel harassed. Everyone is pointing the finger at us, as if it was our problem only,” said David Essel. “We’ve been doing our part and we feel they have not been doing their part.”
Catherine Essel said that she feeds rats only when catching them for rescue groups to pick up and, when people witnessed this, they misunderstood. There are two main groups she works with. One is called Wee Companions, and the other is Second Hand Rats. “They took several hundred rats already,” Catherine Essel said. “What the Humane Society called wild rats, these groups called blues. They said Ojai rats are known for being friendly and the colors are in demand.” Catherine Essel estimates the rat problem in her yard is nearly solved, has another pickup scheduled next week and expects them to be clear by the end of the year.
Ken van Doren of Wee Companions confirmed that the agency has been working with the Essels and plans to pick up more rats next week. “I can understand what the neighbors must be feeling, with there being so many at first,” said van Doren.
Catherine Essel said that in collecting and caring for the rats, the family develops a kind of affection for the rescues, and objected to what they saw as rough treatment by Animal Control officers when they picked up the rats last year. She said that having rats on their property has not been to their advantage, since rats will attack their rabbits and have destroyed their foliage and garden. The Essels simply believe that poisoning is a cruel death and even rats deserve to be treated humanely
“We spent thousands of dollars and hours to have a rock wall built because the rats ate through the old wooden one,” said one neighbor who wished to remain anonymous. “Still, the smell is horrible. We can’t sit out front and have lunch, or anything, because the odor makes the food taste awful.” This neighbor is very frustrated by the lack of assistance offered by county agencies and said she has had nightmares about the infestation.
David Essel said that he paid for half that rock wall. He also worked to clear his outside storage, which many neighbors have not. “We also pick up the dead animals and take them off the road,” he said.
Nearby neighbor Ben Barraza has seen rats out in the street. “Sometimes you go out at night and people are standing there with flashlights, watching them,” said Barraza. “Sometimes on warm nights, you get kids out there wearing head lamps, shining them on the rats, then hitting and killing them.”
Rats were sometimes covertly removed from the neighborhood and dumped in other parts of the valley, transplanting the problem and creating secondary poisoning incidents around Creek Road. The Humane Society caught 370 rats, most dying from poisoning, from that location in February.
Solving the problem is not simple. “The vector program established in this county in 1985 focused on mosquito control,” said William Stratton, manager of the county’s Environmental Health Division. “Ventura County has no rodent abatement program in place. We don’t have the staff and we don’t have the baits.”
Because rodents are ever-present in human communities, environmental health officers offer pamphlets and consult with residents having rat issues, but lack the resources to solve the problem. “What we look at when we investigate these sites is, are there conditions that we can enforce?” said Stratton. Enforceable violations are things like improper solid waste disposal, stockpiled junk or overgrown brush.
Pete Kaiser is the manager of Ventura County planning enforcement relative to zoning ordinances. He said that zoning in this case pertains to pets and that residents may have up to 20 pet rabbits, hamsters, gerbils or rats contained outdoors. “The problem is also that you have people nearby feeding and watering other types of animals,” Kaiser said. “The drought is compounding the situation.” He added that the rats in question might have genetic imprinting that brings them back to where they came from when their resources elsewhere are exhausted.
Stratton said that the county continues to investigate this case to see what codes relate to the case that they may enforce. First District Supervisor Steve Bennett confirmed that his office is working with the county for such progress. “We’re looking at trying to find out everything we can to legally deal with this. Right now, our hands are tied, but more conversations are scheduled to explore ways to solve the problem,” Bennett said.
Ventura County offers rat control advice on its web site for people with rodent infestations. Besides tips on eradication, rodent factoids are listed, such as how a female rat can give birth to more than 25 offspring per year. It is not difficult to calculate the expansive potential of hundreds of fertile rodents.
“I saw barn owls swooping down and feeding on the rats,” said Brian Holly, a biologist who works as an environmental consultant. “I saw about 30 rats in, maybe, a 10-minute window of time. The coloration suggested multiple generations of them. That means their actual breeding pool has gotten larger.”
The lack of assistance by the county perplexes many. Health concerns include rabies, as well as virus-containing particles spread through the dust of disturbed rodent droppings, similar to the deadly hanta virus. “With the number of rats there, you would think the county would be really concerned,” said Holly.
Another neighbor concurs. “We feel we are being placated by those we’ve been trying to get to help us rid our neighborhood of rats and that no one actually believes us when we say the scene on our street could be that from a horror film,” said Cindy Gordon.
Even after residents have removed pet food or grains from the reach of rats, fruit trees can continue to lure them. Rodents may travel along the tree canopy without ever touching the ground. This makes trimming branches imperative for successful eradication.
According to Jolene Hoffman, director of Ojai’s Humane Society of Ventura County, the most important component for rodent control is: “It needs to be a group effort. The main thing people need to do is clear their ivy and brush. Get rid of junk; that’s where rats breed and hide out.” Hoffman said that if poison is used, “Make sure you take any precaution to protect your children, animals and neighborhood. This is a terrible situation and it is expensive. But the problem won’t be solved until everyone is involved.”
Stratton agrees. “Unless you incorporate an integrated approach, the population will return,” he said.