By Sondra Murphy
A county inspection of a Meiners Oaks property neighbors have long pointed the finger at as the cause of a rat infestation has recently been determined to have no active violations.
Stephen Alary of the Ventura County Zoning Enforcement Division inspected the premises on El Conejo Drive on Dec. 13 and found the family to be in compliance with requirements concerning their rabbit rehabilitation facility.
Tracy Vail, of the Ojai Humane Society, was also present during the inspection. Both Alary and Vail found the scene improved and told OVN that the Essel family appears to have worked diligently to meet the standards imposed by the county during ongoing investigations.
Catherine Essel was preparing for a pickup from Wee Companions over the weekend and had the allowed number of domesticated rats awaiting the rescue. Vail confirmed that volunteers from Wee Companions retrieved more than 50 rats over the weekend. “They said they will go back in January,” said Vail, “and they are taking the rats to rescue groups in Las Vegas and Arizona.”
Because Essel participates in rabbit rehabilitation, she said extending those efforts was natural and she was surprised to find rat rescue facilities existed. Essel set the record straight that she is not operating a rat rescue, as reported incorrectly earlier.
“The perception is that, because we have some empathy for them, we are the cause.”
Neighbors and OVN bloggers have questioned the claim that abandoned rats are wanted by anyone, but those who have had pet rats can attest to their sociable qualities. A brief internet search will produce web sites for organizations that rescue rats in order to place them with people wanting them as pets.
By all official estimations, the rats in question either escaped from or were abandoned by someone in the vicinity. According to the Rat Fancy Society, domesticated rats have about a three-week gestation period, so even one pregnant rat can become many in a short period of time. Those babies, called kittens, reach sexual maturity at about 5 weeks of age.
After inspecting the Essel property, Vail took a look at adjacent lots. “I talked to the neighbors to make sure there’s no rotten fruit, bird feed or extra junk,” said Vail. “They’ve been clearing all the ivy. There is no place for rats to come feed.”
Having just a handful of residents working to eliminate the rats while the rest continue creating incentives for rodents to stay put is an inadequate remedy. “Part of the problem is neighbors throwing bird seed out in the street,” said Alary.
Dr. Robert Levin of the Ventura County Health Department dismissed concerns about health risks posed by rats. “Historically, we don’t have very many instances in the county of rats causing outbreaks of disease,” said Levin. This helps explain the county’s lack of rat abatement resources.
While caution should be exercised when cleaning up rodent droppings, the potentially deadly hantavirus is most often linked to deer mice, not rats. “Rats are never carriers of rabies,” said Kathy Jenks, director of the county’s Animal Regulation Department, rejecting several residents’ vocalized concerns about that virus. “The No. 1 carrier or rabies in this county is always going to be bats. Second are skunks.” Jenks said that other host species of rabies vary from year to year and may include foxes and raccoons.
“Ivy and ice plants are rat hotels,” said Jenks. “Rat spas are palm trees.” Jenks also emphasized removal of junked cars and items around yards.
All county sources contacted about this rat overpopulation agreed that, to solve the problem, a joint effort is required by the community. The Meiners Oaks Community Forum next meets Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Living Christ, 190 E. El Roblar Drive. To request the rat infestation issue be placed on the agenda, visit ourmotowne.org.
By Sondra Murphy