For the sake of cheap sensationalism, I will begin this article by reporting there are rats infesting Portland sewers, and they sometimes swim up into our toilets and scratch people on the buttocks.
Common knowledge decrees that rats are filthy disease-ridden vermin that the average person doesn't want on their buttocks (or anywhere near them, for that matter).
If this happens to you, shut the lid, flush... and then call Vector Control, a division of the Environmental Health Section of the Multnomah County Health Department.
MY FIRST RAT
Personally, I've always found rodents to be especially disturbing.Too many bad memories. The time I was eight years old remains vivid in my mind to this day.
My mother, preparing to bake me something tasty, had opened the kitchen flour drawer, and was startled to find a huge rat inside luxuriating in the white powder. She burst through the living room where I sat in my jammies, snacking on Rice Krinkles, and watching Bob Kuwahara's Hashimoto San cartoons. Hashimoto was a Japanese mouse who knew jujitsu and could beat the crap out of cartoon characters 10 times his size.
After rummaging through her bedroom, she returned, loaded a .44 magnum revolver, pulled back the hammer, and just before she kicked open the kitchen door, yelled to me, "Don't move. There's a RAT in MY KITCHEN!"
Holding the weapon at arm's length, she tried to get a bead on the galloping rodent. She shot three holes through the kitchen floor into the basement before finally hitting her target, which she blew into bloody fragments, exploding the flour drawer into a red and white mushroom cloud of flour and rat parts. We were deaf for three days.
Later on, exposure to two Willard films as well as the subsequent Michael Jackson rat-love radio hit Ben added to my loathing of the creatures. If I had known about the specialists of Vector Control then, I never would have wanted to become a fireman or spy.
BUT I DON'T HAVE A VECTOR--I HAVE RATS!
The goal of Vector Control is to reduce the threat of human contact with diseases by educating the public about maintaining pest-free environments.They also capture animals and insects, test for diseases, utilize poison, and respond to field calls throughout the county.
"To start," says Chris Wirth, Multnomah County's Vector Control Supervisor, "a vector can be any organism that is a carrier of disease. We try to find out where diseases may pop up, so of course, we're looking at pest populations."
Local vectors include rats, mosquitoes, bats, mice and more--all of which carry and deliver an assortment of loathsome diseases. Worldwide, rats alone destroy 20% of all agricultural crops. They're responsible for causing bacterial food poisoning, and transmit over 30 known diseases including typhus, trichinosis, arena virus, rabies, meningitis, and the infamous black plague bacillus that once killed 75 million people.
Currently, the central targets of Vector Control--who make over 2000 inspections yearly--are mosquitoes and rats.
"One animal doesn't necessarily carry more diseases than another," Wirth tells me. "They're all a threat at some level. Here in Portland, because we're a water, or riparian system--with the rivers--we have a big rat problem."
"Rats naturally gravitate toward water," Wirth notes. "They're good swimmers, and the lush foliage provides shelter. But in the sewers they're getting three basic needs met. There's a home for them, there's food down there, and water.
There are an estimated 2000 miles of sewer pipe under Portland, providing ample means of transportation to underground colonies of vermin. "However," Wirth is quick to point out, "it's a misconception to think rats are using sewers as these big highways, to connect from this neighborhood to that one."
"On one level, they probably do that. But you need to realize they're above ground as well. There are nests under large bushes, in buildings, along the Columbia Slough They're all over. It's just that the sewers provide an ideal habitat for them."
Do rats really swim through sewage and make their way into the toilets of unsuspecting Portland residents? "Yes," Wirth definitively states. "Yes, they do.
"We treat that call as an emergency around here, as you could probably imagine. If you found a rat in your toilet, I think you'd think that was an emergency. We go out there immediately. We tell people to leave the toilet seats down. Obviously, there's a sewer break somewhere. When a line breaks, that's a way for them to get from sewer level to a surrounding neighborhood."
Wirth speaks cautiously, yet with a hint of respect for the prowess of the rodents. "See, the plumbing to a toilet is an 'S' shape, and in newer models there's usually a valve, or a stop between that, but they somehow snake past it. They can actually go through the 'S.' It's pretty amazing, because they're coming from an area where they are breathing oxygen, and they just go up. My guess is they probably get stuck somehow in the matrix, and they're just going, and lo and behold, they end up in a toilet. I'm not a sewer expert but yeah. It's pretty amazing."
Although Wirth does some work in the field, he says his main function is with community awareness and education. Since there are only six or so Vector Control employees for the entire region, human resources are in short supply.
VECTOR CONTROL HQ
Vector Control headquarters is located near the stinky Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant, and seems small in comparison to the territory it serves. There are vector concerns throughout the county, both in rural and urban environments.
White county-owned pickup trucks are smattered outside the humble building. Funding is at a minimum, and there's an air of frugality about the place. It could pass for an old dentist's office.
Inside there are a few cramped offices--undersized and stuffed to the gills. There is a separate, larger work area, where poisons, traps, fog machines, hazard suits, and stores of other vector control tools of the trade are relegated.
In the work area, chief entomologist Jill Townzen prepares mosquito traps. In another portion of the building, at an old wooden workbench, Vector Control's Environmental Health Specialist, Richard Maher, RS, strings up spiked blue sculptures of rodenticide onto wire hanger-like contraptions, which are used to dangle into the sewer system to bait rats.
THAT HUM IN YOUR EAR CAN KILL!
Although species capture and disease testing is ongoing, recently, Vector Control has been monitoring local mosquito populations for the West Nile virus, which has made its way to America's East Coast, and is most likely heading our way sometime in the future. Fortunately, they haven't yet detected West Nile virus in this area.
"There's always a chance," says Townzen, a three-year V.C. veteran. "It's not something we expect, but it could happen, so we want to be prepared." At her mosquito station there are mosquito corpses stuck to specimen boards. Regional maps, militaristically spread upon the walls, are marked with inspection areas and color-coded zones indicating known hot spots of previous and possible future infestations.
The agency's objectives are to abate existing breeding sources, prevent new ones, and to hold 'breeding source' property owners accountable for correction.
Since mosquito larvae in the wild can't leap from their watery nurseries and sting anyone, Townzen captures adult insects, which are more of a direct threat. (For trivia buffs: mosquitoes don't have a stinger, they have a proboscis!) Says Townzen, "The state health division has set up a lab where we test for the West Nile virus. We're also testing for St. Louis Encephalitis and Western Encephalitis. Those are two common mosquito-borne viruses down in California." Effects of Encephalitis include inflammation of the brain and spine membranes, destruction of nerve cells, and cerebral hemorrhage.
Townzen monitors, empties, and sets insect traps in various locations around the county. Much of her work involves personally reconnoitering and larviciding foul swamps and stagnating waterways, in search of the unending swarms of her elusive--and potentially deadly-- prey.
DON'T CALL ME "RAT GUY"--AND PLEASE... NO PICTURES
Environmental Health Specialist Richard Maher, who holds a BS in environmental health and biology, divides his time between Vector Control field calls, and conducting restaurant health inspections.
Unfortunately, Maher requested not to be photographed for this article. "I don't want to be known as the 'Rat Guy,'" he admits. When asked about his reluctance, his voice trails off. "I guess that's the reason why. If my picture's in [the Mercury] with rats, Oh, I don't know"
I ask Maher if being a rat guy at Vector Control is a lifelong ambition. "Well, probably not," he responds. "I don't mind dealing with it, but if I am still doing this in another twenty years, in the same capacity, I'd be a little upset with myself. I don't mind doing it, I just don't want to get tagged as the Rat Guy or the Health Inspector Guy."
A RODENT SPOTTED IN NORTHEAST? LET'S ROLL!
In spite of his camera shyness, Maher agrees to allow photographer Jason Kaplan and me to ride along on a few 'field calls.' On the way to the first location, he covers the basics.
"I'd say 75% of the time I get called in for a rodent infestation... that's different than one rat in an area... an actual infestation... three-quarters of the time it's because of an accidental food source. They'll find shelter most anywhere.
"I have people call and say, 'I'm having a rat problem because my neighbors have a couch in their garage.' Sure. That's a place for them to live, but if there's only a couch in the garage and no food source around... it gets me asking more questions. Do you have any pets yourself? Do you keep their food outside? Do you have bird or squirrel feeders? Do you compost and how do you compost? Just because there's a couch in a garage somewhere that's not causing the problem."
VICTIM OR VICTOR/ VICTORIOUS?
Our first call is to an elegant hillside home in Northeast Portland, where a couple fears a rat infestation. The homeowners had recently installed a bird feeder behind their home, and took pleasure in watching the birds from their window. At first, they thought it was cute when they saw a lil' rat, nibbling birdseed. But as weeks passed, more and more rats began tunneling behind their stone retaining wall, swarming around the house, and using commando tactics to occupy the bird (rat) feeder--up to three at a time.
As we stand a few feet away talking, a large and ugly rat pokes his head from between the rocks, jumps down, grabs a quick bite, and then leaps back into the safety of the wall. Maher, who has retrieved a trap from his truck, baits it with peanut butter and places it where the rat was last seen.
Jason crouches nearby, eager to get a shot of the elusive vector, whom I will call Victor. It takes about three minutes for Victor to emerge. Initially, his head protrudes, scanning the area for danger. Victor sniffs the air, bobbing his head from side to side. Then, slowly, Victor slinks out--sniffing his way toward the peanut butter. I am fascinated, yet repulsed by Victor's brazen foraging. Eagerly, Jason snaps the first picture, startling the rodent who rushes back into the wall.
Minutes later, Victor returns, make his way to the baited trap, and Jason gets his shot. The trap and the shutter snap almost simultaneously. But, like a plot from an afterschool special, Victor shrieks in surprise, miraculously escapes, beats a path to the wall, and vanishes. "He won't be back for a while," Maher says, referring to Victor. Maher advises the homeowner to remove the rat feeder, and set poison and 'supervised' snap traps in its place.
Our work here is done.
IT AIN'T EASY BEING CHEEZIE
Back on the road, Maher defends his job, and reveals how Vector Control affects his personal life. "My job is not so much helping people by killing rats. I try to emphasize how much they can do to reduce the number they have to deal with it." He acknowledges his line of work concerns his new girlfriend. "We've been going out about six months or so. She doesn't seem real thrilled about the whole idea of me helping people kill rats; but on the other hand she knows I'm trying to help people who are having problems. I mean, I'm an animal lover, and she's an animal lover, too. But I think she realizes that while it may not be a real great thing, if she had rats, she'd call V.C. too."
"That's how a lot of people are," he continues. "They love animals, and wouldn't want to hurt rats, but when they're actually hanging around, they don't like them as much. Just like the first gentleman this morning: at first he thought it was kind of cute. If they were disease-freethat would be a different thing. But that's just not the case."
Arriving in Southwest Portland, we find homeowner Dan Lucas, who has a rat problem. Lucas reports he left a bag of dried corncobs (meant for a squirrel feeder) in his garage, rats found it, and now he needs a solution. On his own, Lucas has already killed a number of the creatures with snap traps, but feels the remaining beasts are becoming crafty and avoiding capture. Posing with the guilty squirrel feeder, good-natured Lucas smiles and assures me he doesn't take the rat invasion personally. "I'm not going to be embarrassed," he says. I smile back and assure him there's nothing to be embarrassed about.
After conducting a thorough search of the premises, inspecting possible entry points and performing an excreta count, Maher gives his recommendations. He provides Lucas with brochures, traps and rodenticides, and demonstrates their use.
BREATHING RODENT FECES: A PROBLEM
Surprisingly, diseases like hantavirus are rarely transferred to humans by scratches or bites, although it is found in rat saliva and on their fur.
It is primarily the putrefaction of the excreta itself that transmits the virus to unsuspecting humans, after aerosolized viral particles are expelled from drying urine and feces. When the coffee-bean-shaped pellets begin to dry out, surviving viruses are easily swept into the air. When hantavirus becomes airborne, it is inhaled and infects the lungs, leading to respiratory failure and death. That's it. There is no cure.
Wherever rats go, they leave a constant trail of contaminated excrement. I point out some previously undiscovered feces under a bench like I've seen leprechauns, and we all take a look.
"One of the nice things about their droppings," Maher muses, "is because of their metabolism, they have to defecate constantly! They have to leave it." Even if rats remain hidden from view, their numbers and current activity can be detected, assessed, and monitored by the amount and age of their droppings.
"If you have a lot of fresh droppings everywhere, you've got a big problem."
Eliminating the food source, I've learned, is paramount, but proper cleaning methods can mean the difference between life and death. "One of the concerns you have now," Maher cautions Lucas, "is respiratory ailments. The droppings get old and if you try to sweep or vacuum them up, it kicks up dust, and then you're actually breathing in rodent feces. We're real concerned about that.
"Our recommendations are to take a weak bleach solution, and spray down those droppings. The bleach water will kill the bacteria and virus in the droppings, and the spraying moistens and keeps them on the ground so no dust is created. Clean them up with some paper towels and throw them away."
RAT TAILS AND PLIERS
As Maher completes a written report of the inspection, an elderly neighbor walks over to see what's going on. When Lucas tells him about his rat problem, the neighbor, a good-spirited man, recounts having lived in the same area as a child, long before the neighborhood existed. His father, then a dairy farmer, paid him to kill rats that were destroying his feed grain. With a jovial twang, he tells how he used the bounty money to buy balloon tires for his bicycle.
"The last one I caught was as big as a small cat! It was about a foot long, and of course the tail was another foot. This baby was blacker than coal and about a foot long. I don't know if he was the kingpin, but he was big."
Maher nods his head in agreement. He tells the man if there is unlimited food, rats can grow to be enormous, adding, "If they have a spot where they can feed, they'll not only get really big, they will also reach their maximum reproductive cycle."
"So," Maher advises, turning back to Lucas, "more than likely, if you didn't have the corncobs in there, they might have come in, but they wouldn't have stayed."
Lost in fond memories, the neighbor continues his tale. "They'd get into these barrels full of cow feed, and I'd creep up on them, and once in a while, well, you could grab one by the tail with a pair of pliers, hit 'em in the head, and I'd get my new bicycle tire!" We all laugh awkwardly. Ah, the good old days.