Living in a rat-free province leaves Albertans with a startling gap in their knowledge. “They’ve no idea what a rat looks like," says rat patrol supervisor Cliff Barrett who is based in Calgary. Rat sightings reported to him usually turn out to be muskrats, bushy tailed wood rats, pocket gophers—even a skunk, once. But the naïveté backfired earlier this year. A real, live Norway rat that smuggled itself into an Edmonton hydraulics firm survived for four months on tidbits put out by employees trying to tame what they took to be a muskrat. A Vancouverite set the innocents straight, rat patrol officer George Servage descended and the rat was dead by morning. Alberta was once again ratfree. But it’s an unceasing battle, says Barrett, who directs Alberta’s 27-year-old war to remain one of the world's few ratless areas.
The first Rattus Norvegicus immigrants landed on the east coast of North America in 1775 and headed west at the rate of 15 miles a year. By 1950, the rat wave hit the Saskatchewan-Alberta border but, in a stroke of luck for Alberta, poison warfare had been developed and the province was able to keep rats at bay. Most of the credit goes to the rat patrol, which started with one man and now has an eight-man squad plus supervisor patrolling an 18mile-wide buffer zone all along the Saskatchewan border. Last year, the patrol eliminated about 19,000 rats and saved
crops and property from an estimated $30 million damage.
The rat patrol traps and shoots the rodents, but the main weapon is poisoned rolled oats. Farmers are coaxed into keeping rat stations baited with fresh food and water (the rat patrol can lay charges against careless farmers but prefers persuasion). An occasional infestation requires a full scale extermination. This year’s Edmonton rat arrived with a shipment of machinery. The year before, several rats were imported in urns filled with 100-year-old eggs from China. Says Barrett: “Some places have had rats for so long that people believe they can’t be cleared out. They think they’re inevitable, like death and taxes. But you can wipe out rats and Alberta has. You just can’t ever relax.” SUZANNE ZWARUN
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