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PRI's Environmental News Magazine


Air Date: Week of

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You’ve heard of the Canadian Mounties and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Add to that stellar list a Canadian… Rat Patrol. The province of Alberta has zero tolerance for the rodents. And as Amy Jo Ehman reports, the government there employs a team of trusty officers to carry out its policy.


CURWOOD: Rats like people. Or rather, they like the food and dwellings that people provide. But of course people don't like rats. It's not just that we fear the bubonic plague, which rats can carry, or that they can multiply so fast that a single pair of breeding rats can have 35,000 descendents in a single year. Rats can also keep us hungry. Around the world, rats destroy enough food to feed 200 million people. And nowhere do people guard the grain elevators more meticulously than the folks of Alberta, Canada, in the heart of winter wheat production. Indeed, Albertans boast that they are "rat-free." They do it with a mix of poison, guns, and good humor. Amy Jo Ehman has our report.

[Sound of a car door opening, car starting]

EHMAN: Don Breunig is on patrol. He is armed, with a thermos of coffee, and a 410-gauge shotgun stashed behind the seat. He wears a royal blue ball cap emblazoned with the words in gold, "Alberta Rat Control." Breunig's job: to seek, and destroy, rats.

BREUNIG: I don't go out of my way to kill any other animals, put it that way, but I don't even think of it as far as, "It's the job, and that's what we're there for, and it's, it doesn't bother me at all to kill rats.

EHMAN: Breunig is one of seven rat control in the province of Alberta. They control a swath of land on Alberta's eastern border with the province of Saskatchewan, a narrow strip that is 18 miles wide, and 380 miles long, running north from Montana. Rats aren't native to North America. They arrived in the 1700s aboard European ships, and they moved west with the population. Alberta is lucky enough to have three natural barriers against the rats: mountains to its west, Montana ranchland to the south, and the forest to the north, are all inhospitable terrains for these creatures. But to the east, Saskatchewan is infested with them. So any of these rats unlucky enough to infiltrate the buffer zone are killed before they have a chance to move into the rest of the province. That is why Alberta, with 255,000 square miles of land and 3 million people, is one of the few urban areas on Earth that can call itself "rat-free."

[Car door opens; package is moved; car door shuts.]

EHMAN: Today, Breunig pays a visit to a cattle farm. There are open feed pits, hundreds of bales of hay, and wooden grain bins--the ideal habitat for rats. Under Alberta law, rat control officers have the right to visit any private property, and take whatever action they have to to get rid of the rats. Farmers like Tim Guhle don't mind the intrusion.

GUHLE: [Laughs] No, it's good. Sometimes we're not around, so, you know, they know where to look. I don't. I just see some traces here and there once and a while. So, no problem with that.

EHMAN: Last year on this farm, Breunig killed some rats living under a grain bin by gassing them with the exhaust from a couple of trucks. Today, there's no sign of any rats, but he wants to be sure.

[Sounds of men moving stock in a barn)

BREUNIG: "Ok, so we'll head back. Actually, I'm going to move some bales up on this furthest stack up over here, just to make sure." GUHLE: "No problem." MAN: "See you guys again."]

EHMAN: Rats can cause a tremendous amount of damage. They eat immense amounts of grain and other stored food. They must gnaw constantly, to keep their incisors from growing too large, so they undermine sewers, eat through walls, and start fires by chewing electrical wires. And they spread disease "like the plague," among livestock and people. So when rats were first spotted on the Alberta border, in 1950, the government acted fast, marking off the 18-mile buffer zone and hiring people to kill the rats. Today, rat control costs about $200,000 a year, but the annual savings from the destruction of rats is estimated to be at least $30 million.

[Car door slams again.]

EHMAN: Breunig visits another farmer, on his regular route. Larry Heck hasn't seen a rat here in five years, and that's the way he likes it.

HECK: Because I hate rats. We were brought up to hate 'em, and I just--I'll do anything. If I see rats, get rid of 'em.

EHMAN: But there were a lot of rats here when he was a child. Rats so bold, he says, they would bite the pigs in order to get at the food trough.

HECK: I'll tell you another thing they used to do: they'd go into the chicken barn, they'd eat a hole in the end of the egg, and they'd suck out the egg. The rats would. That's how smart they'd get.

EHMAN: Albertans are taught young to loathe the rats. Many would be horrified at the idea of a pet rat. In fact, pet rats are illegal in Alberta. John Bourne remembers hating rats back in the seventh grade.

BOURNE: We had a coloring poster contest on the rat control program, and I can distinctly remember what my picture looked like. I had lots of blood, and lots of violence,because I had these rats that'd been trapped with a big mouse trap, and lots of red [laughs], red crayon because of the blood and the rats screeching, and so on.

EHMAN: Forty-five years after that coloring contest, Bourne supervises the rat control program. He admits, the rats give him nightmares.

BOURNE: One of the greatest fears, I guess, of rat control, is that you, you, you try and conduct it, --and it--it fails! And the rats are still there! What's wrong? You know, and so this anxiety builds up, that, in a dream, could become a, kind of a nightmare that makes me wake up, and my wife says to me, "You have another rat dream again, dear?" And it's true. I'd, I'd have a, a anxiety dream, unable to succeed in gettin' rid of the rats.

EHMAN: His worst waking fear, is that rats will get into Alberta by hitching a ride on an airplane or a truck, and go unnoticed until it's too late. And it almost happened a few years ago. A big, black rat was spotted at the airport in Edmondton, the provincial capital. It had jumped out of a suitcase, just arrived from India. To his great relief, Bourne was able to capture the renegade in a leg-hold trap, under the luggage carrousel.

BOURNE: Now, what are the chances of that animal staying in that luggage, and getting to someone's home, or someone's restaurant, or some food store--[sigh].

EHMAN: Back on the rat patrol, Don Breunig has called in the troops.

[Hubbub of intent voices. Man: "From [phonetic spelling] the water? ]

EHMAN: Five rat control officers are meeting in a coffee shop before they head out on a mission.

[Coffee shop fan. First man: "How you doin', cowboy?" Second man: "Good! And you?" First man: "Good. What have you been doin' with yourself?" Second man: "Not a heck of a lot." Coffee cups clink.]

EHMAN: Everyone in the cafe recognizes the rat patrol, dressed in their blue jackets and caps.


EHMAN: Today, they're heading to a farm suspected to be harboring rats.

[Coffee shop stools moving. First man: "Maybe be should get goin', boys." Hubbub: "Have to hurry, or--get there in time--dinner, perhaps."

[Alarm of open car door dings]

EHMAN: I am invited on this operation, so I jump in the truck with Officer Orest Popil. A couple of weeks ago, the rat patrol shot 60 rats on this farm. Today, it's a mop-up operation, to take care of any rodents that may have escaped. Popil has been on the rat patrol for 21 years.

POPIL: The job was, when I first started, was, was action-packed. There was no time to even think. It was just "Go go go!" and seek and destroy. And that was actually a lot of fun.

EHMAN: Last year, Popil saw just one rat in his patrol area. But he knows there are more out there, so he must be ever-vigilant.\

POPIL: A lot of people say, "Well, you're not totally rat-free, because you're killing them." But, as long as they're contained to their 18 miles, we're stopping the ground movement from Saskatchewan, then we consider ourselves rat-free.

[Car door-open alarm again. Popil: "I'll have to get my shotgun out." Door slams. Clink as shotgun is armed.]

EHMAN: The farmer is already lifting haybales, two by two, with a tractor.

[Shells being loaded into shotgun]

EHMAN: The rat control officers are standing by, rifles at the ready, fingers on the triggers. Some have tucked their pants in their boots, just in case a rat runs their way. But the first rat they find is already dead, poisoned, curled up in a nest of grass.

[Tractor lifts more hale bales. Voices of the controllers: "There's another one." "Look at this!" "All the way up!" "I'm damn beat" [To Ehman:] "So, ah, it takes away from our fun today, but a dead rat's a good rat, so we're happy to find them in there.]

EHMAN: They find two more "good" rats. Their feet and tails are bloody, a result of the anticoagulant in the poison. It looks like the rat patrol has done its job so well, there are no rats left here. Well, they're happy with that, but disappointed to be cheated out of a little action today. It looks like it's all been over, until the tractor lifts the last of the bales.

[Tractor heaves. Shotgun snaps. Voice commands: "Look out!" Laughter. "There's a nice one." More shots. "That's big enough to skin, that one!" Officer: "He is the survivor!" Another: "He doesn't look like a survivor to me!" Laughter.

EHMAN: There's a saying among rat control officers. "It's not the first 1000 that matter. It's the last one that counts the most."

["Nothin' wrong with this one." "No!" Voices trail off, covered by tractor still at work]

EHMAN: For Living On Earth, I'm Amy Jo Ehman in Provost, Alberta.

["Boy, they grow them healthy, here in Alberta!" Laughter. Tractor drives away.]



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