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These Old World imports are unwelcome

What skitters through your trees and attics and is not a squirrel? What eats your oranges and is not a guest?

By BABITA PERSAUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2002


No one told us.

Not our chatty, Cadillac-driving real estate agent. Or Bill and Doug, the previous owners whose interior touches caught our eye. Not their real estate agent or the home inspection guy or for that matter, any of the people I know who live in South Tampa, many co-workers whom I see daily.

No one.

And so, there we were, my husband and I, first-time home buyers, relaxing in our Brookstone hammock off Westshore Boulevard that April day four years ago, admiring the live oak canopy, the green of the palms against the blue of the sky, the thick hibiscus along the wooden fence.

When we saw it.

No, it wasn't a squirrel. The tail was too thin. The body too small. It was, my husband concluded, a rat.

A rat!

In South Tampa?

I nearly fell out of the hammock. I ran inside, flipped to Pest Control in the Yellow Pages and began telephoning rodent experts immediately.

Get them out of my yard, I ordered.

One expert sighed at me.

"There is little we can do," he said. "You have to remember, they were there before you were."

It is South Tampa's dirty little secret: rats. No one talks about it, not at neighborhood parties or yard sales. Forums aren't held on the subject.

The city's division manager of code enforcement, Bill Doherty, says: "We don't see it as a significant problem in the area."

A longtime real estate agent, Marilyn Bergman-Perez with Coldwell Banker, says: "I've never had a question asked about rats, except when that rat-infested house (in Virginia Park) made the news a few years ago."

But that doesn't mean South Tampa isn't dealing with a "rat problem."

Helen Neumann, Davis Island resident, beats her white grapefruit tree with a broom at dusk.

She has sprayed the tree with a garden hose. She has slid plastic shower curtain rod covers over the cable wires above her tree in an attempt to make the running rats fumble and fall, like a Charlie Chaplin high-wire act.

Cunning, but the plan failed.

"The rats have laughed at our every attempt," said Neumann.

She sighed.

"I can't stay up all night watching the grapefruit tree," she said.

Not all South Tampa rat tales have an unhappy ending.

A South Tampa handyman tells how he put two 3-foot long pet snakes in the attic. Nature took its course. The rat problem? Gone. The snakes?

"Fatter," he said.

* * *

It seems so obvious now. Hollowed-out oranges -- with the characteristic perfect hole -- lying everywhere.

"We are living in animal paradise," said Chris Christenson of Trapper John, rodent and animal control specialist.

Rats are residents for the same reasons we are. Warm weather. Good food. A nice shower now and then. Day trips to see Mickey Mouse.

The good news for us: It's not just South Tampa.

At Riviera Middle School in Pinellas County, recently, one rat sent children running out of a classroom. At Leto High School, a few years ago, one fell on a teacher's desk.

Exterminators and trappers insist South Tampa doesn't produce any more calls than other parts of Florida.

Rodents don't discriminate, said Steve Demoor of Wildlife Solutions, Brandon. "They go to $50,000 houses; they go to $500,000 houses."

They are nicknamed "fruit rats" or "citrus rats."

They are Rattus rattus, or roof rats -- as opposed to Rattus norvegicus, their city cousin (a.k.a. sewer rats or Norway rat), which populate places like New York City and prefer meat.

Rattus rattus are Old World rodents. Native to southern Asia, they came to America as stowaways on wooden cargo ships from Europe.

And they came with a reputation. They carried the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages.

Rattus rattus come in three varieties: Black, gray and brownish gray with a white belly.

Adults can grow to 12 inches, warns the Web site for the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida.

Rats live for about 18 months. They reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 months, breed year-round, with peak activity in spring and fall. Gestation is 21 to 23 days, and litters are usually five to eight pups.

A female can breed five times a year.

They are a cunning creature. During home inspections, with many people around, "they will try to be as quiet as they can," said Christenson.

And they are family-oriented, residing in clusters in palm tree fronds, hollowed trees, under sidewalks and canal banks.

They are also the ultimate survivor: They will travel 150 yards for food or gnaw through steel pipes for water.

Their rib cages can separate from the sternum, unlike the rigid ribs of humans.

"As a result, rats can squeeze into a hole the size of a nickel," said Christenson. "If they can get their heads through, the rest of their body pretty much comes through like putty."

* * *

Often, homeowners are in denial.

"We get the calls, 'There is something running around in my attic and making enough noise.' Sometimes the homeowner calls the police before they call us, because they literally think they have an intruder inside," said Christenson of Trapper John, which is just a company name. There is no Trapper John.

Ridding your yard of rats is nearly impossible.

"That's kind of like trying to rid ants from the yard," said Christenson.

Get a cat?

That's the approach we took. But Puddy spends more time curled up on the folded top of my convertible than catching rats.

Get rid of citrus trees?

"I would never recommend that," said Demoor with Wildlife Solutions. "Rats will only find another food source."

Poison?

Quick and easy, it is also dirty. Hawks and osprey can eat poisoned rats and die.

Also, a poisoned rat might die in the attic and then there's a bigger problem: a stinking, dead rat lodged in a wall.

Traps?

A wide variety are available: cages, snap traps, glue traps, which can trap a rat's leg. Thing is, a rat will gnaw its own leg off to escape.

The best offense a homeowner can mount is to seal unnecessary openings on exterior walls, exterminators say. Trim heavy growth in the yard. Keep ornamentals thinned out. Fruit trees should be isolated, not touching fences or overhead wires. Remove fallen fruit.

And remember, humans are the rat's natural enemy.

"They are probably wondering what we are doing here," said Warren Weathers, the deputy property appraiser who has experienced rodent problems himself.

"They are probably saying, 'I have a human problem. How do I get rid of them!' "

-- Babita Persaud can be reached at 226-3322 or persaud@sptimes.com.

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