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Group combats legions of rats

The tide seems to turn as neighbors come together to remove what rats need most: food, water and shelter.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2001


SPRING HILL -- When rats invaded her pool, Rhonda Wilson's husband beat them to death with a broom.

When they chewed through the concrete slab under the house and scurried into an air duct, he opened the grate in the living room and clobbered them with a shovel.

Reluctantly, the couple even tried putting poison around the outside of their three-bedroom home on Essex Lane, despite a nagging fear it might harm their dogs.

And still, the rats kept coming.

For a while, it seemed the rodents were winning.

Then Wilson and her neighbor, Jean Vore, formed a community watch group, setting up command centers around their dining room tables. They circulated fliers, then enlisted the county's help in cleaning up overgrown retention basins and vacant lots where the rats had found havens.

At first, progress was slow, with one neighbor reporting that he saw three Hernando County Jail inmates running down the street after being chased out of a thicket by a band of rats.

But now, the tide seems to be turning.

Work crews have cleared weeds from the bottom of dried-up lakes, mowed overgrown rights of way and fixed badly cracked sidewalks.

"We've come a long way," Wilson said last week. "But we've got a long way to go."

The biggest hurdle, she said, will be eliminating the stigma associated with rats. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about," she said. "People think automatically "dirt,' when you say "rats,' and that's just not the case."

More than a year ago, Wilson watched news reports that chronicled another Spring Hill family's battle with rat infestation. Last May, Kathy and Skip Monahan were forced to abandon their home on Liberator Court, where they had taken to beating the kitchen walls every night before bed, hoping to drive the rats into the attic.

Wilson empathized with their story but didn't realize how widespread the problem had become until after forming the neighborhood watch group last summer.

At the first meeting, people slowly began to speak up.

One woman had found a rat in her barbecue grill, while a man confessed that rodents had taken over a screened-in room at the back of the house, forcing him to rip it down.

Vore told of the time a rat scurried past her while she was on her knees in the carport to change the sticker on her license plate.

"You don't realize how many rats are out there until you go out at night," she said. "You see these little, red, beady eyes popping out of the tall grass looking at you."

And the rodents don't stop at the edge of her neighborhood, bordered roughly by Kirkland Avenue, Deltona and Northcliffe boulevards, Wilson said.

"It's a Spring Hill problem," she said.

Last month, County Commissioner Nancy Robinson and county Code Enforcement and Public Works staffers met with Wilson, Vore and their group to help find a solution.

Code Enforcement Director Frank McDowell III brought along a pile of brochures outlining how to cut down on rodents. The key, he told the group, is eliminating the things rats need to survive: namely, sources of food, water and shelter.

The tip fits perfectly with the group's overriding goal of sprucing up their neighborhood. Rats, Wilson and Vore say, are a byproduct of neglect, which can also lead to declining property values.

By raising awareness and spurring residents to action, the women hope not only to wipe out the rats but also to improve the quality of life -- first in their neighborhood and eventually all of Spring Hill.

They are planning to coordinate with a Forest Oaks crime watch group, which has planned a neighborhood cleanup this spring.

"We want to make people proud of where they live instead of letting it turn into the slums," Vore said.

Anyone interested in joining the group may call Vore at 352-686-0104.

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