The front door was a no-go zone for Kevin Harris. Shortly after moving in Fall Quarter, the Weinberg senior noticed rats – lots of them – scurrying back and forth in between the two big bushes outside of his apartment on Clark.
“They come out right when it gets dark,” he says. “If you stand out there for five to ten minutes you’re pretty much guaranteed to see one scurry across from one of the bushes or out from one of the planters.”
Harris and his roommates contacted their landlord, who put out bait boxes for the furry pests, and even invested $20 of their own money into a little rat poison, vigilante action. But the problem only got slightly better.
“We lived and coped and learned how to adapt,” he says.
Reports of rat sightings are on the rise: from 390 in 2013 to 1180 in 2015, according to a report prepared by Evanston’s assistant health director.
On the bright side, the area of Evanston directly surrounding Northwestern University doesn’t seem to be a “rat hotspot.” In 2014, a heat map displaying rat service requests in Evanston showed the largest rat hot spot at the intersection of Main and Dewey in South Evanston, with smaller hot spots closer to campus, including Sherman and Noyes.
Harris, who is an off-campus ambassador, hadn’t heard of any Northwestern students who had outright rat infestations. But students – and their parents – still call the Office of Off-Campus Life to ask about rodent-related problems.
“The rat problem is pretty sporadic,” says Anthony Kirchmeier, who has been Northwestern’s director of off-campus life for four years. “It comes up sometimes and isn’t an issue at other times, but it is definitely a recurring problem.”
Kirchmeier says he advises students to connect with city resources, like the handy 311 reporting service.
“The 311 service is the go-to city service,” says Myrtil Mitanga, another off-campus ambassador. “You can call if your apartment is too cold, if you need information about snow parking or other snow-related things, or if you have rats.”
Here’s how it works: The resident calls, texts or submits an online request to 311. The 311 operator logs the complaint into the database, which then alerts the City inspector responsible for that area. Within 24 to 48 hours, a city inspector and a pest control operator from Rose Pest Control, a city-contracted company, will check out the area, place bait boxes if necessary and inspect the area for overflowing garbage, large shrubs and other contributing factors for rat fertility.
The system is web-based and very fluid, says Carl Caneva, Evanston’s assistant health director. Notes made on specific cases are attached online, so inspectors and contract pest control operators have access to the same information, without having to file separate paper reports. Updates are sent real-time to residents in the same way that they logged their complaints.
The whole process is rather seamless. Right after filing the complaint, residents are prompted to check a release/liability box on an online form to allow the pest control operator access to the property and permission to take action. The complainant has a week to do so when the request is still live on the website.
“Sometimes there is a lag from filling out that form, but we try to do everything in our power to make that a quicker piece,” says Caneva. “We’re not making them print it out or come to the City to fill it out.”
Evanston’s health department has made the rodent problem a priority this year and for the past couple of years, said Ike Ogbo, the City’s public health manager. In 2016, the City renewed its contract with Rose Pest Control for the fourth year in a row, and two years ago, the health department began a “rodent academy” training program for all City staff. All of the City’s field staff – property maintenance inspectors, health inspectors, street sanitation workers, public works employees – were given a 30-minute training session about what rodents eat, where they hide and how to spot rat evidence.
“They, too, have a responsibility to report what they find to 311,” Caneva says. “What we’re finding is that staff were seeing those things out in Evanston but not reporting.”
Caneva adds, “It was not as though they were making the choice not to report, we hadn’t done the necessary training to provide a solid background of information on rodents.”
This year, the goal is to extend that rat education program to the public with increased board meetings and face-to-face time with residents to draw greater attention to the rodent problem.
The City will also begin pre-baiting in the spring. Inspectors will look through alleys and neighborhoods and release a report on which areas are at the most risk for rat infestations. Combined with the past three to four years of rat hotspot data, Caneva hopes that the City will be able to knock the rat population down right during breeding season, so the usual summertime spike in sightings can be avoided.
For now, though, the City’s health department advises rodent-wary residents to dispose of trash in city-approved bins with closing lids and to report any rat sightings as soon as possible. “Limit the amount of waste outside,” said Caneva. “Rats will eat anything, even the most disgusting things you can imagine.”