Somerville has a rat problem.
“I mostly see them in parks and around my house, especially at night,” Elizabeth Lohr, who lives near Davis Square, said. “You can hear them scurrying around and sometimes darting into the path.”
“Cats help keep the rats at bay,” she said. “But I do always kick the trash can before opening it.”
Rats are a normal part of life in any urban setting. But according to Somerville’s own “rat czar,” the number of sightings in the city has risen significantly over the past decade. Officially known as an Environmental Health Coordinator, Colin Zeigler helps run the city’s Rodent Control Program. He’s responsible for tackling the rat problem from every angle, from extermination to education.
It’s a big job. Zeigler told the Daily that the recent uptick in rat sightings is partially an after-effect of the pandemic. When restaurants and businesses shut down and people were mostly staying home, waste was diverted from reinforced, commercial dumpsters to private, flimsier garbage cans. The rats learned to seek out residential areas, where they had easier access to food scraps.
“In a city that’s as dense as Somerville,” Zeigler said, “that was just a perfect recipe for the rats.”
To combat this shift, the rodent control program offers free inspections to community members. Tenants and property owners with three units or fewer can also call 311 to sign up for three weeks of free abatement services from the city.
“Last year, about 800 individual residents used that abatement service,” Zeigler said. This year, he’s aiming for 1,000.
What does “abatement” mean, exactly? Somerville has gotten creative, using carbon dioxide poisoning, dry ice and SMART Boxes. The boxes — which trap and electrocute rats — were most effective in dumpster-dense areas where rats tend to congregate for food, water and shelter. The city also issues tickets for rodent control violations like improper trash disposal and overgrown landscaping.
“On the day-to-day basis there are issues associated with property management, and a lot are non-owner-occupied properties,” Zeigler said. “Tenants also are having trouble motivating or justifying the consistent landscaping, the replacement of trash barrels or rodent control measures of any sort. Larger property management companies have trouble keeping a close eye on their properties as well as doing the types of work required to reduce rodent activity throughout the area.”
Unsurprisingly, Somerville’s rat control work is widely supported by the mayor’s office, the city council and the public. “The program’s budget has grown steadily and the city recently hired a second Environmental Health Coordinator,” Zeigler said.
The program’s main focus now is creating and distributing educational resources on rodent control strategies and resources, or “tackling all the rodent-causing vectors systematically,” in Zeigler’s words, “rather than just trying to put out a bunch of poison and hoping for the best.”
Resident Chris Dwan has also noticed the flourishing rat population. “One of the good ideas that our inspectional services folks had was to associate rat mitigation with a dumpster permit,” Dwan told the Daily. “So when you get a permit to have a dumpster, you're going to also have to do some rat abatement. That strikes me as a more balanced approach than just waiting for complaints and putting out more poison.”
Dwan says the main impediment to Zeigler’s educational campaign is a lack of awareness.
“When people are not being told that the city has a program to help rodent abatement, then the city doesn’t get calls for that service,” Dwan said.
Abatement itself takes time, according to Zeigler.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” Zeigler said. “These are very smart animals that have been developing a habitat for decades. It’s not going to take five years, it might take a couple decades beyond that to truly reduce them to what the public and the city would see as an acceptable level.”