A Vancouver rat study is showing us how pest control can backfire.
BY BECCA CUDMORE
ILLUSTRATION BY JIA SUNG
FEBRUARY 14, 2019
Kaylee Byers crouches in a patch of urban blackberries early one morning this June, to check a live trap in one of Vancouver’s poorest areas, the V6A postal code. Her first catch of the day is near a large blue dumpster on “Block 5,” in front of a 20-some-unit apartment complex above a thrift shop. Across the alley, a building is going up; between the two is an overgrown, paper and wrapper-strewn lot. In the lot, there are rats.
“Once we caught two in a single trap,” she says, peering inside the cage. She finds a new rat there, and makes a note of it on her clipboard; she’ll be back for it, to take the animal to her nearby van, which is parked near (according to Google Maps) an “unfussy” traditional Ethiopian restaurant. Once inside the van, the rat will be put under anesthesia, and will then be photographed, brushed for fleas, tested for disease, fixed with an ear tag, and released back into V6A within 45 minutes.
Byers is a Ph.D. student under veterinary pathologist Chelsea Himsworth, a University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health assistant professor who has become a local science celebrity thanks to her “Vancouver Rat Project.” Himsworth started the project as a way to address health concerns over the city’s exploding rat population—exploding anecdotally, that is, as no one has counted it.
Prior to Himsworth’s work, in fact, the sum total knowledge of Canada’s wild rats could be boiled down to a single study of 43 rats living in a landfill in nearby Richmond in 1984. So, six years ago, she stocked an old mini van with syringes, needles, and gloves and live-trapped more than 700 of V6A’s rats to sample their DNA and learn about the bacteria they carried.
Her research has made her reconsider the age-old labeling of rats as invaders that need to be completely fought back. They may, instead, be just as much a part of our city as sidewalks and lampposts. We would all be better off if, under most circumstances, we simply left them alone. […]