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California

Column: Man vs. rat: A true tale of life in Los Angeles

Some of you out there may recall that for many years, I was at war, and I was not winning.

It got to where I was afraid to open my front door and see what new damage had been done overnight by four-legged trespassers. My yard in Silver Lake often looked like an archaeological dig.

At least I was not alone in the wildlife jungle we call Los Angeles. Readers weighed in with their own horror stories, their tales of battle fatigue and their suggestions for repelling varmints.

To drive away my unwanted guests, I tried coyote urine, ammonia-soaked sponges, cayenne pepper and motion sensor sprinklers. None of this deterred the raccoons for more than a few days. The paper’s then-editor, a mild-mannered Southern gent, told me I should get a musket.

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I tried grub killer, because that’s the snack the invaders were digging up. But the little bastards kept coming. I got so desperate I hired an animal communicator. Los Angeles has several, of course.

I met with the woman, told her my story, and she went to work. She later emailed to say she had gotten in touch with my raccoons and that she’d be sending me a transcript of those communications. And sure enough, she did, explaining that as the raccoons saw it, their ancestors were buried in my yard, and I wasn’t showing proper respect.

If animal communicating is really a profession, why is anyone unemployed in California?

Two years ago, hoping to shed my raccoon problem for good, I moved a few miles to the north. Within weeks, my dog Dominic had been skunked in the face. Twice.

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Here we go again, I thought. But the skunks stayed away for the most part, and we saw lots of coyotes and squirrels, but very few raccoons.

It is not possible, however, in wildfire-earthquake-mudslide-wildlife country to go very long without something going very wrong. Dominic was the first to sense trouble. He began taking up battle stations around the inside of the house. He’d stare at a wall for hours, as if on high alert. He’d occasionally sniff, then bark and jump around in a “let-me-at-him” way. Tough guy.

We heard sounds in the wall. Little scratching noises. Then in the ceiling.

Once again, we were under siege.

But it wasn’t raccoons or skunks this time. We had downsized.

We had rats.

We do not consider ourselves un-hygienic and we do not leave food and trash lying about. But the common roof rat is everywhere in Southern California. As I was about to learn, they seek shelter when it’s cold and when it’s raining, and they are much, much smarter than you might expect.

Eastside, Westside, north and south, they’re everywhere. If you’re a rat, the California housing crisis has not hit you yet and it never will.

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At our house, it sounded like the rats were having relay races in the ceiling, and they don’t wear sneakers. Your eyes blink and your leg twitches as you drift off to sleep knowing that if the plague comes back, you are living at ground zero.

In our garden, they devoured entire heads of lettuce. They destroyed my squash just before it was ripe and ready to eat. They stole my tomatoes, cilantro and Anaheim chili peppers. Were they bottling their own salsa?

People said I should call an exterminator, but I went online and saw that some folks were paying thousands of dollars in Los Angeles and the rats were still winning. I’d read about the danger of poison to other animals and birds, so I bought traps, one after another. I read online that peanut butter made for good bait, and it did.

Snap, snap, snap.

I caught them in the garden and under the house. They were gray, the size of eggplants, with hideous eight-inch-long tails. I bought the traps in bunches, six at a time, and have no idea how Orchard Supply Hardware could have gone out of business.

But when the rains came harder, so did the rats. I circled the house, trying to see how the little burglars were getting in, but all the openings appeared to be screened. Dominic was back on rat patrol in the house, sniffing at the walls and barking. Should we trade him in for a cat?

It was time to call a professional, and no, not an animal communicator.

Manny Hernandez of Reputable Pest Control in Montebello came to the rescue with 20 years of experience and a $400 estimate for ending the siege, which sounded reasonable enough. On one job, he told me, he trapped 70 rats at a South Pasadena home where a hoarder lived.

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Hernandez found a couple of possible entry points on my roof and screened them shut. Then he put three traps under the house and two in the attic and promised to come back in three days to check things out.

Hernandez said in the summer, the bulk of his business is other pests.

“In winter, it’s 90% rats,” he said, and he tells homeowners to make sure to remove pet food and other food sources the rats might go after. “To catch the rats, you’ve got to starve them and make them go to the trap.”

But it’s not always that simple, said Bert Lopez, who sells pest control products for a company called Univar. Lopez has a Cal Poly Pomona degree in agricultural biology, with an emphasis on pest management, and he told me roof rats can sometimes outsmart trappers.

“If a roof rat sees another rat get caught in a trap, it’ll memorize that, and not be in contact with that kind of trap,” said Lopez, and they’ll also avoid bait that they think can kill them.

Rats serve no useful purpose, Lopez said. They can harbor disease and they have been known to chew wires in walls and attics, causing fires.

“You get two wires mixed together,” he said, “it causes a spark, and there goes your house.”

Lopez told me California’s roof rats were stowaways on ships arriving many, many years ago from Asia and other distant places. They prosper here because we have enough shelter, food and water to keep them happy.

“The battle with rats is ongoing and we will never be able to eliminate them,” Lopez said. “They’re here to stay.”

Not at my house, they’re not.

Three days after Hernandez set the traps at my house, he returned to find a big one in my attic, dead as a brick. He said he’ll return next week, and if he finds more rats in traps, it means they’re still getting in, somehow, and the battle continues.

This time, no matter what, I’m not calling the animal communicator.

Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez


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