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Deploy an ‘army of cats’ to catch L.A. City Hall’s rats? Not so fast

Deploy an ‘army of cats’ to catch L.A. City Hall’s rats? Not so fast
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson shows where carpet has been removed from his office due to vermin infestation at City Hall. (Reed Saxon / AP)

Los Angeles County health officials said Friday that bringing in cats to deal with City Hall’s rat infestation would only spread the fleas being carried by rodents.

“The fleas from the rat would immediately jump onto the cat,” said Dr. Dawn Terashita, an associate director with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

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During a council meeting to discuss City Hall’s rat problem, Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson had suggested that an “army of cats” could be used to catch rodents at the downtown government building. A recent rash of sightings has raised concerns about infections of typhus, which can be spread by flea-carrying rats.

Los Angeles city leaders are now seeking solutions. City workers say they’ve seen fleas, rodent droppings and partially eaten potted plants.

At least two employees also believe they were bitten by fleas, including Deputy City Atty. Elizabeth Greenwood. Greenwood says she was diagnosed with the illness while working in City Hall East and has not returned to work since November.

Last week, the council ordered a handful of city agencies to assess the infestation in and around City Hall. At Friday’s council meeting, leaders from several city agencies said employees are monitoring rodent burrows, trimming trees and doing more street cleanings in the civic center neighborhood.

City employees also have been told to notify their supervisors about flea bites or typhus cases.

Some city officials have suggested the rat infestation is due to the demolition of Parker Center, the former police department headquarters across from City Hall East on Los Angeles Street. Others, including City Councilman Joe Buscaino, have linked the problem to the city’s homelessness crisis.

On Friday, Wesson said he wants experts to find the source of the problem.

“We do have issues. There’s too many reports of rodents,” Wesson said. “I don’t think it’s because of skid row — not entirely. I don’t think it’s because of the building being torn down east of here.”

Speaking recently to ABC-7, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested the risk of contracting typhus was being blown out of proportion.

“It’s been rats since I’ve been there,” said Garcetti, who was elected to the City Council in 2001. “[There is] one case that may or may not have come from there, but that still is in the normal range of what we have each year.”

He added that “the larger problem is making sure that we end homelessness in Los Angeles and not to get distracted by a report of a flea or this or that. There are people who can get that from their pets. They can get it from all sorts of places.”

However, Terashita said Friday that the number of typhus cases is on the rise. There were a total of 19 cases in downtown L.A. last year, up from fewer than five cases in 2017 and 2016, according to the county.

Last fall, there were so many cases that the county warned of an outbreak in downtown L.A. According to the Department of Public Health’s website, the flea-borne illness spreads to people through bites and feces from infected fleas.

Greenwood on Friday accused Garcetti of “mocking” her typhus diagnosis.

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“It’s a serious issue, which is why I went public,” the deputy city attorney said in an interview with The Times. “The rats and the fleas aren’t the problem. The problem is feces and urine, and the rotting trash around City Hall.”

Meanwhile, two affordable housing groups — Housing Is a Human Right and the Coalition to Preserve LA — used the debate to call attention to the FBI investigation at City Hall by putting a giant inflatable rat outside the downtown building on Friday. The groups want an expanded investigation of corruption into City Hall.

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