Angie Dodd awoke in the middle of the night about a year ago. A gurgling sound came from the bathroom next to her bedroom. She got up, walked into the restroom and turned the light on. Suddenly, a wet rat started running around her in circles. It scampered across her feet. Apparently, the rodent crawled up through the pipes and out of the toilet.
When she opened the door, the rat ran under her bed. Dodd, 44, later found the rat died after she screamed in surprise. It appeared the rat died from a heart attack, she said.
The village estimates rats come up through toilet pipes about twice a year in Oak Park, Dodd was told. The incident was a freak occurrence.
“I’m pretty assured it will never happen to us again,” she said. “It’s like getting hit by lightning.”
Rat sightings in the village, however, are more frequent. In 2005, Oak Park reported 82 rat confirmations, a 67 percent increase from the 49 in 2004. In 2006, it climbed by over 100 percent to 183. That’s the highest number of rat confirmations since 1980.
The jump may not reflect a surge in the rat population but to an aggressive village program against rats. “The more aware people are, the more they tend to call,” said village spokesman David Powers. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there are more rats.”
Since Mike Charley came on board as environmental health supervisor in late 2003, the village has ramped up its efforts against rats-having an intern distribute brochures and placing information in the village newsletter. The village is also looking to start a coalition with Forest Park, River Forest, Berwyn and other surrounding municipalities this summer to combine forces to fight rats.
“We hope more people start calling to get help immediately,” said Frank Vozak, chair of the Oak Park Board of Health.
The efforts look as if they’re working, with confirmations dropping to 151 in 2007, though Charley said other factors affect the decline.
In this, the Chinese Year of the Rat, and 30 years since the village started tracking rat confirmations, Wednesday Journal decided to look more closely at Oak Park’s war on rats.
Out with the ’70s, in with the rats
Oak Park started tracking its rat population in 1978 and began offering free extermination in 1979. The problem, at that point, had “gotten out of hand,” according to a 1999 Wednesday Journal report. Those two years spiked higher than any time in the next 30, with numbers over 600.
Why those numbers were so high, is still unclear. There was no major construction during those years, Village Engineer Jim Budrick recalled. The Historical Society speculates a rat problem in Chicago could have spilled across the border.
Today, Oak Park is aggressively addressing its rat problem. The health department maps out complaints and targets problem areas. Oak Park distributes rat information through multiple media. Employees also survey the areas, looking for burrows.
“The village is as eager as the residents to prevent any activity in their neighborhood,” Charley said.
Oak Park offers free rat control to any resident who calls or e-mails the health department. The company, Anderson Pest Solutions, typically baits burrows, sets up a piece of paper or dirt to track whether the activity continues, then baits again until the problem goes away. They also set up baited boxes to help catch rats.
“The one thing they have going against them is they butt up right against the city,” Peter Barrett, district manager for Anderson, said, comparing Oak Park to other villages. “There’s no electric fence that’ll keep them out.”
Tom Dobrinska, training director for Anderson, offered a plethora of tips to prevent rats from setting up camp. The measures range from keeping garbage closed to cleaning up dog feces or birdfeeders, trimming bushes, and maintaining your garage.
According to Jim Chelsvig, director of Trailside Museum, Oak Park hosts the European Norway rat, an invasive species. They have no natural control measures and can eat just about anything, which is why they thrive. He said these rats don’t typically carry any disease, and the only health concern is contaminating food with their feces.
Rats need food, water and shelter and if you take away one of those things, you eliminate the problem. However, he cautioned: “Rat control isn’t wave the magic wand and everyone’s happy; it is an ongoing sort of thing.”
Better, but not going away
Charley said it’s hard to say yet if the program is making progress. There have been 12 confirmations so far this year, but the numbers could shoot up when the weather warms. Where the village has made strides is educating the public, he said.
“I don’t think it’s gotten any worse, I just think we’ve provided more information to the public,” Charley said. “Statistically, you’ve got to look at the big picture. You’ve got to give it a couple years.”
Trustee Greg Marsey has lived in downtown Oak Park since 1991, and with ongoing construction projects and overflowing dumpsters, rats seem to keep popping up.
“It’s the kind of problem you can never solve, you just try to go where they are,” he said. “Short of getting a BB gun and trying to shoot them, which is kind of silly, there’s not much you can do but phone them in.”