The rats are eating in the trash in the big city. | File

Rats are a reality of urban living, especially in Chicago. Last year, pest control service Orkin dubbed the City of Broad Shoulders the “rattiest city” in the United States, a title Chicago has the misfortune of winning seven years in a row. With Oak Park in such close proximity to Chicago, the rat problem has scurried across the border.

“I’ve been living here for 43 years, and it’s never been this bad,” August Bernahl told Wednesday Journal.

Oak Park is strategically located just off of a sewer line that travels from Chicago to the western suburbs. This, said Oak Park Public Health Director Theresa Chapple-McGruder, makes it easy for rats to travel here. Rats are not only intelligent creatures, but excellent swimmers.

The health department has seen an uptick in the rodents since the end of COVID-19 lockdowns and, despite increasing contracted extermination services to twice a week during the warm months, the rat population has been difficult to abate due to the rodents’ quick rate of reproduction.

We need there to be collaboration in ways that maybe people have never experienced before in order to try and get this rat issue under control.

theresa chapple-mcgrudder, oak park public health director

The female Norway rat, the species found in the Chicago area, are capable of having more than seven litters a year, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. Those litters average around eight rat pups. Males reach sexual maturity at around three months old and females at four months.

No surprise then that rat sightings have become regular occurrences for Bernahl and others. Near the 1100 block of Elmwood Avenue, where Bernahl lives, the former River Forest police officer has watched them run into people’s garages and across yards. He has seen them burrowing into bushes and rummaging through wastebins.

“Some of them are almost as big as cats,” he said.

Bernahl is not inexperienced when it comes to rats. Not long after retiring from the River Forest police, he was bored and returned to work as a code enforcement officer with the Northlake Police Department. There he witnessed a rat infestation so grotesque it would rival a horror film.

Rats, he recalled, had overtaken derelict three-flats that were set for demolition to make way for a new senior residential complex. However, the rodents were so rampant, construction crews wouldn’t go near enough to tear down the buildings.

The long-tailed pests breached homes neighboring the site, necessitating the replacement of all the dumpsters in the area, he said. At the Home Depot nearby, rats were climbing into trucks, ripping into bird seed and walking across dumpsters. They would skitter through the parking lot over to the gas station, eliciting startled screams from people trying to refuel their cars.

“It was like a movie,” he explained. “They were terrorizing everybody.”

The infestation was so bad, it took a full year to eradicate it, according to Bernahl, which is why he had no problem reporting the Walgreens on Roosevelt Road to the Oak Park Public Health Department, which handles animal control.

Bernahl shared that he has seen as many as 12 rat burrows at one time near the Walgreens dumpsters and has witnessed Walgreens employees tossing trash outside, not even into the dumpsters. The drugstore’s management, he said, does not keep its dumpsters well-maintained, making the trash receptacles something of an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Like any other animal, rats need food and water to survive. If they find a place with ready sources of both, “they’re going to make it their home,” according to Chapple-McGruder. And Oak Park offers rats plenty in the way of water and food.

More than extermination is needed to successfully combat rat infestations. Their food and water sources must be eliminated, which the health department cannot do alone.

“We need this to be a partnership between residents and the village,” Chapple-McGruder explained.

Simply being a good neighbor can make a big difference. She advises residents to pick up after their dog, as rats eat dog feces. Rat-proofing garbage cans will also help. For Oak Parkers who keep chickens, Chapple-McGruder recommends picking up leftover chicken feed.

Certain sacrifices may have to be made in the name of rat abatement. Dogs might not be the only animals drinking from bowls of water left outside. Residents may also want to consider emptying bird feeders and removing vegetable gardens until the rat population declines.

“We need there to be collaboration in ways that maybe people have never experienced before in order to try and get this rat issue under control,” said Chapple-McGruder.

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