A Search and Destroy Mission
Alberta's continuing success began with proactive measures to stop the advance of Norway rats before they entered the province.
The animals first arrived in North America in the late 18th century onboard sailing ships that frequented East Coast seaports. Once ashore, the rats marched relentlessly westward across the continent, reaching the borders of Alberta around the time of World War II.
It was then that Alberta authorities decided to declare a war of their own.
To stop the encroaching rodent population, provincial authorities established a 600- by 70-kilometer (380- by 18-mile) rat control zone along the province's vulnerable eastern border. Still of key importance, the zone remains staffed by eight dedicated professionals.
"In that buffer zone it's best described as a search and destroy mission," said John B. Bourne, a man with the official job title of "Vertebrate Pest Specialist" with Alberta Agriculture's rat control program. "It's all agricultural farmland, and in this harsher climate the rats need to live as close to humans as they possibly can. Structures and food sources are what they seek out to survive."
Bourne and his colleagues inspect everything in the zone several times a year. Rats try to gain a foothold, but are dealt with ruthlessly: hammered with poisons, fumigated with carbon monoxide-producing engines, and even individually hunted with firearms. Rat infested habitats, such as old farm buildings, are dismantled or destroyed.
Like the great armies of history, the Alberta rat hunters are aided in their policing efforts by features of the natural landscape: boreal forests in the north, the Rocky Mountains in the west, and vast prairie to the south (whose low human populations do not allow human-dependent rats to survive).
Rats are notorious travelers. And that knowledge is a source of constant worry to Bourne and his team. Will rats hitch a ride on trucks or trains and appear in Alberta's interior?
"That's probably my greater concern now: How globalization affects the rat control program," Bourne acknowledged. "We maintain and broadcast our rat-free reputation, so that Albertans know that the province is free of rats."
"We do a lot of public awareness campaigns. We have a network of people in cities and towns that are contact people should a citizen see a rator what he thinks is a ratmaybe in a shipment or a truck. He can immediately contact someone right. So that within a few phone calls the authorities are notified and follow-up action takes over."
Call it rapid rat response. Bourne notes that such action is called upon only a dozen times a year. "We get hundreds of reports, calls of rats in the garden, garage, on the road," he said. "Many of our citizens don't know what a rat looks like."
Bourne and his colleagues can take some credit for that fact. But given the nature of their adversary, the team can never rest on their laurels.
"They are so adaptive, so intelligent, so successful and physically capable that it would not surprise me if they show up in a place where you'd least expect a rat to show up," he explained. "I have the greatest respect for this rodent's resourcefulness, and [its] capabilities scare the hell out of me."
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