The curious history of Alberta’s rat patrol

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Alberta rat patrol
Flickr/Edna Winti

I still remember where I was when I learned Alberta, Canada, has a rat patrol.

I was sitting in a friend’s farmhouse in the middle of the Canadian prairie. We were talking about a lot of things. As the token sheep farmer from down south, I fielded many questions. (I was asked what I thought of then U.S. President Barack Obama. I responded, cheekily, that he seemed to be a good father to his daughters.)

We talked of how important agriculture is to the province. Then, the Albertans told me they have no rats — because of the rat patrol. I laughed. Sure. Wait — A rat patrol? Yep. Albertans are really proud of it, too.

This means war

Seventy years ago, Alberta declared war on the Norway rat. “Norway rats are one of the most destructive creatures known to man,” says the provincial government’s webpage on rat control. “… The people of Alberta are extremely fortunate not to have rats in the province. This situation is not by chance, but by design.”

Native to northern China, the rat spread to every continent but Antarctica, thanks to international trade. They first hit North American shores around 1775, entered eastern Saskatchewan in 1920 and breached the eastern border of Alberta in 1950.

The deal with rats

Before we get any farther, there are pros and cons to the existence of these rodents.
Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute points out that the rats are both prey and predator and have helped move scientific research forward (white rats are derived from the Norway rat). They make good pets, too.

It adds though: “It is estimated that rats cause nearly a billion dollars in damage each year in the United States alone and that, by spreading diseases, rats have been responsible for more human deaths than all of the wars and human conflicts combined over the last 1,000 years.”

Rat crusade

Alberta rat poster
Provincial Archives of Alberta/Flickr

There is no equivocation from Alberta on this though. The government began its crusade mainly because of the health concerns. The agriculture department became the “tip of the spear” as the campaign gained ground. They established a control zone and started educating residents, because no one knew what rats were or what to do. Pamphlets and posters preached urgency, a la classic World War II rhetoric. It fit the time.

National Post newspaper, based in Ontario, delved into the story, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, after a viral tweet in 2018. An illustration of rats’ worldwide territory blazes red everywhere, except for north of the Arctic Circle and a cutout of Alberta. “What … what happened in Alberta,” the tweet queried.

“This war on the rats wasn’t optional: The province’s Agricultural Pests Act made it an offence for property owners not to immediately eradicate every rat they encountered,” writes Tristin Hopper, for the Post. “Enforcement of the law was largely unnecessary, however. A population of Albertans fresh off two foreign wars were eager to set their sights on invading rodentia.”

Learning curve

The first years weren’t perfect. It was expensive. Some livestock, poultry and pets fell victim to the poison used. It wasn’t easy to win public support, in some cases. Remember, they make good pets. People worried about the human risk too. Officials went to great lengths to prove the program’s safety, with one eating warfarin-laced oats at meetings. Warfarin is used as a blood thinner for humans.

It took about a decade to bring the rat invasion “firmly in hand,” according to the province.
Alberta remains very serious about its rat-free status. Rat discoveries are top stories. Inspectors still patrol, inspect and dig up areas where they could be living.

Not alone

Alberta isn’t the only one. South Georgia Island, near Antarctica, spent about a decade eradicating rats, led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Introduced by whalers and sealers in the last 1800s, the rodents wrecked havoc on the native flora and fauna, driving to near extinction some rare bird species, according to National Geographic.

A lot of rats were killed to achieve rat-free status, but it’s an acceptable cost, conservations say. “We as human beings have introduced these animals into a place where they shouldn’t be,” Mike Richardson, of the South Georgia trust, told National Geographic. “To me, on balance, the stronger moral argument is we have a duty to remove these animals.”

Others agree. Australia’s Macquarie Island got rid of the rodents. More islands plan to follow suit. New Zealand wants to get rid of rats, stoats and Australian possums by 2050, in a bid to protect the kiwi.

Bug out

Why am I writing about rats? Because this week, we dig into whether or not Ohio is ready for a spotted lanternfly infestation. The answer? We’re not sure. We asked questions. It’s up to you to gauge the information we gathered.

Spotted lanternflies are invasive planthoppers, native to China, India and Vietnam. Its host plants include grapes, hops, a range of trees, and its favorite host, the tree of heaven, or ailanthus. They’ve reached U.S. shores. Currently, Pennsylvania is keeping them at bay. Virginia is as well. A number of surrounding states, including Michigan, have developed resources for their residents.

Yes, naturally, I thought about the rat patrol. What can I say? I collect odd knowledge.

In recent research published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists project the bugs’ potential impact. Ohio is smack dab in the middle of a Midwestern swath. Other areas include the eastern portion of Pennsylvania and down into eastern Virginia, the West Coast, parts of Europe, Australia and Argentina.

“There is the potential for far reaching economic damage if the SLF (spotted lanternfly) becomes widely established in the United States,” according to the USDA.

Ohio has one of the country’s most significant economies, and agriculture plays a important role. Experts say the spotted lanternfly will make its way here. I hope we’re ready.

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