Here’s How Chicago Is Ramping Up Its Fight Against Rats

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Following a sharp rise in complaints this year, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration is increasing the number of rodent control crews. It’s using predictive analytics for targeting efforts, too.

With an upturn in complaints about rats gnawing at the city, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration Tuesday unveiled new measures aimed at keeping the urban pests in check.

The Bureau of Rodent Control, part of the Department of Streets and Sanitation in the nation’s third-largest city, will get 10 new two-person crews, according to the Mayor’s Office. That will bring the total number of rodent control teams up to 28, Jennifer Martinez, a department spokesperson said. The city’s goal is to send out a crew in response to rodent complaints within five days of when they're received.

At the mayor’s request, the department is also forming a new Rodent Task Force. It will include staff from other agencies, and will focus on coordinated strategies for combating rats.

“To improve the quality of life of our residents, I’ve directed the Department to take important, preventive steps to help eliminate rodent problems,” Emanuel said in a statement.

During the first three months of the year, Martinez said Chicago’s city government received roughly 6,700 resident complaints about rats, up from around 4,200 during the same three-month time period in 2015—an increase of approximately 60 percent.

“It is an uptick and the mayor has said it is completely unacceptable,” Martinez added.

Asked if the rats were behaving any more aggressively than usual, she said they were not.

What’s driving the growth in Chicago’s reported rat problems is not clear. Possible factors include new construction and a milder-than-normal winter.

Officials are unsure to what extent greater public attention on rodent issues has caused more people to contact the city with complaints.

“We’re hoping that residents are calling us more, because we keep pushing them to call," Martinez said. "We encourage that.”

The species the city is contending with is known as the Norway rat. Also called the brown rat, or sewer rat, the rodents prefer to live in underground burrows and are most active at night. They will eat nearly any food. Average-sized adults weigh about 1 pound.

When city rodent control crews respond to complaints, they go out looking for burrows and attempt to poison the rats with rodenticide. Martinez stressed that rat poison is not scattered but, rather, put into the rat burrow. The crews also keep an eye out for sources of food for rats, like trash, or attractive places for the animals, like overgrown weeds and grass.

In addition to following up on complaints, since 2014 the city has been using predictive computer analytics to try to preemptively zero-in on areas where rats could become problematic. Last year, Martinez said the city targeted upwards of 4,000 locations based on this type of data.

As for what the newly formed Rodent Task Force might focus on, Martinez offered up possibilities such as restaurant inspectors looking out for eateries with overflowing dumpsters, or the city’s park district sharing information about its rodent abatement efforts.

Others beyond the streets and sanitation department are already participating in Chicago’s war on rats.

The Chicago Transit Authority has undertaken a pilot program to test a new oral bait that targets the fertility of both male and female rats, according to the mayor’s office.

Last year, the Department of Streets and Sanitation began implementing a rodent abatement ordinance for construction sites. It mandates a “rodent abatement plan” be in place during excavation at any new site within the city limits.

The city is also asking residents to take steps to help thwart rodents. For instance: keeping garbage in closed cans and dumpsters, not leaving uncovered pet food outdoors, throwing away rotting fruit and vegetables from gardens, and cleaning up dog feces—which rats will eat.

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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