Stop trying to make Alberta happen

It's not going to happen

Welcome to Team Trash, a newsletter about the places where humans and wildlife meet. I'm Bethany Brookshire, science journalist and author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains

I see a lot of coverage about rats in cities. Ok, rats in NYC in particular. Every week, it seems, another piece comes out about whether we need a rat czar, or saying a rat czar is hopeless...even though they called for the rat czar in the first place. 

Every rat piece takes the same form. Notes about how we're seeing more rats, that there may BE more rats (maybe? No one really can count), and then there's history about how the rat arrived and spread. 

But no city rat article is complete without a comparison to Alberta. Why, oh why, can't more cities be like Alberta? One of the only officially rat free* places on Earth! What is stopping NYC from nutting up and going to war on the rat and magically becoming like Alberta?

SO many things. 

As part of my research for my book (and also for a feature article that may, or may not, ever see the light of day) I actually got to interview the current Rat and Pest Program Specialist for the government of Alberta (her name is Karen. She's really lovely). And if you talk to her for about five minutes you realize exactly why Alberta remains rat-free. 

Alberta has no rats because Alberta never really had any. 

The Norway rat was first spotted in Alberta in 1950. The Canadians say that the rats came west from Saskatchewan, but if you look at the map, they are definitely being very, very Canadian polite. We see you, Montana. 

But Alberta no sooner saw rats than it decided it wasn't having any of that nonsense. They carried out a massive public education campaign...and a mass deployment of poison. 

This is not because rats gave Albertans the icks. It's rather because rats can carry bubonic plague, which when it gets into local rodent populations (prairie dogs, for example), can cause mass death. Plague is, thanks to rats, endemic in prairie dogs in the United States, and routinely kills off entire prairie dog towns. It's exactly as awful as you think. 

In their campaign, most of the areas treated were farms. Rats never really got a toehold in Calgary or Edmonton. Instead, they were your classic barn rats, moving west over fields.

Those fields are still the first concern. The province literally maintains a rat DMZ on the border with Saskatchewan,  an area 520 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. All farm buildings have cement foundations and steel walls. Wooden buildings are burned. If any rats are spotted, the government comes out with traps and poison. Citizens also willingly report any rat sightings, anywhere (most reports are actually muskrats, beavers, squirrels and a bunch of other things. Albertans don't have a lot of experience with rats). It is not even legal to keep a rat as a pet. 

In the first mass slaughter campaign against the rats, the province removed (drumroll please) a net total of 600. I'll bet the average city block in NYC has more. 

It's so much easier to keep stuff out than it is to eradicate things once they get firmly in and establish a foothold. 

Alberta has other things going for it that keep rat incursions low. Think: Winter temperatures that get down to -40 Fahrenheit. Rats would have to be well-snuggled into underground areas to stay alive, and such low temperatures usually slow rat breeding down significantly, as rat-god (in the best way!) Bobby Corrigan notes. 

But wait, there's more. Alberta has the massive Canadian Rockies on the western side, meaning any rats arriving from that way would need to hide inside a vehicle (every year a few get caught). They don't really worry about the south too much. Not enough people live in Montana to bring in that many rats. There are no major ports, which mean rats aren't coming in by boat.

By comparison, rats arrived in NYC at the latest in the late 17th century, by boat of course. They now form their own genetic populations (complete with uptown and downtown rats). Every night, people put out garbage in nice chewable plastic bags for rats to eat. The winters, thanks to climate change, are getting warmer and warmer, which means rats don't need to hide from the cold. In fact, people will eat outside even more, leaving more trash for the rats. 

When it comes down to it, rats thrive in NYC for many of the same reasons people do. There's lots happening, lots of opportunities. Most good environments for being a human are also pretty good environments for being a rat. And, most of the time, no one is doing anything about them. 

But no, you say, we're giving out fines! We're whining about it loudly! We're hiring a rat czar, and we hang bait in all the sewers! Well hold on to your rat traps because at some point I'm going to do a whole newsletter on containerization. Which is the world's longest, fanciest word for a good, strong trashcan. 

Where have you been? 

I love this piece from Riley Black in Atmos, on being trans and thriving, in a world that wants to push you out. "Instead of people, we are a cultural panic and a wedge issue, blamed for all society’s ills given that most of our legal rights have only existed for about 20 years."

This is a charming piece of Emma Marris on why we should consider frog pond instead of a birdhouse. 

Why vegan fish is the long pole in the fake meat tent. The answer is texture! Sushi sounds way less appealing when you realize what you're missing is apparently the short muscle fibers sandwiched between bands of fat...

Where have I been? 

Had such a lovely time talking about the book on WHYY Philadelphia! “That’s different from, say, predators … It’s different from pets. It’s different from wildlife … We think of pests in the same way we think of weeds. Weeds are plants that are out of place and pests are animals that are out of place. But that then begs the question: Who determines what an animal’s place is, right? And the answer to that is we do. Pest is a very subjective term for an animal that bothers us, an animal that is doing something we don’t think that animal should be doing. And what’s especially wild is that the animals themselves are just doing what they need to do. They’re just living their lives.”

Also I'll be at Harvard on March 20, and at NC State on April 4! I'd love to see people! 

*Not really of course, they get a few rats every year. But they do not allow colonies of rats to establish.