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Somerville declares war on rats

New rodent-proof trash barrels are being organized for delivery to Somerville households.

Clennon L. King for The Boston Globe

New rodent-proof trash barrels are being organized for delivery to Somerville households.

SOMERVILLE — Christopher Desrochers was eating dinner on his patio a few weeks ago in broad daylight when his girlfriend, Ashley Butler, felt something brush her foot.

Desrochers’ gut told him it was a rat, a hunch confirmed after traps he set less than an hour later produced two foot-long rodents at his Sycamore Street home in Somerville’s Winter Hill neighborhood.

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“It’s not a good feeling at all,” said Desrocher, 28, whose son, Christopher, Jr., 4, was also on hand for the surprise visit. “The city is overloaded with rats and they’re not just baby rats. These rats are big.”

Butler’s brush with the vermin is hardly isolated in Somerville, especially with the approach of summer, the high season for rat sightings.

Recently, city officials held a meeting to update residents on the status of their ongoing “War on Rats,” and the measures being taken to keep the rodent population in check.

“We know we can’t totally eradicate the problem,” said Ward 2 Alderwoman Maryann M. Heuston, chairwoman of her board’s rodent issues subcommittee. “But what we are trying to do is to control the problem, to improve the quality of life in this city.”

Somerville’s rat problem is not unique, said Heuston. What is novel, she said, is the city’s approach in taking the possible threat to public health seriously.

‘My lady is terrified. That’s why we have a cat now, because of these rats.’

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Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone agreed.

“You just can’t trap your way out of a rodent problem,” he said. “The reason we pay attention to it is because public health is a critical value for us.”

City health officials presented subcommittee members with data underscoring just how fertile rats can be, able to produce five litters of seven to 14 offspring in a single year.

“Eight rats, with enough food and water, would be able to produce around 15 million rats in eight to nine months, the average life span of a rat,” said Goran Smiljic, superintendent of the city’s Inspectional Services Division.

When the problem escalated in 2011 — with 480 reported sightings, compared with 251 in 2010 — rat control expert Bobby Kerrigan told Somerville officials the only way to control them in urban areas is to limit their access to food.

Smiljic and his colleagues recently outlined the city’s latest measures to do just that.

They include financial assistance for residential rodent control; the distribution of rodent-proof trash barrels throughout the city; and hiring an inspector to enforce better regulation of dumpsters, which are a prime source of food for rats.

Somerville’s war on rats

Officials also closed the waste transfer station in the Inner Belt/Brickbottom area in the southeast corner of the city and relocated it to Saugus; established a “rodent action team” to explore alternative control methods; and are working with a biotechnology company to test a birth-control product to slow the rat population’s growth.

Few residents attended the June 4 public meeting, though many still regard rodents as a problem.

“I’ve seen them around Somerville Public Library, rats running across the street,” said Caphna Etienne, 21, who lives on Charlestown Street near Union Square. “And they’re big, huge ones, too.”

Conventional wisdom has long pointed to East Somerville as the spot where rats reside in some of the highest numbers. Schneider Vital, 21, who lives on Flint Street, said the stigma is a fair one, recalling his close encounter with a rat, at age 11, in his bathroom.

“I just stood on top of the toilet, because I was scared for my life,” he said.

Despite the stories about East Somerville, maps and graphs presented at the public meeting told a different story.

Tracking of complaints phoned into Somerville’s 311 customer service system suggested that most of the calls are originating from the Winter Hill neighborhood, which is separated from East Somerville by the McGrath Highway (Route 28).

It includes the home of Mike Piehl, whose Albion Street property is next to the rail bed of the future Green Line extension.

Mike Piehl and his daughter Vanessa, 6, take note of a hole gnawed by a rat to escape a neighbor’s plastic trash barrel.

Clennon L. King for The Boston Globe

Mike Piehl and his daughter Vanessa, 6, take note of a hole gnawed by a rat to escape a neighbor’s plastic trash barrel.

Last July, Piehl, 47, took a photo of what he thought was a dead rat in his driveway, for posting on the city’s Facebook page. Then he went to remove it.

“When I scooped him up, he jumped in the air,” said Piehl, adding that once he recovered from the shock, he used his shovel to finish off the rodent.

Piehl is not the only Winter Hill resident who has come face to face with a live rat.

In April, Hasaan Mason, 27, heard something in his trash can behind his Heath Street apartment, a block off Broadway.

When he went to investigate, a rat leaped at him, and Mason taped the encounter on his cellphone, complete with audio of the trapped rodent screaming.

“Once I started recording and I looked at the rat, I was like . . . whoa!” said Mason, who lives with his girlfriend and their 6-year-old daughter. “My lady is terrified. That’s why we have a cat now, because of these rats.”

A mile away, William Kelley, 71, has been waging a war of his own at his Richdale Avenue house, less than a block from Desrochers’ patio.

He said he has killed seven rats in the last five weeks.

“It’s terrible. I don’t know how to overcome it,” said Kelley, who has resorted to rodent poison, and also peanut butter in rat traps to contain the problem and calm the nerves of his rattled wife. “Obviously, the mayor is trying with the new barrels. And whatever else could be done, should be done.”

Musician Mary Joy Patchett accepts rats as a fact of life.

Patchett, who works part time in Somerville walking dogs, says rat sightings in broad daylight are commonplace.

“Any city’s going to have rats, you know,” said Patchett, who lives in Cambridge’s Inman Square, where rats live in her building’s foundation. “To me, it’s not so bothersome, because I accept it as a fact of city living.”

Clennon L. King can be reached at clennon@augustinemonica
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