The suburbs have long beckoned certain city dwellers — recent college grads in search of cheaper rent, young families wanting more space — but another kind of urbanite is now discovering paradise among the green lawns and leafy streets beyond Boston.
And it’s not better schools they’re after.
We’re talking about rats. Long a scourge of densely populated cities like Boston, rats have suddenly scurried into the consciousness of Boston’s suburbanites. The loathed little beasts have infested neighborhoods, startled residents, and flummoxed local authorities charged with getting rid of them.
In Belmont, officials closed a popular children’s park twice in a recent five-month period because of rat infestations. In Peabody, rat problems are now a standing issue on the board of health’s monthly agenda.
“We’ve been visited,” confirms Reading Town Manager Bob LeLacheur Jr., who recently informed residents at a meeting of the town’s select board that money was no concern when it comes to battling a boom in the rat population. (And that was before one showed up on his driveway.)
Just how bad has it gotten? Over the summer, the city of Waltham declared a public health emergency.
“We had reports of 25 to 30 rats playing in puddles,” the director of the board of health told the Waltham City Council in August. The council, apparently unnerved, quickly approved $15,000 to address the problem.
To be sure, Boston remains a rat capital; in one review of 2015 census data, the city ranked as the second most rat- and mouse-infested city in the United States.
But exploding rat populations in smaller cities and towns have confounded experts, who say it’s happening around the country and even the world.
Theories regarding the causes include the possibility that growing suburban populations, along with a corresponding growth in garbage dumpsters and other public receptacles, have provided an abundant source of food. Some have also speculated that smaller cities and towns, being both budget conscious and unaccustomed to rat infestations, may have skimped on eradication efforts in the past, allowing small problems to turn into much bigger ones.
Another worry on the minds of many experts, though, is climate. Increasingly mild winters could be allowing rats to reproduce more often, with devastating results. Rats have a gestation period of only a few weeks and litters that can number up to 14. Those baby rats are then ready to reproduce a little more than a month after birth.
“You take one pregnant rat and you come back in one year, and all of the descendants of that one pregnant rat will have become 15,000 to 18,000 rats,” says Bobby Corrigan, a scientist in urban rodentology who travels the world — including to Boston — to study the creatures.
Once established in a community, rodents can be tricky to get rid of, in part because it requires a concerted effort to cut off their supply of food and shelter.
“The problem with rats is you can have them in a neighborhood, and five people are doing their due diligence, and a couple bad seeds can delay the elimination process,” says John Bozarjian, owner of Lynn-based B&B Pest Control, which serves Greater Boston.
As complaints about rats in suburban towns have piled up, local officials have launched a number of efforts: facilitating inspections of residential properties, increasing dumpster inspections and trash pickups, and, in the case of Peabody, filming a 30-minute public-access program dedicated to rat prevention.
For a while, the town of Belmont went so far as to enact a “carry in, carry out” strategy at town parks, in which trash barrels were removed and guests required to carry out any trash they’d brought with them.
In Newton, the occasional rat sighting is nothing new, says Deborah Youngblood, commissioner of health and human services for the city. But after a run of complaints in recent months, the city has put on a full-court press in rat prevention.
Officials this summer began handing out a rat-related brochure to everyone stopping by town hall to pick up building permits, and a letter will soon go out to local restaurants detailing ways to discourage rats. The town has also launched a Web page dedicated exclusively to rats, where residents can report sightings and find basic information on preventative measures.
“I’ve definitely never talked about rats more,” says Youngblood.
In truth, says John D. Stellberger — president/entomologist of EHS Pest Services — mice probably pose a more significant health risk to humans, as, unlike rats, they often occupy homes or offices, scurrying across counter tops or feasting on desk crumbs.
But many people, he points out, can live with the occasional sight of a mouse.
Rats, on the other hand?
“There’s zero tolerance,” Stellberger says.
The good news is that, in at least some cases, the measures cities and towns are taking seem to be having an impact.
After twice closing Joey’s Park, the town of Belmont has instituted monthly checks of all its parks and keeps a pest control company on call for any issues that might arise.
“What we’re doing right now is working,” says Jay Marcotte, Belmont’s public works director. “Knock on wood.”
The bad news is that, while rat populations can be controlled with serious effort, the reality is rats are here to stay.
As Bozarjian put it, “There have been three mammals that have been surviving since the dawn of time: humans, mice, and rats.
“And they’re gonna be here till the end of time.”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.