Many people view the rat as a sign of filth, disease and death. But the easy solution to getting rid of the rodent—rat poison—poses its own set of problems.
Concerns about the use of rat poisons in public have been building in recent years.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife advocates the use of non-chemical rodent control because poison kills not only rats but animals higher up the food chain, including coyotes, bobcats and mountain lions. A state Assembly bill that would ban the use of anticoagulant rodenticides in California is being reviewed.
The issue came to light in the Calabasas Westridge Estates recently when residents of the posh neighborhood learned that their homeowners association had deployed a number of bait boxes in an attempt to gain control of a growing rat problem in the community.
Randi Feilich, a Westridge resident, organized a public protest April 20.
She said the rat poison is a danger to the community.
“I was outraged because we have owl boxes, which are intended for nesting barn owls in close proximity to these bait boxes. As of today, no one can tell me how many boxes exist and where they are,” Feilich said.
“The HOA had multiple presentations done by the National Park Service, wildlife biologists and Poison Free Malibu to tell the board about the toxic effects of rodenticides on our ecosystem,” she said.
A written statement from the HOA board said that two years ago the members took an all-natural approach to their rat problem, removing bait boxes from common areas, installing owl boxes to encourage nesting, trimming vegetation and removing fruit-bearing plants. They also encouraged residents to remove bait boxes from their homes.
“Unfortunately, that effort has failed,” the statement said. “The owl boxes are unoccupied and the rodent population in Westridge has exploded.
“We have been inundated with complaints from our homeowners, our landscape workers and our guards about the rat infestation and the danger it poses to their health and safety. Rats are running into our guardhouse and our guards are afraid of being bitten and of contamination of their food and work space.”
The statement said the HOA employed the same methods being used by businesses and other HOAs throughout Calabasas, and that licensed professionals are using legal products in accordance with the law.
Westridge resident Roberta Karsch has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years and said there is no rat problem.
“That statement was made by someone who is very uneducated about the use of rodenticides. We don’t have any wildlife problem, particularly rats,” Karsch said. “If (the HOA) were smart they would call in someone from an environmental wildlife organization to assess and see for themselves. We have cameras out there. Anyone can see we don’t have a rat problem.”
Feilich said she learned from the HOA that an additional 80 bait boxes had been ordered and will be dispersed throughout the neighborhood.
She also criticized the HOA’s decision to build a decorative waterfall at Westridge.
“Rodents are attracted to water sources, and they just put the thing up a month ago,” Feilich said.
Off the street, onto the floor
Assemblymember Richard Bloom from the state’s 50th District, which includes Agoura Hills, recently introduced a bill that would ban the use of first- and second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides statewide.
The bill, AB 2422, is being reviewed by several committees. It must be passed in the Assembly and the state Senate before it can become law.
Guy Strahl, a representative of Bloom’s office, said the bill has strong support from wildlife advocates who say that rodenticides poison animals that prey on rats.
There’s also significant opposition to the bill—poison control companies stand to lose revenue if rodenticides are banned.
Strahl said the bill is not an outright ban. Pest control companies will still be able to use rat poisons but only in extreme situations, after all other options have been exhausted.
“If there’s a declared health emergency like rabies or something, they can still use them,” Strahl said. “The way we envisioned this bill was basically that the local health departments have to sign off. An infestation of rats, you’re obviously going to have to use poisons to get rid of them, but you have to do other stuff. A company would get approval from a local health jurisdiction and then they’d have to get it approved by the local agricultural commissioners.”
First-generation rodenticides are a lower dose poison—the rat has to be exposed to more of it to be killed. A second-generation poison is a heavier dose. Strahl said most rodenticide-related deaths of larger animals are caused by second-generation poisons. The poison accumulates in the predators’ bodies as they consume more rats.
The most famous case is the mountain lion P-22, which lives in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. In 2014, rangers captured P-22 and observed he was extremely sick with mange. Blood tests showed the big cat had been exposed to multiple types of anticoagulant rat poison. Rangers treated P-22 for rodenticide poisoning; he has since recovered but remains the face of the movement to ban anticoagulant rodenticides.
Strahl said there are other options for keeping rats away.
“Most poison control operators will tell you the best line of defense is doing things like making sure you don’t have trash lying around, make sure you’re removing shrubs and tree branches (away) from the house,” Strahl said. “Make sure you’re closing up holes, picking up fruit and stuff like that. That’s actually the most effective way of getting rid of rodents.”