By Randy Jackson
The Chinese zodiac year of the rat in 2020 coincides with the 70th anniversary of having no rats in the Province of Alberta. NO rats is only a very slight exaggeration. About a dozen rats a year are found wandering into the province or inadvertently carried in by vehicles from elsewhere. Obviously, those unhappy wandering rats don’t survive. Alberta is the largest rat-free populated area in the world.
“Populated” is a key word in this statement, as the Brown or Norway rat has evolved to live with people; they don’t survive without our crops, our waste, and our structures. Besides Alberta, there are no rats in the Arctic, in Antarctica, or on a smattering of islands here and there. So to have such a large area (Alberta is 661,848 square kilometers, about the size of France) without rats is astounding. This all came about because Alberta is uniquely situated historically and geographically to keep rats out.
It took quite a while after European ships arrived in North America for the rats to reach Alberta. According to an online source, The History of Rat Control in Alberta, it is thought that rats were first established along the eastern shores of the continent in 1775. It wasn’t until 1950 that the first Norway rat was discovered in Alberta near the Saskatchewan border. After 175 years of migration, along with settlements and farms moving westward across the prairies, the first rats came up against the Alberta Agriculture Control Act of 1942.
Alberta has some big geographical help as well. The natural barriers Alberta has against rats are the mountains to the west, the boreal forest to the north and the mountains and arid plains of Montana to the south. The only way into Alberta for rats is over the Saskatchewan border to the east.
That’s not to say every rat from 1950 onward was stopped dead on the Saskatchewan border. It took a while for Alberta to establish effective tools and procedures of eradication. Alberta government data shows confirmed rat infestations (2 or more rats in one place) in 1959 to be 600. The eradication of these infestations began with calculated placement of various toxins, including arsenic, strychnine alkaloid, and various other compounds, including the brand-new anticoagulant Warfarin.
By 1990 Alberta had reduced the number of rat infestations to 10, and by 2003 there were zero confirmed rat infestations in Alberta.
The benefit of the rat control program to Alberta represents a huge cost savings for the province compared to losses and damages from rats experienced throughout all other parts of the world where people live and crops are grown. The Ecological Society of America reports that 15% of food crops in Asia are lost to pests (principally rats), representing food that could feed 200 million people a year. Statistics from Africa are similar. The estimated cost from rats to the United States economy is $19 billion/year from loss of foodstuff, structural damage, and fires from rats chewing electrical wires. In India, most automobile fires in Mumbai are caused by rats. Pablo Escobar’s brother Roberto, who served Escobar’s Medellin cartel as an accounted, estimated that rats ate 10% of Pablo Escobar’s cash stores, amounting to US $2.1 billion a year (that would be over US $4 million a week).
Along with its natural barriers to rats, Alberta has a 28-kilometer-wide rat control zone along the Saskatchewan border that stretches 600 kilometers north from Montana. There is an ongoing rat control program with a staff of 6 people. The rat control work includes inspection and monitoring as well as an education program for farmers and others, mostly teaching people what a rat actually looks like. There is a rat hotline (310-RATS) for reporting of rat sightings, although the majority of reports turn out to be other animals. One reported sighting of a large rat in a woman’s basement turned out to be a small beaver. Sightings are rare enough that when a rat is occasionally discovered in Calgary or Edmonton the story is often covered by the mainstream media.
So even with the upcoming Year of the Rat in the Chinese Zodiac, I’m pretty sure there won’t be any special welcome for rats in Alberta.