When history’s most formidable villains are tallied, we may get suspects like Caligula, Genghis Khan or even Snidely Whiplash. But history, typically written by humans, neglects an insidious scourge of less humanity but vastly greater consequence. The Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) has killed more people than every war we’ve ever unleashed. It’s said to cause $200-billion in damage around the world each year. And it destroys 20 per cent of the global food supply, or enough to consign world hunger to the dunghill of time—along with the likes of Caligula, Genghis and Snidely.
So what has the Norway rat got to do with Alberta? Nothing. And that’s yet another jewel in the province’s crowning glory.
Alberta’s claim as the world’s only rat-free zone beyond the tundra has become legendary, leaving other jurisdictions cold. Publications from National Geographic to Robert Sullivan’s New York Times-bestselling meditation Rats have cited the province’s heroic, even romantic, fight against a stealthy and cunning enemy that’s only eight inches long (15 inches with the tail), but can climb several storeys, burrow two metres down, swim three kilometres, give birth at five weeks old, and produce 15,000 heirs in just three years. This raises questions. What motivated Albertans to fight such a menace? How could they have beaten an opponent that has, to quote author Sullivan, “conquered every continent”? And what might this reveal about Albertans, beyond a discernibly dramatic distaste for rodents?
The motivation part is easy. The Norway rat spreads more than 20 often fatal diseases and parasites, wipes out valuable crops, undermines water and sewer lines, and causes entire buildings to collapse or to burn down because of chewed wiring. And the annual cost of its carnage could run UN peacekeeping for almost a century. Money talks in Alberta, so the threat of rats screams.
As with other naturally occurring miracles (oil, gas, Gretzky), Alberta’s location and timing were perfect. The Norway rat, gifted to the new world by the old around 1775, soldiered inland, hitting Saskatchewan in time for the Great Depression—and in extreme cases, Sunday dinner. When he turned up here in 1950, Alberta Agriculture added him to its list of banned pests and launched a massive public information campaign. It wasn’t enough: infestations exploded to nearly 700 by the late 1950s. Though the government fought back with arsenic, the cost and danger were unsustainable. But it did buy time to establish a rat-control program, just in time for the advent of warfarin, the first anticoagulant rat poison—so safe that one official stunned a skeptical audience by chewing on it without expiring.
Alberta’s rat-control program covers seven local jurisdictions within a 29-kilometre strip running 585 kilometres along the Saskatchewan border, from Cold Lake to Montana. It employs the equivalent of five full-time staff, who conduct biannual field inspections covering 20 farms a day, respond to inquiries and potential sightings, and provide public education, all for under $320,000 annually—less than 10 per cent of the cost of the Calgary Stampede. Patrollers use poisoned bait, gas and buckshot to kill their quarry, a nocturnal beast found under buildings, grain bins and bales. The patrol’s esprit de corps crosses holy crusade and public service with a refreshing blend of gusto and humility.
“I have nothing but respect for this animal,” declares John Bourne, a 31-year veteran who runs the program. “It poses the greatest threat to humanity. All bets are off with rats. Nothing surprises me anymore about them.” Bourne praises the foresight of the program’s founders. Its first employee, Joseph Gurba, was named the seventh-greatest Albertan in a recent magazine poll.
“Who’d think of starting a program to get rid of rats?” marvels Orest Popil, a veteran patroller turned supervisor. “You never let the last rat go—that would be letting people down.” Noting his positive dealings with landowners, he states, “It’s the best job anybody could have, although your being a rat-killer is not what your kids would brag about to their friends.”
“Albertans take pride in being rat-free,” notes Cal McLean, a newer patroller. “Hopefully, we’ll hand that down to future generations.”
So, is Alberta really rat-free? Emphatically yes, says Bourne. His logbook for Provost, for example, shows 147 infestations in 1983, falling to zero by 2003 and remaining there since. Stories abound of rats penetrating houses through toilets, scurrying by the hundreds up and down deserted barn walls, rushing right at you when they’re cornered. After three decades of eradicating them, Bourne has recurring nightmares of rats in his home—rats he just can’t kill.
Nightmares aside, the program succeeds due to Alberta’s fortunate circumstances. Our other boundaries—largely vacant rangeland in the south, mountains to the west and forests to the north—offer natural barriers to incoming rat hordes, which depend on people for food and shelter. The battle zone is relatively small. More isolated rural structures are easier to police than dense urban jungle. Legislation, low-toxic poison and the political will were in place before the threat spread out of control. Landowners remain co-operative and vigilant, in part because the government’s approach is more carrot than iron fist, although Bourne’s crew was quick to seize a bunch that escaped onto Calgary streets two years ago, an event which made headlines province-wide. Keeping rats gets you up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Bourne and his team warn against the dangers of complacency. Ever-increasing shipments of foreign goods, together with the pet-rat lobby, threaten the province’s cherished rattus interruptus. Indicating a gargantuan rubber rodent in Bourne’s office, his boss, Robert Pulyk, deadpans, “This is what’s in store if we don’t stay with the program.”
What does all this say about Alberta?
“It bespeaks our frontier independence, and our attitude to do what it takes,” concludes Bourne. “We’ve succeeded on the backs of the people before us who worked hard and knew what was best. And we’ll be damned if others don’t agree!”
So Alberta owes its special rat-free status to a singular soufflé of geography, circumstance, foresight, determination and pride. It’s a potent mix. Apparently, even the scourge of humanity can’t beat that.
Geo Takach, a filmmaker and former president of the Writers Guild of Alberta, is working on a mockumentary about Alberta for CHUM TV. Since writing this article, he too has been encountering rats in his dreams.