Hitchhiking rats don't pose a risk to Alberta's famous rat-free status. Here's why
Province recorded an increase in rats last year, but fear not, patrol manager says
A black rat hitched a ride from B.C. to Alberta inside a '68 Chevy pickup before the rodent was discovered chewing its way through a Red Deer garage.
The homeowner attempted to trap the intruder in a milk crate before calling for backup.
The vermin — discovered dead inside the garage Monday, most likely of natural causes, moments after a government rat inspector arrived — is one of the latest rats to invade the province.
Dozens of them snuck in last year, despite a decades-long battle to keep the vermin out.
Alberta, the only Canadian province considered rat-free, has been defending its borders against rats for more than 70 years. Even pet rats are strictly forbidden.
Rats still scurry into the province but Alberta's rat control program is dedicated to making sure they never have the chance to thrive.
Last year, 31 rats were found in the province, an increase from 26 in 2020.
The majority of them are hitchhikers in vehicles from B.C.- Karen Wickerson
The increase doesn't mean more of the critters are in Alberta, said Karen Wickerson, a rat specialist who manages the provincial program.
"It fluctuates yearly," she said. "And the majority of them are hitchhikers in vehicles from B.C."
While the Norway rat is Alberta's traditional foe, black rats — also known as roof rats or ship rats — are increasingly common on the West Coast and occasionally make their way east, Wickerson said.
"[Black rats are] a bit smaller than a Norway rat," she said. "They have longer tails, and they're very good at climbing and surviving around water."
Wickerson attributes the increase in recorded rats last year to public awareness and a new reporting system.
The toll-free rat hotline (310-3276) is still taking calls but Albertans can also report rat sightings by sending an email to email@example.com.
The new email reporting system, launched in 2020, has made it easier to track potential rats, Wickerson said. The doldrums of COVID-19 shutdowns also played a part, she said.
"People were outside more, getting fresh air, walking their dogs, seeing critters and thinking, 'That could be a rat.'"
The vast majority of sightings reported to the program are cases of mistaken identity.
Most often, Albertans are fooled by muskrats, semi-aquatic rodents with long, skinny tails.
Of the 460 sightings recorded last year, 222 were muskrats. Overall, 429 of the sightings were classified as "non-rat" following investigation.
Wickerson said other rodents such as the northern pocket gopher and the occasional mouse make their way into the annual rat data.
"Albertans have never lived with rats, so they don't know exactly what they look like."
When a sighting is the real deal, local inspection agents respond in person, helping farmers and homeowners stamp out any potential infestations.
Alberta contends with no more than five infestations each year, Wickerson said.
The province has been working for decades to slow the Norway rat's westward advance.
The anatomy of a rodent invasion
Norway rats were first discovered in Alberta in the summer of 1950 on a farm near the Saskatchewan border.
Within the year, the rat control program was established. Rats were officially declared pests and a public campaign condemning the creatures was in full swing.
Thousands of government leaflets were distributed. Radio broadcasts detailing the threats rats posed to agriculture and public health hit the airwaves.
Inspection officers were trained in eradication methods. Stuffed rats were put on display in agricultural offices around the province in a bid to educate the public on what the rodents actually look like.
Along the Saskatchewan border, Alberta established a rat control zone — a 600-kilometre corridor stretching from Cold Lake to the Montana border. It remains in place today.
In 1951, around 30 rat infestations were reported. In 1959, infestations peaked at a record 637 before the numbers began to wane.
Just like in the early days, public education remains crucial today to the program's success, Wickerson said.
And the message seems to be getting out, even without the benefit of taxidermy, although Wickerson keeps a few stuffed rats in her office in Olds.
"I'm encouraged because people are aware of the program," she said. "I'm encouraged, but I'm watching and monitoring to make sure these numbers just don't keep climbing.
"When I speak to Albertans about this, they're all very proud of the fact that we are rat-free."