Pamela A. Almeter knew that pockets of the Town of Tonawanda had rat problems. Neighbors were talking, she had noticed the rodent droppings in her backyard and heard rustling at night. She even had her property baited.
But Almeter had not laid eyes on one -- until the day a year ago she saw a dead rat floating in water at the top of her garbage can.
"It was huge and gross," she said. "I dumped it out and picked it up by the tail. I screamed the whole way through."
The discovery confirmed her beliefs: Her nice neighborhood of tidy yards and $200,000 to $300,000 homes was becoming a rat haven. And it wasn't alone.
In the past few years, rat infestation has been spreading throughout Buffalo's first-ring suburbs, with rodent complaints increasing five-fold in some areas. And faced with hundreds of stories like Almeter's, along with growing health and safety concerns, suburban leaders are looking to the City of Buffalo for the answer to their problems.
Several suburban communities are considering a joint bid to purchase Buffalo-style garbage totes to starve the rats and cut costs to taxpayers. Erie County has offered to be the lead agency to help municipalities get lower prices for the plastic containers with attached lids.
The suburban problem seemed to start at roughly the same time Buffalo finished phasing in a garbage tote program specifically designed to combat rat problems in the city.
The popular theory is that, with their food supply all but cut off in the city, the rats looked elsewhere for food. They found it in Kenmore, the Town of Tonawanda, Amherst, Williamsville and Cheektowaga, all of which could mandate that residents use the garbage totes.
Leaders in the communities agree totes are not the only solution to rodent infestation, but as Buffalo residents learned, they're a start.
"You don't see many rats crossing the streets as if they own the streets," said Nettie Anderson, president of Buffalo's Masten Block Club Coalition, which has about 35 member East Side blocks. "People complained before about the rodents; they were everywhere. But since we got the totes, the block clubs are not talking about rodent problems. It's still an issue, but not as bad."
Buffalo is seen by some as both the source and the solution for the suburban rat problem. The totes effectively reduced the city's rodent population, but then neighboring communities experienced a surge.
"You can tell when you've solved your rat problem, your neighbor starts complaining, as in the case with the city and the suburbs," said David Hahn-Baker, environmentalist and chairman of the Buffalo Pest Management Board. He called Buffalo's move a "major event" for the rat population.
The animals live within 150 feet of where they eat, he said, and they migrate until they find food.
"No one knows for sure if they migrated to the suburbs because basically the job of rats is not to be seen," he said.
But the numbers back up that theory.
In 2001, the Erie County Health Department received 2,220 rodent complaints from Buffalo residents.
Four years later, the baiting service request number fell to 1,256 in the city.
During that same period, complaint calls from the Town of Tonawanda and Kenmore rose from 178 to 1,303. Cheektowaga went from 329 to 1,085. And Amherst rodent complaint numbers climbed from 175 to 558.
The calls this year could be dramatically higher because of the mild winter and easy access to food when trash is put out in garbage bags alone, said Peter J. Tripi, whose county office fields complaint calls and visits county homes with bait boxes.
"Our belief is the totes improved the rodent problem in the city," he said. "But unfortunately, they found a new food source in the suburbs, where people are storing their garbage improperly."
First Linda Bierdron heard a scratching noise and then noticed several holes at the base of her property. An exterminator told her rats were nesting in the foundation of her of Town of Tonawanda home.
"I couldn't believe it because we never had a problem before, and now all of sudden we were having problems with rats," she said. "It was disturbing to say the least."
Three years later and more than 30 rats killed on her property, Bierdron said the experience has "been so horrible."
Last year, a poisoned rat died in her foundation, and the powerful stench lingered for two months, she said.
During a family picnic, a bold rat got under the fence and ruined the fun.
"We had to get our guests back in the house, and we couldn't tell them why," Bierdron said. "I can't enjoy my back yard anymore."
The growing rat population compromises more than quality of life. It also poses a health risk, Almeter said.
Almeter, the Tonawanda woman who found the dead rat in her garbage last year, is also a registered nurse and the owner of a medical consulting business. She has concerns about the bacterial disease leptospirosis. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in cases involving infected dogs. And Almeter, a dog owner, said several dogs in her community have died.
The disease is spread by contact with water, soil or food contaminated by infected urine from various wildlife but mostly rodents.
The disease can be transmitted to humans. It is treated with penicillin and other antibiotics. But two of Almeter's children are allergic to penicillin.
"I'm fearful for my children's health as well as the health of other residents and their dogs," she said.
Last year, Almeter and other suburban residents took their frustrations to elected officials, requesting amendments to garbage laws. And one by one, the municipalities responded.
In 2004, Kenmore changed its trash regulation, requiring totes for business and apartment owners and covered containers for residents. The village is now preparing to go to a full totes system. The Town of Tonawanda has adopted an amendment mandating a townwide program.
"It's about time. I'm thrilled," Almeter said. "It's long overdue."
Amherst amended its garbage law last year, requiring containers with lids. Councilwoman Shelly Schratz said it's a temporary fix because the town is working out financial plans for a townwide tote program.
"Once Kenmore and Tonawanda get their totes, it will push the rats farther out to other parts of the county," she said. "We have to be proactive."
Cheektowaga is in the process of enacting a covered container law -- a state and county mandate. Its budget for rodent control has increased from $15,000 to $100,000 in recent years.
"That's a significant amount of money; that's money that we didn't have allocated toward that problem," said Town Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak. "But it was necessary for us to do that. However, the town doesn't have immediate plans for tote program."
For municipalities interested in totes, Erie County has offered to bid out a large purchase to save money.
Paul Krantz, the county's associate environmental quality engineer, said the county is in the "fact-finding" stage of the effort.
The cost of the totes varies from $38 to $55. Sanitation trucks would have to be fitted with a mechanism to lift the containers, which will be an additional expense. Municipalities are considering bonding the purchase or having residents pay a one-time fee for their totes. The estimated costs are around $2 million.
The totes have quelled the rodent problem in Buffalo and have other benefits.
"The city's more efficient in garbage pickup, and the totes have cut our work-related injuries in half," said John Scardino Jr., director of the city's streets and sanitation department.
Other area communities with totes, such as Blasdell and North Tonawanda, also have seen a 50 percent decrease in worker's compensation claims.
Buffalo Common Council Member David A. Francyzk said he is proud the city has set the example for rodent control for its suburban neighbors.
"I'm glad for once we are taking the lead," he said.