Susan Kims used to have lots of company when she walked her dog at night in West Seneca. But neither she nor Elle, her mostly black lab, wanted the company of rats scurrying about their Covington Gardens neighborhood.
When Elle spied a rat, she “would come to a complete, all-of-a-sudden halt,” Kims said.
That’s how Kims knew there were rats around on the nightly walks.
Then last year, West Seneca instituted garbage totes with attached lids designed to keep out the rats.
Now Kims and Elle have uninterrupted walks, and no complaints about rats.
Fewer complaints are being made about rats throughout Erie County, according to the Erie County Health Department, and the numbers speak for themselves.
The battle with rodents started in earnest in 2001, when Buffalo implemented the first garbage tote program.
Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda followed in 2006.
Since then, every first-ring suburb has started using totes.
Williamsville, Amherst and the City of Tonawanda did it in 2007. Cheektowaga and Sloan got totes in 2012 and Depew followed the following year.
And the totes seem to be working
In 2006, Erie County logged 4,745 complaints about rodents.
Last year, the county responded to 2,482 complaints.
“It definitely slowed it down,” Peter A. Tripi, a county public health sanitarian, said of the totes.
There were zero responses in 2011, when funding for the rodent control program was eliminated. But the year after that, complaints jumped 36 percent from the 2010 level.
“Rats are opportunistic,” Tripi said. “They’re going to travel from town to town, door to door.”
When fighting rats, the idea is to eliminate their source of food.
Rats are quick to discover uncovered garbage cans and plastic bags lying by the curb on garbage day, and they can gnaw away wood on doors to sheds and garages to get to garbage stored inside.
“What do rats like best?” Tripi asked. “They like our food best.”
Using garbage totes is just one way to combat the rodents.
When food is locked up in totes, bird seed and dog droppings will do, so communities try to get the word out about not leaving pet food outside, getting rid of sources of water, and keeping yards free from debris and garbage.
When a rodent problem crops up in a commercial strip, county health sanitarians go door to door to remind shop owners and restaurateurs to keep outdoor receptacles covered.
The Village of Hamburg found it had a problem a year ago, and attacked with pamphlets to property owners, explaining about how to make life difficult for rats. Erie County also laid down poison bait, and the problem subsided.
But the rodents made a resurgence this summer. That meant more communication and education and trying to find a way to get totes into the village sooner rather than later.
The village has a history with plastic garbage bags, requiring garbage to be put in clear plastic bags since 1999, so crews could be sure residents were recycling. While some put the bags in cans, many residents still put the bags out at the curb on pickup day.
In the neighboring Town of Hamburg, there have not many complaints of rats. Residents are responsible for contracting their own weekly garbage pickup. Private companies in the town provide totes, but one said homeowners can use their own cans.
They will never disappear
Although progress has been made, rats are not about to disappear.
“You will never get rid of every single rat,” Tripi said. “They’re out there. They’re survivors.”
The county gets complaints from every community, and no one is exempt from rat issues, he said.
And while totes aren’t the entire answer, for some communities, it was as if the totes brought a pied piper to lead the rodents away.
“It was like a magic wand,” Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski said. “They disappeared overnight.”
West Seneca and Lackawanna bought the totes in 2013. Lackawanna distributed them in the fall of 2013, while West Seneca got them out in January 2014.
“For us, it was not a hard decision to make to go in that direction,” West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan said. “We have all seen the results.”
She said this is the time of year the town would get calls about rats, but it has not had any.
The Village of Blasdell has had totes – and no problems with rats – for 11 years, Village Administrator Janet MacGregor Plarr said.
Many folks don’t pay attention to the rat-away tips until they see a rodent run around the corner of the garage, or garbage is strewn about, or they hear a creature rustling in the basement or at the bird feeder.
Last winter’s bitter cold and heavy snow pack may have slowed them down but may not have drastically reduced the rodent population.
“They seemed to be in some areas surviving, using that snow like a snow blanket,” Tripi said.
Besides getting rid of rats, totes have other benefits: On a windy day, the lids and cans do not blow around the neighborhood, and Kims said she noticed the number of feral cats was down. And more importantly for the budget, towns see an increase in the amount of recycling when totes are used. That means there is less solid waste and tipping fees – the cost of transporting it to the dump – are less.
“It does take some effort to stay on top of these things,” Tripi said, but he added, “It’s cheaper to be proactive than reactive.”