The vegetable garden in Joe and Debbie Conrad’s backyard, not far from the play set for their grandchildren, is ready for harvest.
But the garden – which is full of zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes – is also full of traps. Rat traps.
The Conrads, who live in Lancaster, caught nine rats in a recent 10-day span.
Pesky rats plagued the village and town for months, but have seemed under control since late spring. Now, they appear to be running wild again.
One of the Conrads’ neighbors even had rats inside her kitchen.
“I have traps all over the place and want them gone,” Joe Conrad said. “I’ve lived here 17 years and not had one rat. Now, we seem to have a posse of them. I have a ton of grandkids and a playground, and a beautifully landscaped yard, and cannot use it. We feel like prisoners in our own yard.”
Lancaster isn’t the only community where rats are becoming a problem.
In fact, Erie County has received 2,224 rodent complaints this year through Aug. 3. – nearly double the 1,197 received in the same period a year ago. Countywide, there were 2,500 complaints for all of 2015.
Hot spots are heavily populated areas like Buffalo, the Tonawandas and Amherst, which is starting to see an uptick in the number of complaints, said Peter J. Tripi, a senior public health sanitarian with the county.
“It’s kind of widespread,” he said.
The area’s mild winter, followed by summer drought, is a big reason.
“We have gotten very busy,” Tripi said. “The mild winter and hot, dry spring have significantly increased the rat population across all of the municipalities throughout Erie County, whether they have garbage totes or not.”
Unlike mice, rats depend on water to survive. With the scorching summer, Tripi said, rats are traveling 300 to 500 feet for their closest water source – much farther than their usual 150 feet. As a result, the county is getting reports of rats found in ornamental backyard ponds and in-ground swimming pools.
“This year, the demand for baiting has been overwhelming,” Tripi said. “While I believe the number of rats has increased due to the warm winter, I also think the number of rat sightings has increased because they travel farther for a water source.”
Five homes away from the Conrads on Como Park Boulevard, Shirley Heimbueger and her five boys have lived a nightmare since last fall. An entire rat family moved in with them, she said, starting in the front closet.
“My kids told me they thought they heard a mouse in the front closet. And the dog kept going over there,” Heimbueger said.
One of her sons checked the closet.
“I was a wreck when they said, ‘It’s a rat,’” she recalled. “I was living a nightmare and couldn’t sleep at night. I woke up for every noise.”
Since then, Heimbueger said she has spent more than $1,000 on extermination treatments. Nine rats were found in her home. In early spring, a dead rat was discovered in her kitchen entertainment center. Extermination treatments continue.
“(The rats) are awful. You pull in the driveway and can see them run across,” she said. “I want the village to do something.”
So do Debbie Conrad and her husband, who no longer eat anything from their lush vegetable garden.
The Conrads’ first encounter came on a weeknight in late July, as they prepared dinner. Joe Conrad glanced out the window, noticed a rat in their backyard and told his wife.
“At first, I said, ‘No,’” Debbie Conrad recalled. “But then I looked, and sure enough, he was right outside.”
County officials visited and baited three properties in the vicinity last week.
“I’m nervous because I have grandchildren who come here, and the rats come out in the daytime,” Debbie Conrad said. “I watch my youngest grandchild, who is only 2 years old, twice a week.”
Since late July, rat complaints have been popping up again in different sections of the village, including Church and St. Joseph streets and Wilkshire Place. Village officials insist, though, that this doesn’t amount to a huge problem.
“Everything had been quiet for the summer. But just last week, complaints started again,” said Shawn M. Marshall, village codes enforcement officer.
He noted vegetable gardens could cause a rat “feeding frenzy.”
“We’re keeping an eye on it and responding to complaints,” he said. “We want to know if there is an issue, so if we have to do something a little differently, we can.”
Last spring, the village beefed up its codes enforcement crew to clamp down on residents’ compliance with the village solid waste ordinance. The village also tweaked its code to be more stringent on penalties for repeat offenders.
“We were able to clamp down on the trash issues,” Marshall said, noting the number of complaints then dropped quickly.
Until they started up again.
The village is fighting back in the downtown business district with extra garbage totes borrowed from Depew. It now collects garbage along Central Avenue twice a day. That has helped, said Public Works Superintendent William G. Cansdale.
Cansdale said he believes residents have become better about securing their garbage and buying their own totes, and rats are searching for different food sources, such as bird feed, dog feces and gardens.
Just Friday, Cansdale found that a retaining wall behind a Central Avenue restaurant has a rat problem again. The wall had been plugged by village workers in May after rats burrowed there. The critters recently created a sinkhole, forcing village workers to plug the wall up again.
Even though the county saw a significant rat decline since 2006, it has baited many properties this year due to the weather, Tripi said.
“It’s not a crisis because we have a handle on it,” he said. “There are many things we use in our arsenal.”
Still, the Conrads and others think not enough is being done.
“People don’t want to accept the fact that they have rats, but it’s everywhere,” Debbie Conrad said. “Something needs to happen here. The village ideas are not helping. I don’t know who they think they are fooling.”