It's springtime, and for some Westside neighborhoods that means it's rat season.
But not just common rats. These are roof rats, also known as tree rats--grayish-brown rodents that weigh less than a pound and are about a foot long from head to tail.
And, like many Westside residents, they are particular about where they live and what they eat.
They like living in ivy-covered lawns, bushy shrubs and full, mature trees often found on the sprawling grounds of multimillion-dollar homes in places like Brentwood, Bel-Air, Benedict Canyon and Beverly Hills.
"Rats thrive in Beverly Hills because of the lush area that it is," said Carl Doucette, area branch manager for Western Exterminator Co. "It's a hospitable climate for rodents."
And unlike the better-known Norway rat, or sewer rat--which is often found in industrial areas and eats garbage--roof rats feed mainly on fruits and vegetables and dog food.
Roof rats live in the area year-round, according to county health officials and private exterminators, but are more noticeable in the spring because moderate temperatures and ripening fruit draw them out.
Last spring, a horde of hungry roof rats invaded the upscale Beverly Center shopping mall just east of Beverly Hills, but they were exterminated before they could do too much damage. Health officials said they believed that the rats entered the shopping center after being displaced from nearby construction sites.
30,000 Reports Yearly
Alan Harwood, chief of the Los Angeles County Health Department's Vector Control Program, said his office gets about 30,000 calls a year from residents throughout the county complaining about rats or mice. He said there were 85 complaints from Beverly Hills last year. In the first three months of this year, 30 complaints have been received from Beverly Hills residents.
Complaints from residents in Bel-Air and other Los Angeles hillside communities are not tallied separately, Harwood said.
Beverly Hills city officials said an increase in the demolition of old homes and the construction of new ones may be responsible for more reports of rats recently, because the rodents simply scurry to new sites when they are flushed out of the old ones.
City officials in Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood said they are not aware of any particular problem with rats in their cities. One reason, they said, may be because their communities are not as heavily landscaped as the hillside communities in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills.
Beverly Hills has more than 30,000 trees on its streets and in 12 parks. But, as part of an annual $2.2-million maintenance program, yearly trimmings keep the rats off city trees, according to Marcelino G. Lomeli, park superintendent for the Beverly Hills Recreation and Park Department.
Squirrels Also Dangerous
Lomeli downplays the presence of the rats. He said squirrels, also members of the rodent family, have always been in the community and pose as much danger as the rats because they both carry diseases. But there is no public outcry over squirrels because people think they are cute.
Longtime Beverly Hills residents have learned to live with their unwanted guests, but they are not much talked about.
"I don't have any at my house, but I have heard that there are some in the city," said Councilwoman Vicki Reynolds, who lives on North Linden Drive. "I haven't really talked to anybody about it, but then again, it's not exactly a great topic of discussion."
"We've got fruit trees, telephone lines and ivy, and that all equates to a haven for rats," said Steven M. Foonberg who has lived with his family on North Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills for nearly 13 years. "There's nothing you can do to totally exterminate them, so you just put up traps every now and then and try to keep them out of the house. Sometimes the dog will catch one with his paw."
Professional exterminators agree that the rats will never be eliminated from the outdoors, but homes can easily be rat-proofed, they said.
Doucette of Western Exterminator said crawl spaces under homes should be closed off, holes around pipes and other lines into the house should be plugged and dog food should not be left out uncovered.
Harwood, the county official, said the rats probably will never be eradicated.
"Can you get rid of all the rats?" he asked. "Yeah, just get rid of all the landscaping."