SAN DIEGO — A visit by the rat control man from San Diego County's Department of Health Services one recent morning proved as unsettling as it was unexpected.
Rats ? In La Jolla ? Just a couple of blocks from picturesque Windansea Beach, a quarter of a mile from La Jolla High? Surely not in our neck o' the waves!
"Yes indeed," said the cheerful man who stood on our front porch. "The roof rat is the species we see most often in residential areas around the county. They can live anywhere--underground, in piles of wood and debris, amid lawn and hedge clippings, in dense thickets of ivy."
I was stunned--and a little disbelieving.
After all, our neighborhood could hardly be mistaken for Bedford-Stuyvesant. In that beleaguered area of New York City, rats have been known to do everything but collect the rent.
But the Jewel City is known as a resort village by the sea, a shopper's paradise and, most recently, a medical/science center to rival both the Mayo Clinic and MIT put together.
La Jolla's scenic cove ranks right up there with Pebble Beach and Carmel, I reasoned. Nubile maidens at La Jolla Shores delight the eye of grizzled seniors, and the fishing's pretty fair around the kelp beds, too.
Call It 'Vector Control'
The man from the county, whose card identified him as a "vector control technician," cut through my defensive musings. Obviously, he was just warming up. And I kept feeling a chill at the back of my neck.
"Not all these rats are underfoot," he advised. "Some prefer a high-rise--like that palm tree next door, or your attic there."
Roof rats must be controlled, he was saying, because they can carry a number of diseases. "They also contaminate food, destroy property, and could even start fires by gnawing through insulation on electrical wires."
It was a little ironic, I thought, as the Rat Man prattled on, that, in an affluent town, rats somehow have beaten the system.
Many a professional, especially yuppies in law and medicine, find La Jolla's path to affordable housing thorny but rosy. Many baby-boomers must settle for a condo in University City or a scaled-down apartment in Pacific Beach. Neither, it seems, quite matches the nirvana that boosters equate with "the La Jolla state of mind."
Housing Is No Problem
But, for the long-tailed intruders, affordable housing is no problem. The Rat Man said the rodents are guided by the same three criteria that concern real estate investors: location, location and location.
"Their nesting places are wherever they find plenty of food and drink," he said. "They like to be near a loose-lidded garbage can or a forgotten woodpile, under the house--or even burrowed into a compost pile."
As long as he has water and a steady supply of munchables--uncovered dog or cat food will do nicely--Brother Rat will be quite content, thank you.
Still, I was somewhat skeptical.
Sure, occasionally my headlights have shone on a possum or raccoon making its nocturnal rounds. But I hadn't seen so much as a field mouse in my three years of residence.
I always figured we were in good shape as long as Henrietta, the family cat, and Sylvester, her white-on-black playmate from across the street, were on duty. If cats wore T-shirts, theirs would read, "Take No Prisoners."
Roof rats with all that purr power at large? You gotta be kidding! Turns out the lady living just north of us is a true believer.
"Your neighbor is the one who alerted us," the Rat Man said. "Seems she was in her garage the other day and observed three large rats in a darkened corner. It about scared her half to death, of course. Her call brought me out here today."
Wife Nancy, always cool under fire, ignored my onset of a panic attack. She even took the vector inspector on a tour of our Little Castle by the Sea.
He pointed out danger zones: the woodpile snug against the fence and resting on the ground, a couple of open vents leading under the house, uncovered cat food dishes and garbage cans in disarray.
He said that if we really wanted to get serious, we could repair leaky faucets, put sheet metal "collars" around a couple of pipe openings, and even set out traps.
I was ready to take the oath as an enlisted man in the county's Control Patrol.
"Hey, I'm as civic-minded as the next guy," I proclaimed. "You can count on our complete cooperation. As a senior bikini inspector, I know the next several months will be our busy season," I said. "But, just as soon as my wife gets a minute from cooking, washing and ironing, balancing the checkbook, paying our bills, dusting, vacuuming, trimming the hedge and mowing the lawn, I'm sure she'll get after these roof rats."
We've tried peaceful coexistence with what county experts say are thousands of these furtive, furry critters. Maybe it's time we gave war a chance.