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A Gnawing Concern : L.A. Health Official Blames Rains, Not Quake Debris, for Slight Rise in Rodents


Aw, rats!

The conventional wisdom is that the little vermin are spreading everywhere, making themselves comfortable in abandoned buildings, hanging out in the ubiquitous piles of earthquake debris and spreading disease wherever they go.

But despite all the fretting, very little of the dreaded infestation has occurred, according to a Los Angeles County health official supervising a federally funded study of vermin populations since the Northridge earthquake.

"There really are not as many rodents as you would expect," said Erica Balsam, who acknowledged that heavy rains last winter might have boosted the numbers of rats in Southern California by providing them with more food and foliage cover--but only slightly.

Yet with 120,000 tons of junk littering Los Angeles city streets and dozens of buildings still in a shambles, some residents and politicians are concerned that the rat population might grow by leaps and bounds.

Early last week, a City Council committee called on public works officials to draft a plan to clear away the earthquake debris that has accumulated since a federally funded cleanup program ended last month. And on Friday, Councilwoman Laura Chick introduced a motion that would deploy LAPD officers to cite illegal dumpers.

With so much junk, officials said, it would take years for the city to haul it all away at its current pace of 300 tons per week. In the meantime, they said, rats and other varmints might take up residence.

But Balsam said that most debris piles are not high on a rat's list of desirable places to live. Most are full of construction material. And though rats like to gnaw on stuff such as lumber and cardboard, their primary goal is to find food--something lacking in most debris piles.

In addition, most piles are set out on city streets. Rats, however, are timid and are unlikely to spend much time in a mess of concrete and steel reinforcing bars just inches from passing cars, she said.

"Their whole thing is to look for food and harborage and a place to survive," Balsam said. "If there is nothing to eat, they are going to move on."

Even Balsam was surprised, though, at how few abandoned buildings, even those still flush with rotting food, were taken over by rats. "I've inspected countless buildings and maybe only about 1% or 2% had any evidence of rats," she said.

Part of the problem is perception. After 18 months of looking at wrecked buildings and mounds of trash in their neighborhoods, many residents are sick of the mess and quick to blame problems on quake cleanup delays.

When they do see a rat, Balsam said, they point at fenced buildings or piles of junk as the obvious source.

A more likely cause of any rise in the rat population was the abundant rains of last winter, she contends.

"It's weather-related more than anything," Balsam said. "If there is more rain, there is more habitat so there is more food sources so there are more rats. It's just the natural cycle."

Even then, Balsam said, the increases are not nearly as large as perceived. Which might explain why business has boomed for some exterminators in recent months. Now more than before, residents are on the lookout for rats, said Richard Lee of Fume-A-Pest in Encino.

Because rats and mice can crawl through holes as small as a dime, they infested some homes where quake damage offered easier access. Other infestations have occurred as owners remodel quake-damaged homes and create new openings in the process.

Said Lee: "The rodent population has always been here."

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