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The Mouse That Rode

Pests Can Invade Cars and Inflict Serious Damage

February 14, 2001|NANCY KINSEY NEEDHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's one of Southern California's dirty little secrets--Mercedes-Benzes from palatial Palos Verdes Estates being treated for rat-chewed upholstery, Tauruses from Thousand Oaks in for repair of rodent-gnawed wiring.

Face it: Varmints like cars, which are packed with neat places to hide. And it is hard to keep the pests out, especially this time of the year, when cold weather sends them searching for warm, dry nesting spots.

Mechanics say that in addition to the sheer, well, ickiness of knowing there's been a rodent in the car or under the hood, the pests can cause some real problems.

A car heading down the road with only one headlight shining may well be the victim of a rat or field mouse: They find wire harnesses a great place to make nests, and they love to chew on the soft insulation covering the wires. (It helps keep their teeth trimmed.)

But at least those winking cars are running. Many vehicles that become rodent hide-outs will not even start. Those that do may run sluggishly and then break down suddenly. Some are even fire hazards.

And don't think that because you keep your car in a garage or live in a posh neighborhood that you are immune.

Getting calls about rats inside cars is not uncommon for Tim Cooley, owner of General Pest in Thousand Oaks. His extermination business rids cars and trucks of rodents on a regular basis.

Winter is the busiest period, he said.

"It's the time of year for rats to try to get indoors to a more controlled climate," Cooley said. "Cars generate the warmth rats are seeking."

He suggests that people with rat problems either hire a professional to get rid of them or learn about rats so they can think like one and use the knowledge to rat-proof their garages.

"A full-grown rat can contort and get through a hole the size of a quarter," Cooley said. Sealing up such holes--in garage walls and doors--is important.

Also, a rat can climb walls, especially those of stucco, and they love ivy and other low canopies where they can hide.

But it's not just rats that take a shine to cars.

Cooley recalls one woman who hired him to get a pest out from under the hood of her car. She knew it was a rat, she said, because the car wouldn't start one day and she heard something crawling around in the engine compartment.

When Cooley opened the hood, he says, a large possum was staring up at him. Because Cooley was expecting the culprit to be a rat, for a moment the possum just didn't register. "I just screamed and ran away, thinking I'd met the mother of all rats," he said.

Such stories abound in places like Thousand Oaks because rats and other vermin seem to prefer suburbia--with its attractive environment of fruit trees, ground cover and heavy vegetation--to stark city neighborhoods. Stacks of firewood and lawn and garden debris also are enticing, and rats love to hang out where a backyard bird feeder provides a constant source of food.

"More affluence with lush lawns means more rats," said Ray Honda, a Los Angeles County vector control specialist. A vector is an animal or insect that can spread disease, so Honda's agency tries to keep a lid on everything from mosquitoes to rats.

Southern California has two kinds of rats: the common roof rat and the larger, more aggressive Norway rat. Both like cars and trucks. Adults range from 12 to 18 inches from tip of their nose to the end of their tails. They have ravenous appetites and, because they breed constantly, are always in search of a nest.

In an ideal environment, a female rat can live for a year and have as many as 28 offspring--four litters with as many as seven young in each--explained Ventura County Vector Control Officer Randy Smith.

While they are nesting, they also like to gnaw. Actually, they have to gnaw on things to stay alive, Smith said. It keeps their always-growing front teeth in trim.

"If they don't gnaw, their teeth will grow so big they won't be able to eat and will starve to death," Smith said.

So they hunt for places to hole up where there's a plentiful supply of goodies to chew on. And if they can't get into attics or basements, they often head for garages or the undersides of cars and trucks that are parked outside.

"There is no way to keep rats out of the engine [compartment] of a car," Smith said. The engine compartment is open underneath, for ventilation and access to parts that must be serviced, and rodents can easily scoot up inside.

The answer is to always park in a closed garage that is sealed tight against rodents.

*

There are things to look for to prevent vehicle damage if you suspect a rodent is present.

"Watch for rat droppings under your car," Smith said.

A scattering of the tell-tale pellets would be a definite indication that something has been crawling around under the hood.

Opening the hood and looking for a nest every morning before starting a car is also a good idea.

Rats collect material from all around--towels, toys, socks, foliage--and weave it through hoses and wires to make a nest.

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