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Los Angeles

Westsiders Could Use the Pied Piper

Health: Arid conditions and urban sprawl drive rats into pricey enclaves. County campaign educates residents on how to deal with pests.

July 10, 2002|ZANTO PEABODY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those Westside rats have gone too far this time, moving into tony, ivy-adorned homes and dining al fresco in sidewalk cafes. Campaigns are afoot to get rid of them.

Arid conditions and the march of urban sprawl into hillsides have driven rodents from their dens throughout Los Angeles County while lush greenery, water and good eating have drawn them into some pricey locales.

"Rodents do not know they've crossed Santa Monica Boulevard into Beverly Hills and shouldn't be there," said Terrence Powell, county director of environmental services.

On the contrary, from the rats' point of view, rats should be there.

"Rats love palm trees, too. To them, they're classy, high-rise condos," Powell said. "Utility lines are their highways to get from place to place."

Call it a Southern California trade-off. People plop beautiful homes right next to nature, and nature settles in.

In fairness, eateries and homes throughout the county have had problems with rats and mice. But health officials are now paying closer attention to the Westside because they have been getting more complaints there in recent months, said Frank Hall, county chief of vector management.

In April and May alone, the county health department temporarily closed seven restaurants on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade for rodent problems, sometimes in alleys, sometimes in the outdoor dining areas. Some of the sidewalk cafes there were built without what planners call "mouse-blocking dams," architectural features that guide rodents away from key areas. And alleys provide ideal channels for bar-hopping rats.

The drought has dried up some of the rodents' wild food sources, so they have become more adventurous.

"We don't think there has been a rise in the rodent population," said Hall, whose department also monitors mosquitoes and bees. "But they are getting so brave that people are seeing them more."

Ivy and shrubs make good cover for rats awaiting nightfall, and so-called green belts prevail on the far Westside.

"In higher socioeconomic areas, rodents can survive forever and not be seen," Hall said.

But some rodents are seen.

Residents at the Malibu Bella Mar apartment complex pay as much a $5,000 a month for luxury units on a hill on the coastal side of the Santa Monica Mountains. Tenant Jan Miller said she won't go into her kitchen anymore after seeing a rat "parading" in front of her at a computer desk. Other tenants recalled a man who awoke with a rat crawling across his arm.

Miller had plenty of contact with wildlife when she lived in Northern California, but was in for a surprise when she moved to the Westside.

"I spent most of my life in Mill Valley," said Miller. "And I've had raccoons and rats come in the house. You just call a good exterminator, and they get rid of them. But these rats are still here."

Now she sleeps with a towel under her door to keep rats out.

Pacific Palisades was the setting for a video shot to educate county environmental services employees about what happens when rodents are left to breed like, well, rodents. A manicured yard bespoke elegance outside an expensive home. When health officials stepped inside, they were nearly overrun by rats. They trapped more than 250 before they stopped counting.

As county officials shot the video, an unusually bold rat entered through an open window, jumped onto the kitchen table and drank water from a bowl before hopping back out the window.

"The moral to the story is rats will go anywhere they have food," Powell said. "It's ironic that many of the things they like are on the street of the very affluent."

Powell said three-quarters of homes in Pacific Palisades have had or will have rats.

Nancy Klopper, a Pacific Palisades resident, has organized her neighbors to fight the rodents, mostly by spreading the county's advice to thin out landscaping and put away pet food. Klopper admitted that lifting the silence was difficult.

"I wondered, 'How could people know this exists and not do anything?' " Klopper said. "People didn't want to talk about it, and they would say they didn't have rats, but you knew they did."

In Southern California, a Westside rat is really the same as an Eastside rat, a species known as the roof rat and distinguished by its long tail and climbing ability. Grace Shin, a Los Angeles County senior environmental health specialist, said many people mistake them for squirrels.

To help control the rat population, the county inspects 65,000 buildings annually. Shin recommends that residents leave poisoning to the professionals and suggests other remedies, along with traditional traps:

* Get rid of inoperable vehicles or debris.

* Raise woodpiles 18 inches off the ground.

* Remove brown fronds from palm trees.

* Maintain screens on foundation vents.

* Remove fallen fruit.

"The first thing to do as a homeowner is to not believe the misconception that your home has to be filthy to have rats," Shin said. "Totally eliminating them is impossible. We can't prevent them from coming in our yards, but we can stop them from breeding and feeding in our homes."

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