Register Thursday | June 27 | 2019
Go West, Young Rat

Go West, Young Rat

Alberta's No. 1 rat fighter keeps up the war against the world's most dreaded rodent

Illustration by Jeff Garcia

John Bourne both admires and despises rats. A vertebrate pest specialist with Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development for the last thirty years, Bourne has made it his personal mission to maintain Alberta’s hard-won rat-free status—the only province or state in North America that can claim this achievement.

Bourne describes the rat as a “formidable foe” and it’s an assertion he can easily support. Rats are exceptionally prolific: a single pair can produce as many as fifteen thousand offspring in just one year. They have also evolved in uncanny ways. Rats are able to fall a great distance and still land on their feet like a cat. They can tightrope walk across electrical wires. They can survive in water pipes and even climb up through your toilet. And they can eat just about anything. In one incident, Bourne determined that rats discovered in an Edmonton recycling plant had survived by eating cardboard boxes soaked with pop.

“I have a dreaded fear of them. They possess so many capabilities. No other animals come close,” says Bourne. “They are very athletic and very quick to adapt. This displays a higher form of intelligence. That’s why they’re a global threat. Our only salvation is our long, cold winters.”

The Norway rat—as the rodent menacing Alberta is officially known—is not native to Canada. It first invaded North American shores in the late eighteenth century, scurrying off ships all along the Eastern Seaboard, but only in the 1950s did it reach Alberta. As soon as rats started crossing the eastern border, the province decided to take extreme action. From June 1952 to July 1953, 63,600 kilograms of arsenic trioxide tracking powder was blown underneath 8,000 buildings on 2,700 farms. The province decided to discontinue the arsenic program after a number of pets and domestic animals were exposed to the poison, but the fervent desire to eliminate the rat menace continues to this day. Currently, all cities and rural municipalities are obligated to take preventive measures to keep the province rat-free. To the dismay of rodent fanciers, owning or breeding rats is illegal in Alberta. Even scientists must get special permits in order to keep rats for research purposes.

Ground zero for Alberta’s rat patrol is the province’s eastern border. The rat control zone stretches 29 kilometres west of the Saskatchewan border and 610 kilometres north of the Montana border, up to the beginning of Alberta’s boreal forest. It is policed by six rat control officers, including Bourne, who patrol the territory and check out any terrain that might provide cover. Haystacks, grain bins and abandoned farmyards are popular hideouts. In the event of a sighting, rat patrol officers sweep in to gas, poison or shoot the rats. In a couple of extreme situations where rats had burrowed deep underground, rat control officers had to use backhoes and bulldozers to destroy them. You definitely can’t be overly averse to killing in this job. Bourne says he and other officers once shot five hundred rats over the course of twelve hours while getting rid of a particularly nasty infestation. Last year there were a dozen such infestations along the border. All rats were destroyed, says Bourne.

Sneaking across the Saskatchewan border isn’t the only way rats gain access to Alberta. They also smuggle themselves in via trucks, airplanes and shipping containers. In one of the more comical incidents in recent times, a baggage handler at Edmonton International0Airport saw a rat leap out of a suitcase and make its getaway. Rat patrol officers were called in and the stowaway was caught the next day.

Although it’s illegal to breed or keep rats as pets, people do occasionally break the law. Bourne recalls having to track down several baby rats that were given to kids at a summer camp. He’s also had to trace several rats illegally sold at a northern Alberta pet store. Confiscating rats from owners, especially kids, is an unhappy duty.

“Some feel our zero-tolerance policy is cruel and unfair and I’m acting as God,” he says. “These kids for some reason, whatever makes them take up rodents as a pet, get quite attached to them.”

Another headache for the rat patrol team is the fact that most Albertans have never seen a rat. Bourne often gets phone calls from people who think they’ve seen a rat when they’ve actually spotted a muskrat, pocket gopher, ground squirrel or mouse. The digital camera, though, has made his life a lot easier. He now asks people to take a photo of the animal or its droppings so he can determine whether he has to investigate in person.

The hardest thing about being Alberta’s number one rat fighter? You can never let your guard down. Constant vigilance is required to prevent rats from getting a toehold in the province.

“It’s a serious program and requires serious dedication,” Bourne says. “The lid can get blown off any second. Sometimes I go out for a jog and I think about worst-case scenarios and I just shake my head.”