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Monique Keiran: Rats seem to like seats of government

Seats of government seem to have problems with rats. A case in point: During the first half of Canada’s existence as a nation, so many rats lived on Parliament Hill, they fed a large colony of feral cats.

Seats of government seem to have problems with rats. A case in point: During the first half of Canada’s existence as a nation, so many rats lived on Parliament Hill, they fed a large colony of feral cats.

However, in the 1950s, decision-makers on the Hill started using pesticides to control rodents. The cats were out of a job, and for the next six decades, the felines were on the dole, like some resource-industry workers through the same years. Human volunteers took over care and feeding of the parliamentary strays. In January, the Parliament Hill cat sanctuary closed forever.

Admittedly, cats could only control, not eradicate, parliamentary rodents. Leaving out grain laced with poison kills rats more efficiently.

But even that cold-blooded scenario is flawed. As Alberta’s rat patrol knows, nature abhors a vacuum.  Alberta’s grain stores are Rodent Heaven … without the rats. For every rat killed on Alberta’s borders — or on Parliament Hill — countless other rats from nearby ’hoods are lined up to take their place.

It’s much easier to eliminate rats from islands, where the sea stops rat recolonization. The U.S. National Parks Service recently succeeded in clearing rats from Anacapa Island off southern California. New Zealand also has eradicated rats (and other introduced pests) from its smaller islands.

In Canada, the parliamentary cat-sanctuary closure follows a Jan. 1 federal ban on use of some rodent pesticides in the nation’s household yards.

The banned pesticides are anti-coagulants similar to warfarin, the anti-clotting drug doctors prescribe to patients at risk for stroke or heart attack. Warfarin is also used as rat poison, but is less lethal and doesn’t seem to accumulate in bodies of animals up the food chain as readily as the now-banned rodenticides do.

Delta researchers measured high levels of the banned rodenticides in birds. Of more than 130 birds of prey found dead throughout the Vancouver region, all of the owls and most of the hawks had high levels of the rat poisons in their livers.

The scientists also discovered songbirds often eat poisoned grain left out for rats. That would be because — hello! — seed-eating birds eat grain.

Our government buildings here in Victoria have their own history of rat infestations. A Google search results in page after page of links connecting the words “rat” and “B.C. legislature.” Mention of “rats” in Hansard and media reports of legislative goings-on include the following phrases: “rats fleeing/leaving/deserting a sinking ship,” “don’t give a rat’s a--,” “rats running around the corridors,” “rat pack,” and “rat’s nest.”

OK, the references are to Rattus politicus, the two-legged species in Francis Rattenbury’s buildings, not Rattus rattus or Rattus norvegicus, the two species considered pests by B.C.’s environment ministry.

Regardless, members of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment definitely smell a rat these days. CAPE finds the provincial government’s about-face on Premier Christy Clark’s promise to ban residential pesticide use for cosmetic purposes hard to swallow.

During the government’s public consultations on the issue, CAPE urged the government to legislate an all-out ban on non-essential household pesticide use. The doctors based their case on evidence linking many garden-variety pesticides to substantial and pernicious physical and mental harm in humans.

Instead, proposed amendments to provincial regulations permit licensed individuals to apply pesticides on residential properties. It’s a tiny step in the right direction, but nothing like bans in place in 40 B.C. municipalities and six other provinces.