In Portland on Thursday, Wendy Stanley looks through the screen door on her home through which a rat may have made its way into her basement recently. She has since patched a hole in the screen that she believes may have been made by the rat. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

When the global pandemic forced the abrupt shutdown of Portland’s restaurants in March, human diners weren’t the only ones left to scamper home, hungry.

Rats in Portland were forced to look for new food sources after they could no longer rely on regular dumpster loads of restaurant scraps and discarded leftovers.

And Portland is not alone.

Across New England and in other parts of the country, changes in daily life brought by the pandemic are one possible reason rats are seeking new stomping grounds. And with more people working and learning from home – and eating fewer meals out – rats are following.

“Before COVID-19 and the slowdown, we’d see and get calls from areas where there are lots of restaurants,” said John Emerson, Portland’s wastewater facilities director. “But now there has been a marked reduction in restaurant activity and we haven’t seen as much in the area.”

Exterminators such as Nathan Jewett, of Big Blue Bug Solutions, are fielding more calls from residents who say they are seeing and hearing more rodent activity in or around their homes. Rat-related calls at his business are up 20 percent in Portland, Jewett said. If he includes mice, calls are up 57 percent from last year, he said. The spike started in April and May, he said.

“I got to say, it’s been a record year,” Jewett said. “I think people are home more, they’re seeing things, they’re hearings things.”

Insidious and opportunistic, rats are a hardy bunch, Jewett said. They swim, they climb, and mostly, they chew – through plastic garbage bins, compost buckets and other barriers that stand between them and a meal.

Restaurants that stopped regular extermination services would sometimes call back, frustrated, when their tiniest, unwelcome diners still found a way inside.

“They’d call us back, because after the shutdown, with fewer food sources, (rats would) come and take whatever they can, causing damage.”

The sudden changes in daily life even prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning in May about possible aggressive rat behavior or unusual sightings, as the population adapts to a world with fewer trash-generating businesses operating at full tilt.

Jim Fredericks,  who has a Ph.D in entomology and wildlife ecology and works for the National Pest Management Association based in Fairfax, Virginia, said the shift of rat activity away from dense urban areas with restaurants and food-serving businesses happened across the country at the start of the pandemic.

“Rats are very habitual; they’ll go to the same trash can or dumpster,” said Fredericks, who spent 10 years in mammal pest management before joining the national professional association. “So when the food wasn’t there, they became more bold, even venturing out during the day, when they experience that food stress.”

Fredericks said that rats will stay where the food is, and if people are generating more food waste at home, it’s no surprise that rats follow. As restaurants come back online and serve more meals, Fredericks said he expects the rat activity to return.

“We’d fully expect those populations to rebound, despite the best efforts of the pest control municipal workers,” he said.

Unusually vigorous rat activity has been reported in Boston and surrounding communities, as well as in New Orleans and other U.S. cities. Fredericks said New Orleans’ famed Bourbon Street entertainment district, with its block after block of bars and restaurants, was a prime example after the shutdown, when they would venture out during the daylight in search of a meal.

Fredericks also said large construction and excavation projects can be a culprit, too. “Rats live a portion or a majority of their life in these subterranean places, so when they disturb these habitats, you get rats on the move,” he said.

Local exterminator Will Weaver said he could not be sure that rat activity in residential neighborhoods is directly tied to the COVID-19 shutdowns, but has entertained that thought as he responds to more neighborhood-based called.

“Its hard to link it right to the pandemic,” Weaver said. “There is less food coming out of less restaurants, but a lot of them did come back on line. There could be an increase in household trash. People are working from home.”

In the last few months, Weaver said he’s responded to a flurry of calls from the North Deering neighborhood in Portland, and is currently dealing with flare-ups of rat activity in the Parkside area.

“It’s the nature of rats,” Weaver said. “They never quit, and they move in more every year.”

There are other factors that have nothing to do with coronavirus, as well.

Emerson, Portland’s wastewater facilities director, said each time there is a major construction project in the city where soil is disturbed, rats inevitably are sent scurrying from their nests. Emerson said he’s fielded about half a dozen complaints from residents near Mackworth Street, the site of a major sewer separation project that has required extensive excavation of the street.

Emerson said the city contracts with outside exterminators to proactively bait the sewers each time it undertakes a big project.

In the 12 years he’s been in his current role, Emerson said he’s also seen the rise of home composting and curbside compost pickup, which also attracts and drives rodent activity.

Portland resident Wendy Stanley has lived in her Roberts Street home for 15 years, and saw a rat in her basement for the first time in early September. She suspected the critter found its way in through a damaged screen door.

Stanley said neighbors suggested to her that it was related to the ongoing construction at the intersection of Deering and Brighton avenues on the USM campus, a couple of hundred yards from her street. But she’s not so sure, and is also skeptical of a pandemic link.

“I heard that logic, but I don’t know,” she said. “I hope they stay away. It’s not a pretty sight.”

The issue is not limited to Portland, either.

South Portland’s municipal health officer, Joshua Pobrislo, has been on the job for four years. He said his predecessor in the position did not take rats calls, but now that residents know he’s available to check out residential pest infestations, he’s seen an across-the-board increase. One recent flare-up occurred near Mill Creek Park, he said. It’s unclear whether the increase in calls is related to a true change in rat activity, or whether more people are calling him because they know he will respond.

In South Portland’s Mill Creek neighborhood, Barbara Everett received a rude reminder of the rat population when her dog, Nellie, caught and killed one in her backyard.

Everett said she spent a lot of time on her back deck this summer recovering from surgery, when in July, just as a construction project got underway on Waterman Drive at a Central Maine Power property, she began seeing rats run through her yard in broad daylight. At night, when the rodents are most active, her dog would bark for hours, bothering other residents.

At the advice of Pobrislo, Everett tore up ground cover, installed crushed stone near the foundation of her house and spent time and money to make her yard as rodent-proof as possible.

“I’ll admit, my garden was overgrown, but I’ve been here for 20 years and I’ve never had rats in years,” she said.

The issue requires more than one homeowner’s action to correct, however. One nearby resident has a vegetable garden that attracts rat activity, and other neighbors said they were unwilling or too feeble to undertake the preventative work of eliminating food sources, trimming shrubs and keeping yards tidy.

“I worked my tail off and spent a small fortune doing all that (work), and my neighbors, one of them said, ‘I’m not doing it,'” Everett said. “So if my neighbors don’t trim up their shrubs, it’s my responsibility to pay for the exterminator for the whole street? And now I have to keep my dog in because she’s driving people crazy? I’m at my wit’s end.”


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