Sunday, May 19, 2024

East Somerville residents have been calling for more resources to fight rats, city officials saiy. (Photo: Todd Van Hoosear via Flickr)

East Somerville can expect to get some of the rat-zapping “Smart Boxes” seen in other parts of the city after a Jan. 30 meeting at which councilors wondered at the omission.

“It is really kind of concerning to me that we have no boxes in East Somerville when [it has had] for the past decade or so the most rodents in the city,” city councilor Matthew McLaughlin said. “This should be a priority.”

Rodent Issues Special Committee chair Charlotte Kelly, who ran for office in 2021 with a rat-reduction plan, said she “definitely” heard the most from East Somerville residents about the expenses they incurred fighting rat infestations.

Councilor Jake Wilson agreed, saying he “knocked a lot of doors in 2021, heard a lot about rodents. The worst stories, and I’ll say a huge percentage of those, were in East Somerville.” Though he acknowledged this was anecdotal and city staff looked to data for its planning, “there are a lot of anecdotes.”

In fact some data already points efforts against rats toward East Somerville, where residents in Wards 1 and 2 have made the most 311 calls for help against rats and seen the majority of community site visits, said Colin Zeigler, known as Somerville’s “rat czar.” The city announced in late February a test running “at least through July” of the Smart Boxes made by a company called Modern Pest that electrocute rats one by one. The 50 boxes placed in four neighborhoods in a first, test phase needing “a diversity of environments” have killed 1,074 rodents already, with Davis Square being the site of the most activity.

There are plans to expand the use of Smart Boxes, which cost $300 per box each month, for a second phase. “We’re continuing to monitor” areas in the east of the city, said Zeigler, whose official title is environmental health coordinator for the city’s Inspectional Services Department. “I haven’t forgotten about East Somerville.”

The program is more than capable of reevaluating how and where Smart Boxes are placed and if there are any that can be relocated to East Somerville, Inspectional Services Department director Nicholas Antanavica said.

Relocated Smart Boxes

“Inactive” Smart Boxes – those with less than three rodent captures per week – get relocated to new areas, including Union Square, where there is a mix of green space and residential areas as well as plenty of businesses and commercial trash bins that make it a hot spot for rats. Boxes will also go in Lincoln Park, where there is a dog park, community garden and plenty of picnicking areas where potential food waste could lure rats, city staff said.

Zeigler wondered if Union Square counted as East Somerville, considering the resources being deployed there – and how it edges into Ward 2 from Ward 3.

It is not, and “we’ll fight to the death over that one, ha,” McLaughlin said.

Next rat efforts

In the next year, the program looks to hire more inspectors to get rodent ticketing and residential visits done more quickly and efficiently. With such a high demand, waits for an inspector could be anywhere from two to four weeks, depending on the season.

Community site visits will return this spring, and the department is looking to rethink and improve its residential assistance program as a whole. “We want to look at ways that we can help improve that program and ensure that folks aren’t just receiving assistance, but they’re also receiving a more effective method,” Zeigler said.

The city is also moving toward using a carbon monoxide pump to chokes rats to death in their dens, an approach known to more effective than a failed 18-month rat birth-control test begun in 2018, Zeigler said.

Financial relief plan

The prospect of a financial relief plan for rodent damage to cars and homes was discussed as well.

There is a need to look at what the city can do to help especially seniors and low-income residents with what can be soaring costs of dealing with rodent problems, Wilson said, telling of a constituent who spent $5,000 pouring concrete to get rid of rats under their porch “and immediately after that had their car wiring chewed up.”

“I got a call from that constituent over the weekend to report the rodents are back, burrowing in their front yard,” Wilson said.

Zeigler said he was open to discussing the matter and working with other departments to formulate a program, which will take some time. It would be “revolutionary,” he said, and potentially complicated to, at least in some cases, serve as a stopgap and recover expenses not paid by residents’ insurance.

Model for other cities

Although a lot of good work was done last year, 2023 offers a new chance to expand and improve programs to help mitigate rodent populations, Zeigler said.

The 311 reporting line – which took 947 calls last year alone – and residence and community site visits are just some anti-rat methods implemented in Somerville over the past few years that are making other cities take notice. “We are receiving a lot of requests from folks around the country and other municipalities about how Somerville is approaching the issue, strategies they could employ in their own cities and just asking us for general feedback,” Zeigler said. “We have received national and local media coverage. I just actually did a spot for [WCVB-TV].”

That includes cities such as Brookline, Peabody and Cambridge, he said. Cambridge has already followed Somerville’s lead on deploying Smart Boxes, and is looking at getting its own carbon monoxide pumps by the spring.

Community education and involvement

But for Somerville’s Inspectional Services Department, it’s only the beginning.

One of the most important parts of pest control is community education and involvement, Zeigler said. Somerville’s residents must stay vigilant, continue to report rodent activity to the 311 Service Center and prepare during the fall and winter months for increased rodent activity in the spring and summer. “Somerville is very dense. You can reach out and touch both your neighbor’s houses on both sides. So we are very much in this together, and it does take a village,” Zeigler said.

Zeigler, forced to estimate a Somerville rat population that is in “easily the tens of thousands,” called it too early to talk about success in rodent control. “There’s much to be improved. I still think on the data side we can continue to enhance our efforts. I don’t want to say we’re either winning or losing,” he said. “This is one of those things where it’s going to be a continuous effort and it will take a very, very long time.”

For information and educational resources, visit the City of Somerville’s webpage on Rodent Control and Public Education.