It's hard to imagine a world where we don't need to ever consider whether or not a rat might sneak into our homes, but there actually are some fully rat-free areas in the world. Some of these have occurred naturally because of lack of human exploration and climate, while others are by design and patrolled fiercely to keep these territories rat-free. Each of these locations has a fascinating story to tell.
The Penguin-Filled Haven of South Georgia
We don't typically think of rodents when conjuring up images of the penguin filled islands near Antarctica, and there was a time when the rodents were never seen in that area. However, whalers brought some furry stowaways with them during the 18th century. These uninvited passengers would often make their way to shore when sailors stopped on the various islands. While the sailors attended to their business, the rat families would attend to work of their own. Any landing tended to bring with it a chance of some rat populations deciding to stay behind.
These rat colonies would quickly spiral out of control. The regions didn't have any predatory species similar to a rat, nor were there any animals well suited to making frequent meals of any given rat. This meant that a rat family which found its way to the islands would have unprecedented access to the local ecology.
For example, birds tend to make nests in trees so that rodents don't have easy access to their eggs. But birds in the Antarctic islands didn't have any reason to do the same. Though even if they wanted to, there simply aren't trees or even large bushes to make use of for an elevated nest.
Rats began to make quick work of the area's avian population. This is especially troubling given that the locations were home to unique species. For example, the island of South Georgia is the only known home of both the South Georgia Pipit and South Georgia Pintail. The rat infestation on South Georgia grew at a rapid pace once the rodents made their way there. This led to serious concerns for every species that called the island home — from penguins all the way to the tiny Pipit.
The risk to the local ecosystem became so severe that over $13 million was put towards finding a solution. This would finally culminate into 300 metric tons of bait that were dropped onto the island by helicopter. Care also needed to be taken in order to ensure that the rat populations wouldn't act as a secondary poisoning agent for meat eaters on the island.
Researchers began studying the results about two years after the drop, and they found something truly amazing. They had completely cleared all rat colonies off of South Georgia Island. This makes it one of the few places on earth to fully weather and recover from a rat infestation.
Rat Island Is Now Rat Free
South Georgia isn't the only island based success story. We next turn our attention to an island with such a huge rat problem that it actually became known as "Rat Island". Rat Island's infestation began at roughly the same timeframe as South Georgia's. The island's Alaskan waters don't always make for easy sailing, and in the 1780s a ship fell prey to those conditions. However, the rat population aboard the ship was able to make their escape onto what would soon become known as Rat Island.
As with South Georgia, people knew that they couldn't just rush in. Rat Island's population was quite obviously out of control. Removing the rodents while leaving the rest of the struggling wildlife unharmed wasn't an easy task. But after four years of planning the event began in earnest. The Island Conservation, Nature Conservancy and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked as a team to use GPS-guided helicopters to spread bait. It was hoped that the pellets would remove every rat while not posing a danger to other species. The successful effort resulted in official recognition with a name change from Rat Island to Hawadax. With the successful removal of the rat population, we're seeing a gradual resurgence of many native species. The now rat-free island serves as a strong example of successful large scale control efforts.
Alberta Had an Early Start
Of course, it's one thing to remove the rat populations from an island. It's obviously a lot trickier when an ecosystem doesn't have the natural barriers provided by water. But one of the largest and most successful rat control efforts comes from one of the largest and driest provinces in Canada - Alberta.
The fact that a rat control effort could be successful in a province with multiple major cities is an amazing accomplishment. The province has some impressive bragging rights as the single largest and highly populated area that's entirely rat-free. However, the case of Alberta's success might not be quite the template for future efforts that other provinces and states might wish.
Alberta's rat-free status owes a lot to the fact that they started preparing before it became a problem. The rat populations entered Canada from the Eastern provinces. Alberta sits in Canada's western region. This means that the invasive rat colonies moved at a fairly slow and predictable pace as they made their way to Alberta.
The invasive rat populations didn't reach Alberta until the 1950s. Meanwhile, Alberta had been preparing since 1942. A wide variety of public and private efforts were made to tackle the problem before the rats gained a foothold. Two thousand posters and over fifteen hundred pamphlets were distributed among the population to help prepare people and organizations for the upcoming efforts.
The province as a whole would treat over 8,000 buildings to control the encroaching rat colonies, and a full length of 186 miles along Alberta's Eastern borders was treated with a first-generation rat poison. The more powerful modern versions would have posed a potential disaster due to high levels of toxicity among all animals, but the earliest poisons were weak enough to stay within a relatively manageable state. Individuals even brought out shotguns and explosives to help fight against the oncoming surge of rodents. It was a hard-won victory, but after about a decade-long fight, the 1960s brought in a rat-free Alberta.
Today, the residents of Alberta are both proud of the accomplishment and unified in their desire to see it continue. Even having a pet rat carries a fine of $5,000 in Alberta. The last real outbreak occurred in 2004 when someone released thirty-eight of the rodents in Calgary. The average person is so alert to the dangers of an infestation that residents had already taken care of most of them before control officers had a chance to arrive.
Looking Toward the Future
At the moment, these rat-free areas are isolated incidents. However, the fact that multiple islands have been cleared with similar methods points to a high level of potential repetition. Of course, Alberta is a special case where the province had years of advance warning, but the community effort and sense of unity found within that pest control effort is something that we could see repeated elsewhere.
Even a household coming together to use the most effective, non-toxic, and ethical traps are part of a new wave of pest control efforts. The future of rat-free areas is still being written. And we're all taking part in the process together.