Cookie Schwartz says for awhile, a bit of her neighborhood on Dewey Avenue looked like “the biggest rat hotel you’ve ever seen.”

Schwartz was one of about a dozen people who joined Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd), and the city’s public health manager, Greg Olsen, on a back-alley tour of rat world, where the disease-carrying rodents can thrive … unless the human residents are careful.

Ald. Krissie Harris (R) and Greg Olson of Health Deparment (center).

“It’s not a rat problem,” Olsen said, as he displayed bait boxes used to give rats a poison lunch.

“It’s a people problem.”

Garbage cans with holes in them, garage doors with rat-sized cracks, and abandoned mattresses are all rat magnets, where the rodents search for food, or a cozy place to stay.

The key, Olson explained, “is not to give rats the opportunity to set up home.” Get a new garbage can lid if necessary, by calling the city at 3-1-1. Or patch the garage door. Or get the mattress picked up.

Rats can squeze through holes in garage doors.

Rats can carry diseases, but perhaps a bigger problem in a place like Evanston is just trash being strewn around as rats dig through it, or rat droppings, or just the general feeling of “ugh” if you see the creature with the long tail.

One resident on the tour said he saw nine rats a few weeks ago near his house. He called the city, bait boxes were put down, and “the problem was resolved.”

It’s hard to tell, Olson said, if the number of rats is increasing in Evanston, or if they’re just moving into more visible and more populated areas.

There’s no rat census, but, Olson said he “wouldn’t be surprised if the population was indeed growing.”

The city will respond to complaints, and put down one or more of the health department’s 250-300 bait boxes.

Last year, Olson said, there were about 850-900 rat-related calls to 3-1-1.

The bait box poison requires two-to-seven days to take effect.

The goal, Olson said, is for a rat to literally take the bait, then go back into his burrow and, well, “rat out” his buddies by leading them back to the poisoned food.

The city plans to launch an educational campaign, telling people how to keep rats away.

One citizen said, however, that “while education goes a long way,” there also needs to be enforcement for those who create potential rat attractions by not keeping their property clean.

Fines can range from $50 to $500.

A financial penalty “is the last thing we want to do,” Olson noted, “but we won’t hesitate to enforce” if necessary.

Residents had several suggestions on rat reduction. One said the city should provide metal garbage can lids, which are harder for squirrels and rats to munch on and create holes.

Garbage can holes can become rat doorways.

Another idea was to involve Northwestern students in a cleanup campaign called “RAW” … or “Rat Awareness Week,” to get rid of the rat-attracting trash around town.

“It’s a community problem,” said Ald. Harris.

“We have to be in this together.”

Rat On!

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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