Phil Gilman wrote, in response to my posting about composting in an
> So a few rodents get into the compost- woopdy doo- What difference
> does it really make? Get a cat or dog- that will take care of the
> just my 2 farm cents (not worth much anymore)
Phil, you are presenting the viewpoint that I mentioned yesterday:
that strategies and technologies that work in rural areas must also
work in urban ones.
When I say urban, I'm not talking a college town, like Mark's
--Amherst, Mass.--nestled on the plain between the Berkshires and
scenic route 202, sprinkled with some of the Seven Sisters. I'm
talking a megalopolis of tens of millions of people, stretching from
Boston to D.C.
A few rodents?
Kate wrote from Philadelphia. Urban areas like Philadelphia have rat
populations in the millions. They live in steam tunnels, electrical
conduit tunnels, subways, sewers, and other extensive, hidden,
human-made burrows. Not to mention houses, buildings, and other
Female Norway rats (/Rattus norvegicus/) have three to seven litters
per year, each litter, 6 to 12 pups. Within 24 or 48 hours of giving
birth, female Norways are capable of being in heat again. One rat,
one year, up to 84 new rats. Roof rats (/Rattus rattus/) are nearly
as prodigious. They reproduce pretty much as fast as they eat. Feed a
city rat for a few months, and you add hundreds of rats to the
ecosystem. Equally voracious, equally prodigious.
Rats can swim rivers, fall 50 feet without being injured, chew thru
electrical wires and short out a circuit without being harmed...city
rats have few or no predators, and your average house-bound,
complacent urban dog or cat isn't going to tangle with them.
But even if we could count on this UberPet to go a-ratting in the
city...how many dogs and cats do you think it would take to control
rat populations of this size? How many rat-hunting dogs and cats
would be temperamentally fit to live in the confines and constraints
of an urban setting--it's not like letting them run around the farm,
When I lived downriver from Philadelphia, there were rats of a size
and temperament that took down dogs and cats for breakfast. Sometimes
in gangs. Children too, but I don't want to tell emergency room
stories right now. George Orwell wasn't making that up, in /1984/. He
knew about rats from people's experiences in the London slums.
You may not see "a few rodents" as a problem in rural areas. The
urban ecosystem is quite different. For instance, in 1347, a few
rodents disembarked from Genoese merchant ships docked in Sicily
after returning from the Black Sea. Within a year, bubonic plague
outbreaks had occurred in Marseilles, Paris, England, Germany, and
Within five years, 25 million people--a third of the population of
Europe--had died. Some cities lost 2/3rds of their populations.
China is believed to have lost over 35 million people at that time.
Plague bacilli (/Yersinia pestis/) are carried by fleas, which are
carried by rats. Within three to four days of being bitten by a
plague-carrying flea, a person who died from the plague would
experience high fevers and body pain, with black swellings of the
lymph nodes coming soon thereafter. Within a day or two, the
swellings burst, and the infected person vomited blood. The person
Rats also carry ticks, and thus tick-borne diseases (such as the
spirochetes that cause Lyme disease).
In addition, a study in the mid-1980s found that 12% of urban rats
in Philadelphia and 64% in Baltimore tested seropositive for Seoul
virus, a Hantaan-like virus that can produce a hemorrhagic fever,
but more often a renal syndrome.
(For reference, see http://www.uct.ac.za/microbiology/ebolaess.html)
Rats also carry murine typhus, and spread salmonella, leptospirosis,
and trichinosis. Where they come into contact with food, they can
spread all these diseases, as well as hantaviruses.
Rats live only a year. This combined with their reproductive capacity
means that any life form (virus, insect, bacterium, etc.) that can
move quickly from host to host can always find new rats to serve as
vectors, even if it is hugely deadly. That is, the colonizing life
form can kill its host...but new hosts are quickly supplied.
So. There in a nutshell is the woopdy-doo difference about rats in
cities. They are like cockroaches, McDonalds, tax lawyers, and SUVs:
there is no such thing as "a few" of them in major urban areas.
Once again, I'd like to underscore this issue of assuming that things
that work on farms must also work in cities. We've all seen what
happens when the opposite assumption gets made. Appropriate
technology means, in part, appropriately place-based technology. We
who advocate for food production and sustainable living in urban
areas have got to be careful in our thinking about such things, if we
expect to see the cities re-greened with food. We've got to know our
urban spaces as well as rural farmers know theirs.
I liked Ronald Nigh's off-list observation that chickens are ideal
recyclers for cities: small, eat anything, and quickly convert it to
earthworm fodder. But thanks to the poor adaptation of poultry
systems to urban environments in the early parts of this century,
people came to believe that they were, by necessity, dirty, smelly,
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
Pressure? Pressure was when I was a shoeshine boy
trying to make it to America. --Sammy Sosa
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