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FORT LAUDERDALE — Fort Lauderdale, the pretty city known for its Spring Break beach crowd and killer tourist scene, is not exactly Ratville, USA.
But truth be told, the city does have its share of rats. And chances are, they’re scurrying along to their next meal — or their next mating session — even as you read this.
Though rodents can be a taboo topic among those intent on promoting South Florida’s postcard lifestyle, the subject scratched its way to the surface during a recent City Hall meeting.
Vice Mayor Heather Moraitis, who dared to mention the unmentionables during a commission conference meeting just four days before Christmas, boldly declared: “I have rats in the Galt.”
Her district includes the low-key neighborhood, home to a string of 30 handsome oceanfront condos along with shops and restaurants on the east side of A1A.
Moraitis says she’s gotten frantic complaints from condo and business owners who’ve spotted rats scurrying around in broad daylight.
“The word infestation was used,” she said. “It’s the first time it’s been brought to my attention.”
The roof rat, also known as the citrus rat, fruit rat, black rat and gray rat, is native to southern Asia. The same species that carried the bubonic plague, the roof rat came to America on ships, and is the most common rat in Florida. Like the Norway rat, the roof rat can live in sewers. (William Kern, University of Florida IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center/Courtesy)
Leslie Fine, a transplant from New Orleans who lives in a condo along Fort Lauderdale’s Galt Ocean Mile, says she is well aware of the rats crawling around her city.
“Rats here can eat and drink like kings and queens,” Fine said. “I’m sure central beach is crawling with them. I’m sure if you go behind any of those restaurants at night, you’d see a little rat fiesta.”
Fine says her own neighborhood, just east of A1A and north of Oakland Park Boulevard, is not immune. There’s good reason rats flock to the Galt, she says.
“Every condo has shrubs and walls in front,” Fine said. “We have dumpsters. Lots of places for them to hide. Everybody who lives here knows there’s rats. I mean everybody. It’s like a joke.”
Phil Thornburg, director of Fort Lauderdale’s Parks and Recreation Department, promised to have trappers take a look, but also shared a fact of life: Rats aren’t just hanging out in the Galt.
“There’s rats all over the city,” he said.
Still, most don’t parade around during the day.
Rats are night owls, most active between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.
But in recent weeks, some residents out for a morning walk complained about seeing the long-tailed rodents bounding from bush to bush, said Fred Nesbitt, president of the Galt Mile Community Association.
“They used to see one or two,” he said. “Now they’re seeing more.”
Workers at one real estate business, alarmed by the rats congregated outside, recorded videos of the creatures running into the bushes during daylight, he said.
Fine says she’s also seen rats scampering around the shops and restaurants in the North Beach Village area on the west side of A1A.
Moraitis confirmed that the rats have been living it up there, too.
“They were hanging out in the bushes, outside the condos and near the dumpsters and the businesses” on the east side, Moraitis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “But recently the businesses on the west side of A1A say they are having problems, too.”
Who are these rats, really?
While New York City has the notorious Norway rat, in Fort Lauderdale we have the slightly smaller roof rat, also known as the citrus rat, fruit rat, black rat and gray rat, the very same species that carried the bubonic plague.
William Kern, an associate professor with the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology & Nematology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, estimates the tri-county region might be home to as many as 1 million of them.
“Anyone who tells you they don’t have roof rats in their neighborhood just hasn’t seen them yet,” Kern said. “They’re there. You can go out with a thermal imaging camera at night and just start looking around and you’ll see rats everywhere.”
Rats love Fort Lauderdale for the same reasons we do: The great food, the plentiful access to water, the stellar nightlife — or rather, all the rat-nip goodies that come with it. Maybe a half-eaten doughnut tossed in the trash or a taco or quesadilla left behind on the sidewalk
Rats tend to flock to dumpsters where they can dine on scraps. Fort Lauderdale residents say rats have been spotted hanging out near dumpsters like this one on Galt Ocean Mile. (Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel)
Kern says it’s somewhat rare to see rats roaming during the day.
“Sometimes that means you are dealing with a large rat population,” he said. “Or their habitat could have been disturbed. There is pressure on the population. With a larger population, rats are going to run around during the daytime.”
Cathy Vassallo, owner of Fishtales restaurant and president of the North Beach Restaurants and Shoppes Association at the Galt, sent an urgent email to Moraitis in early December asking for help.
“At night you can watch them running all around,” she wrote. “Every merchant on this street is complaining to me! I have told them the city is aware and going to fix the problem. This definitely has nothing to do with the restaurants, but I am afraid if it’s not corrected they will start to come into the buildings. This is a health and safety issue. And very bad press for the entire neighborhood. It’s really bad and something has to be done.”
City officials say they’re tackling the problem with Bait Block traps.
Enrique Sanchez, deputy director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, believes the rats were drawn to dumpsters behind some businesses, but insists there is no rat infestation.
“Every once in a while someone will have a rat sighting and it generally gets blown out of proportion,” he said. “The North Beach shops was where the problem was coming from, but I wouldn’t say it was an infestation.”
When most people have a rat problem, they get on the phone with the exterminator. But sometimes, when the problem is bad enough or visible enough, they report it to City Hall.
Rat complaints have zoomed up since the pandemic. This year alone, the city fielded 30 complaints, up from 22 last year and 13 in 2019.
Longtime resident Mark De Mars made one of those calls.
DeMars, who lives in Coral Ridge Country Club Estates, filed a complaint in early December after spotting rats nesting in a pile of landscaping debris dumped near his home. He drove by last week and was pleased to see the debris was gone — and so was the rat nest.
“They nest in palm trees, but people don’t see them so they don’t realize they’re there,” he said. “It’s just not something people like to talk about. But when they see them, they want someone else to deal with it.”
That’s where the pros come in.
Kevin Officer, president of Affordable Wildlife Removal, says he’s seen an extreme uptick in business in the past two years. He thinks part of it has to do with the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that so many of us are working remotely.
“More people are home, looking outside their windows,” Officer said. “More eyes right there, in our backyard.”
Before the pandemic hit, his company got anywhere from 10 to 15 calls a month from Fort Lauderdale customers with a rat problem, he said. Post pandemic, that rose to 30 to 50 calls a month and has remained steady.
Things got so busy, he had to hire more exterminators.
“It was almost like a light switch,” he said. “When the state went into lockdown, we got an influx of calls almost immediately. Most people were going out of business. But we pretty much doubled our staff.”
Mayor Dean Trantalis says he, too, has become a victim of a rat infestation at his own home.
They showed up a year ago, to his dismay. He got rid of them all on his own using traps.
“Rats are extremely smart,” he said. “They know how to evade the traps you set out for them. But the mayor is smarter.”
Dead rats collected from a fig tree in 2010. Dr. William Kern, an entomologist with the University of Florida, counted 68 rats in the tree after it was fumigated. The homeowner was feeding the rats pounds of peanuts every day, thinking it would keep them on her property. (William Kern, University of Florida IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center/Courtesy)
The trouble with rats is they do a lot of damage.
Trantalis ticked off the list: “They chew on plastic. They chew on wood. They cut through wires. They’re not welcome guests.”
Trantalis said he’s glad the vice mayor brought up for what many is an unspoken truth.
“I don’t think the rat problem got any better or worse during her tenure,” he said. “She happened to bring it up and I’m glad she did. Maybe more people will be more responsible now that we know have a problem. Don’t create environments that rats will find welcoming. Clean out dumpsters. Cover food areas. Don’t have standing water. Those are things that attract rats.”
You really can smell a roof rat. Kern says they have a distinct odor, a musky urine smell.
“They will also urinate and defecate as they travel,” he said. “The urine acts as a trail marker so they can find their escape routes in complete darkness. If you kill the rats in your attic and don’t block the hole where they’re coming in, in two weeks you’ll have new rats move in. They’ll just follow that odor trail into the house.”
The average roof rat is 8 inches long (18 inches if you include the tail) and weighs 1 pound and 4 ounces, Kern said. By comparison, the biggest Norway rats can get up to 2 pounds and 20 inches nose to tail.
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Roof rats breed year-round, with peak breeding activity in the spring and fall, Kern says. They live in family groups with a dominant adult male and six to 10 females and their babies.
They breed quickly, too, mating at around three months and producing six to eight “pups” per litter. With three or four litters a year, that means 18 to 32 babies a year for each female rat in the harem.
To survive, they need one ounce of liquid water a day. They’ll chew through lead and plastic pipes and travel as far as 450 feet to get to water and food.
The crafty critters can live up to three years, unless they get snagged by a trap, a cat, an owl or a hawk. And sometimes a passing car might just do them in.
They have exceptional survival skills, but as Kern puts it, “Sometimes they make bad decisions about when to cross.”