Geri Galian Miller owns an urban garden on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice and sells her produce to nearby restaurants. She tends to her vegetables, many of which are wrapped in clear pest-proof plastic. But that hasn’t stopped a rat invasion.
“They seem to like the Lacinato Tuscan kale. They left the arugula, so they have a very refined palate,” she says.
Poking its head in one of her chicken coops is a rotting rat carcass dangling in between three chicken wire fences.
Miller and her garden are not alone. Since the beginning of the pandemic, rats seem to be more prominent in every major city. They’re popping up in your pantry, scurrying along your feet at your outdoor restaurant tables, and outsmarting your rat traps.
What’s the deal? Have they been breeding more? Or are they just coming out of the woodwork in greater numbers? Are they getting smarter? Braver? Are we entering the ratpocalypse?
On the lunar calendar, 2020 is the Year of the Rat. Traditionally, the animal symbolizes wealth and prosperity. While that may not be the reality for many people right now, it has certainly come true for one industry: exterminators.
Kat Herrera owns Kat’s Pest Solutions in South Pasadena. Her company’s slogan: “It takes a Kat to catch a rat.”
She’s a sole proprietor and manages a team of athletic men who lug around the equipment. Also, she wears hot pink cowboy boots, drives a hot pink truck, and has an equally colorful backstory.
She tells the “abridged” version: “I had become homeless with my sons. We lived in our car. When I went out into the field, I basically fell in love with the job. A route was created, and I worked in the field for a couple years. I was able to buy a house and get my kids back.”
She also had a stint as a reality TV star on The Discovery Channel.
“I was on a show called ‘Verminators’, on season 2,” she says. “I was the only female on that show. We went into Florida, wrestled alligators, chased peacocks, you name it.”
She says her business has almost tripled these days. That’s true for several other pest control companies in LA as well.
Herrera shows KCRW the rat-proofing process for one of her jobs at a big brick house in La Canada Flintridge. She ducks into a crawlspace, stepping around small mountains of rat droppings in her pink boots, and points to all the tiny holes where rats tunnel through into the kitchen. The solution: Wire them shut.
“It’s almost like they’ve evolved,” she says of the rats. “They were already pretty smart and tenacious, but I feel like they’ve become smarter. I joke around with clients and say they’re also reading Google. They’re reading Google to try and figure out how to outsmart us.”
The pandemic hasn’t induced species evolution, but it has affected rat behavior. When restaurants began shutting down in March, rats had to get scrappy for food.
Urban rodentologist Dr. Bobby Corrigan consults New York City on how to deal with its rats. He explains the change in rat behavior.
“Overnight, that food, beginning in March for most of the U.S., everything closed,” he says. “When those rats got up in the morning (so to speak, their morning is night), and came out to look for the restaurant garbage and everybody else’s commercial garbage, there was nothing there. And so these rats, just like any other mammal, went into starvation mode.”
He continues, “They are more aggressive in trying to find food. So rats were found in the day, out in the daytime, they were found killing each other and cannibalizing each other.”
But seeing more rats doesn’t mean there are more rats.
“I suspect, from my own surveys and my own knowledge, there’s far fewer rats because of this pandemic because it puts so much stress on rat colonies,” he says. “The paradox is the sightings in many cases have increased. They’re out during the day when they normally would not be. They’re stressed and acting a little bit disoriented. Kind of bumping into things, bumping into each other. People hear them getting into fights. So that generates a lot of calls, for example, to the cities and the pest control companies.”
For someone who designs programs to kill rats, he sure has an affinity for the creatures.
He says, “If martians visit us from another galaxy and landed here for a quick passthrough, they’d say, ‘Well, between the rodents and the humans, who has proven more successful?’ It’s rodents.”
So when people come back to fill the streets after the pandemic, will rats still be hangry, so to speak? Bobby Corrigan says don't worry about it.
“There’s going to be no evolution that occurred from this where they evolved into a different behavior and they became more aggressive on each other,” he says. “They’re waiting for things to get back to normal, so to speak. Their reproduction is going to pick up right where it left off. They’re going to skip a beat just like we did.”
When humans can finally start getting back to business, rats can start getting back to minding their own. At least a little bit more so than now.