Chicago Rat Project: Thoughts about Rats during the Stay-at-Home Order

March 4, 2021

Written By

Jacqueline Buckley, One Health research coordinator, Urban Wildlife Institute, and Maureen Murray, wildlife disease ecologist, Ph.D.

Since pandemic restrictions have been in place, there have been various articles about rats circulating social media platforms. There have also been emails from local community organizations and aldermanic offices that have been about the Chicago Rat Project. This project asked residents across our city about rats to help us understand the experiences and feelings Chicagoans have about rats and other urban wildlife during the stay-at-home order. This information is important to assess health risks and help prevent future rat problems.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Collier

Oh, Rats!

While rats usually only live for a couple of years, people have been living with rats for centuries. They are fast learners and at some point realized that living near humans gave them easier access to food, shelter, and other resources to survive. As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another rat’s treasure. Not much has changed over the millennia rats have lived with us, and today one of the most common species we see in cities are the black rat (Rattus rattus) and the Brown rat (Rattus norvegicus).

Our extremely adaptive neighbor has got survival, in any environment, down to a science, and it starts with their fecundity, or ability to reproduce. One pair of rats can produce a new litter of 5- 10 pups every 21-23 days, which makes for a lot of new critters. Although rats receive a bad reputation, they have helped humans in the medical field and benefit our ecosystems by being a food source for other wildlife.

 

Sentiments towards rats have not always been the most sympathetic as shown in the word cloud (see infographic). The word cloud represents the responses collected in regards to the survey question, “what words come to mind when you think of rats?” For the city of Chicago, learning more about rats can help us prevent health risks from rat infestations.

The Survey

The stay-at-home survey was open during Chicago’s stay-at-home order from April 27 to June 7 and was completed by 834 residents. It was available in English and Spanish and represented 106 neighborhoods (although, the majority of respondents were from the North Side).

We learned that 76% of survey respondents are concerned about rat infestations and over 20% were more concerned about rats than they were before the stay-at-home order. When it came to rat sightings, around a quarter of survey respondents saw more rats during the stay-at-home order. Respondents were also able to articulate what they thought were the main factors contributing to Chicago’s rat problem. Trash was ranked by Chicagoans as the biggest problem contributing to the city’s rat problem. While we can agree, solving any rat problem is no easy task. It is a multi-pronged approach that takes a collaboration of community members to make a difference.

Many respondents mentioned being frustrated with their neighbors and referred to rats as being a community issue. Residents in smaller apartment buildings and near more restaurants were more likely to see an increase in rats.

 

Making the Call is Making a Change

With our survey, we found that 42% of Chicago residents that saw rats daily never called 3-1-1, and 59% of Chicago residents that saw rats weekly never called 3-1-1. Of the respondents who saw rats at least weekly, 61% did not call 3-1-1. Dealing with rats can be an expensive undertaking and in a stressful situation, information is not always easy to find or even know where to begin.

The Chicago’s 3-1-1 website is free and can be downloaded as an app on your phone to be used anywhere for many city-wide issues, like standing water and road repairs. This service is also available to report rat sightings. The city uses the data colected to identify which neighborhoods need more assistance. City wide data collection through a collaborative community can help the future of every neighborhood tremendously.

Hopefully, with more reports through this free service, more data can help alert the city where help is needed. From the city’s data, we have been able to see how many reports residents have been making during the stay-at-home order and we can compare this to previous years during the same time of year.

So, if you see a rat, make the call.

What’s Next?

The feedback we received from this initial survey will help us improve our survey, which will be mailed out to Chicago residents in neighborhoods across the city. This way, we make sure to get a true representation of the breadth of Chicago residents’ experiences with rats to protect public health and improve rat management. Keep an eye out for our survey in your mailbox this spring!