Rat Times at Richmond Heights

Has the MetroLink expansion unearthed a rodent invasion?

Two years ago Kathleen DuBois thought she landed a gem of a deal when she purchased a home on quiet, tree-lined Bryan Avenue in Richmond Heights. Today the place is rife with rats -- and DuBois is quite certain the culprit is the MetroLink expansion in her neighborhood.

As she tromps through her backyard on a recent Saturday, DuBois points to a half-dozen tiny round openings in the earth --rat burrows -- that have popped up near the foundation of her home and along the base of a chainlink fence that runs the length of her lawn.

Standing against the fence, DuBois motions toward a clearing in the thicket some 150 yards away, where a construction crane can be seen towering over the tree line.

"I'm sure the rats are coming from the MetroLink project," DuBois says.

Her neighbor, Donna Frost, has lived in the neighborhood since 1979 and never saw a rat until the MetroLink construction began in earnest this spring. Her first rat encounter came on a sunny afternoon last month, when she looked out her kitchen window to see three rabbit-size rats munching on the spillage from her bird feeder. Since then she's discovered a dead rat "the size of two Coke cans laid end-to-end" in her backyard. Frost maintains the smell emanating from under her front porch is from a rat that died when she plugged its burrow.

Alice Dames, another Bryan Avenue resident, fears for the safety of her dog. It seems Sandy, her little terrier, suffered a nasty rat bite when it cornered one of the furry beasts in Dames' backyard. Lately the dog has taken to chewing on poisoned squirrels that have been the unintended victims in Dames' rat offensive.

"Everything seems to be dying except for the rats," she says. "I've had two squirrels go belly-up on my porch in the past month."

If Metro is responsible for the rats, it refuses to take the bait.

"The rats were there long before MetroLink, and there's nothing we're doing that is attracting them," says Metro spokeswoman Cathie Farroll. "We may have made them more visible by removing some of the vegetation that was their habitat, but we're certainly not accountable for the rats."

Residents of the Ames Place neighborhood in University City aren't buying it. They lodged complaints to Metro soon after construction began on Forest Park Parkway last summer.

"We've had a few rats in the neighborhood over the years," explains longtime resident Elizabeth St. Clair. "But once MetroLink construction began, suddenly they're all over the place."

St. Clair suspects the rat uprising began when Metro replaced a sewer line along Forest Park Parkway and removed a row of crab apple trees that may have been a food source for the rats.

After battling the rats for months, the residents of Ames Place demanded a meeting last September with Metro and St. Louis County Vector Control, the division of the county's Department of Health that monitors public epidemics spread by rodents and mosquitoes.

The meeting accomplished little, says St. Clair.

"Metro wouldn't acknowledge it was their fault, and all Vector Control did was give us a lecture on how we as residents could help control the rat population. They acted like it was a normal occurrence that suddenly a neighborhood gets overrun with rats."

While Vector Control confirms the presence of rat burrows in neighborhoods adjacent to the MetroLink expansion, the agency is reluctant to blame the transit project. Following complaints in Richmond Heights, Vector Control toured the MetroLink construction site but could find no evidence of rats.

Counters Alice Dames: "Of course they're not going to see rat activity. That's because the rats have all moved out of the construction site and into our neighborhood."

What further frustrates Dames -- and others -- is her contention that Vector Control and the governing municipalities don't give a rat's ass.

Vector Control only treats rodent infestations on public properties, and Richmond Heights and University City do not have their own rodent-control units. The best Vector Control can do is survey a resident's property and suggest ways that the residents themselves can eradicate the rats.

But when Dames had Vector Control out to investigate her rat burrows, she says, the agent had other critters on his mind.

"He kept telling me how I could prevent nesting pools for mosquitoes such as emptying the dog bowl. Finally I had to tell him, 'Thanks for the advice, but at the moment I'm not concerned about West Nile virus!'"

Other residents of Richmond Heights say Vector Control has turned a deaf ear on their rat problems.

Janet Williams, director of the county's Environmental Protection Division, under which Vector Control falls, says that's not true.

"While this is West Nile virus season for us, we have enough staff to handle more than one issue at a time," Williams asserts.

Williams points to Vector Control statistics that show rat complaints countywide are actually down this year. The agency, however, does not keep records concerning complaints associated with MetroLink.

"In 2003 our agents completed 1,600 actions in which we responded to a complaint about rats or took proactive steps to eliminate rats," says Williams. "In this first six months of 2004, we've only had 504 such actions."

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