Virginia Dagenais has lived in a well-kept home near 13th and Ridge since 1959.
In those 58 years, she has turned her backyard into an oasis of flower gardens, with elephant ears, hostas and begonias, to name a few. All in neat plots. Her emerald green grass is cut short, as even as a putting green. Her little firewood pile is orderly.
But for the first time, rats are roaming her oasis.
The 80-year-old woman is not alone in her rat problem. It’s citywide.
It includes some of the most coveted, cozy neighborhoods.
Wichita residents reporting a rat problem to The Eagle and on social media from the east: around 143rd and East Kellogg, Douglas and Rock, Central and Rock, Central and Woodlawn.
And on the west side: around 13th and Ridge and Tyler and Kellogg.
People are saying they are seeing rats – normally nocturnal – in their yards even during the daytime.
In most cases, this is their first experience with the pests at their homes.
One resident has trapped 42, another 21, another 20, in three different east Wichita neighborhoods, according to accounts provided to The Eagle or posted on social media.
One person commenting on social media – after The Eagle first reported the rat problem Tuesday – suggested that people are making it up.
Why, she asked, aren’t people sharing, and The Eagle publishing, photos of the dead rats?
Residents who have killed rats in traps said they never thought to photograph the pests before they disposed of them. Some didn’t want to dwell on the sight of a dead, mangled rat. Or they were embarrassed to record their problem with a photograph.
Dagenais said she has trapped 18 of them – each around a foot long – in the past two and a half months, luring them with pepperoni and peanut butter.
She killed the first rat she spotted, on her patio, at close range with a BB gun.
She would have caught more if she had tried harder, she said.
“You always think of rats in New York” – but not Wichita, she observed.
A city official noted that the areas where the rats are showing up have generally tidy homes and yards, generally free of excessive debris or sanitation problems that can harbor rodents.
The rodents appear to be the Norway rat variety, common around the world and despised because of the health hazards they can present and the damage they can do gnawing on food and property.
One of the potential dangers is the rats can carry communicable diseases. They can chew into a home. They can squeeze through a hole the size of a half dollar, according to a rodent control fact sheet released by the county Thursday.
None of the residents said rats had infiltrated their homes, only their yards.
But the rats are scavenging too close to their homes, and some said they worry that the pests could try to move inside as cold weather arrives.
Biologist: “Highly unusual”
What is causing rats to show up in new places and in numbers not seen before?
Donald Kaufman is a Kansas State University biology professor whose expertise is native prairie rodents – not the Norway rat that came from Europe and dwells among humans in urban areas.
But Kaufman said he felt confident in saying that the phenomenon occurring in some Wichita yards is “highly unusual” because Norway rats produce large litters and need a very large food supply and enough “structure” to develop a significant population.
So where are they getting their food?
“They’ve got to be coming from somewhere. That’s a lot of big rodents going in there,” Kaufman said.
If he was going to find the best place to catch 100 Norway rats, Kaufman said, his first thought would be a grain elevator or a feed lot.
The nearest grain elevator is several miles from the Wichita yards where the rats are worrying residents.
Elmer Finck, a Fort Hays State University biology professor, said he wonders whether what people are catching are cotton rats instead of Norway rats. Cotton rats aren’t quite as large as Norway rats. Cotton rats have mottled blackish-brown fur, and their tails have noticeably much more fur than Norway rats.
Finck said he would like to see photos of the rats being caught to help confirm his thoughts.
Cotton-rat populations fluctuate, and with timely rains and mild winters in recent years, their population has become “outrageously high” in Kansas, Finck said. Rains have given them more grass and weed seed to munch on. Mild winters let them survive and breed longer.
Speaking of the phenomenon in Wichita yards, he said, “To me what you are describing sounds like an outbreak of cotton rats."
He also noted: “You could have the same thing happen with Norway rats, but they aren’t as much of a grass eater.”
A number of Wichita residents said they have seen rats during the day eating seed left out for birds. One reader shared: “I moved the bird seed off the ground and have not seen any more.”
“I’ve been afraid to look”
One woman, who lives near Tyler and Kellogg, started noticing rats at her home about three weeks ago. It upset her when she saw two of them around her flower garden out front, one running along her house foundation. She couldn’t see its tail, but its body was about 6 inches long.
Are the rats burrowing in her thick flower garden?
“I’ve been afraid to look,” she said Thursday.
She suspected that the rats could be coming from a neighbor’s yard because the neighbor had already shared that he had rats around his house and because the neighbor’s yard was full of debris piles and covered in tall grass – potential shelter and cover for rodents.
She asked not to be identified because she doesn’t want to aggravate her neighbor.
She reported the debris and rat concern to a city office and was first told that she should get an exterminator. She also reported her concerns to the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department (MABCD). That office informed her that it had sent someone to ask her neighbor to clean up the debris, she said.
The woman has a dog, so she’s afraid of using poison or traps that could kill or harm her pet or other beneficial animals. So she’s thinking of using a live trap.
Although she’s spotted only two rats, she fears there could be more.
Number to call
Deb Legge, an official with MABCD, said Tuesday afternoon that two inspectors were sent to check commercial areas around the neighborhood near Central and Woodlawn – the neighborhood where one resident caught 42 rats.
But the inspectors found nothing at the businesses that would invite a rat infestation, she said.
Although MABCD doesn’t deal specifically with rat complaints, people can call the agency at 316-660-9220, and select from the menu of options, to report conditions that can contribute to rats such as bulky waste, tires, junk vehicles, sanitation issues and tall grass and weeds.
Residents are responsible for keeping their property reasonably clean and uncluttered, Legge said.
“A losing battle”
Dagenais, the 80-year-old woman who lives near 13th and Ridge, has maybe the most picturesque yard on a street of tidy west-side homes.
She’s not catching rats at quite the same rate as before. Still, she said, “I’m fighting a losing battle here.” She caught one in a trap as recently as Monday.
She wonders if they could be migrating from a field across the street from her neighborhood.
She asked neighbors if they had seen rats. One had seen two in a shed.
They tend to run along a section of her wooden privacy fence that borders her vegetable garden.
So far, she’s seen none in her shed. But she worries about one scampering into her garage.
Besides the traps, she’s used poison, tucked away where only a rat could get to it, she said. She hasn’t found any poisoned rats.
Does Dagenais now feel afraid in her beautiful backyard?
“I was raised on a ranch; I’m one of eight children. I’m not afraid of one.”
She paused, then added, “I wouldn’t want to get bit by one.”