Claus Johnsen and Michelle McFall-Johnsen weren’t surprised to hear their Logan Square neighborhood is among the city leaders in rat complaints, though they say the real news is just how ever-present the pests have become since the couple moved into a home on the community’s western edge 12 years ago.
“What I’m used to seeing is a rat maybe darting out in the middle of the night across the street,” said Johnsen, a paramedic. “These days they are brazen. (They’re) like, ‘I’m taking a walk. This is my alley!'”
Rat complaints reported to the city in Logan Square and other communities skyrocketed in 2016, with the city receiving 46,879 rat-related requests for service through the 311 call center and online. The 2016 total was the most of any year since 2011, the first year of data provided by the city, and it dwarfed 2015’s total by more than 13,000 complaints.
Through Sept. 21, the city is on pace to set another record with about 1,500 more rat complaints than it had by the same time last year, a Tribune analysis of city data shows. City officials say the increase was expected as Streets and Sanitation rodent crews and elected officials have ramped up publicity efforts urging residents to report rats.
Johnsen and McFall-Johnsen, who abandoned apartment living to raise their two children in a two-story house on West Shakespeare Avenue, say they’ve waged war to keep the disease-carrying pests out of their home. Over the years, they’ve progressed from basic snap traps, poisons and regular 311 complaints to installing chicken wire fencing in their backyard, letting feral cats play on their property and using sealant foam to close cracks and crevices.
“And then they just tunnel near the hole that you just sealed,” McFall-Johnsen laughed.
“My husband used to put out traps and poisons, and (the problem) seemed to be OK and we controlled it,” McFall-Johnsen said of the early days in her home. “This is the worst it’s ever been.”
With just about three months left in the year, the West Town community — which contains the West Town, Wicker Park and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods — has the early lead for the dubious title of Chicago’s rattiest neighborhood, with more than 1,600 service requests. West Town is followed by Logan Square, with about 1,580 requests, and West Ridge on the Far North Side, third with 1,529 requests.
City residents who spot a rat, or merely suspect they have them, can call 311 or file a report using the city’s website. The neighborhoods with the most complaints don’t necessarily have the biggest rat problem.
Experts say it’s impossible to say just how many rats may be roaming city streets, but Discover Magazine in 2006 noted a pair of brown rats could produce as many as 2,000 descendants in a year.
The majority of communities in the top 10, which includes Lakeview, Irving Park, Austin, Portage Park, Lincoln Park and Belmont Cragin, were also among last year’s communities with the most rat complaints. The only South Side community in the top 10 was Clearing, a community near Midway Airport, which rose from 12th last year to No. 6 this year.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data suggest the city’s most dense neighborhoods — the ones with higher populations, restaurants and trash, Logan Square, Lakeview and Lincoln Park among them — have the greatest number of rat complaints and the most houses baited.
The reasons for the rise in rat complaints can be many, experts say. Warm weather not only brings rats out of their burrows, it also brings diners out to sidewalk cafes or to picnic in the park. They can find ready food sources in alleys and garbage cans. New construction, demolition and large-scale rehab projects can quickly disperse rats into a community, and adding to the problem are pet owners, or more exactly, those who don’t pick up after their pets.
The latter is a sore spot for Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, who lays some of the blame for the rat problem at the feet of negligent dog owners.
“I tell my residents, ‘We will abate, and abate and abate, ‘but if residents don’t pick up after their dogs and/or close the lids on their garbage cans, we can abate till the cows come home,” Moreno said. “It may sound basic, but you can’t imagine how many people (there are) who don’t do those things.”
The problem has gotten so bad in his ward, which contains portions of West Town, Wicker Park and Logan Square, Moreno said he allows his constituents to contact him directly through social media with rat complaints. Moreno said he has used cash from his political fund to pay for lawn signs that read “Please pick up after your dog.”
The increase in rat complaints, city officials said, has much to do with outreach efforts by Streets and Sanitation rodent control to get residents to report any rats they see and to take ownership over their trash and pet waste.
This year was the first for Streets and Sanitation’s new Bureau of Rodent Control, which had a budget of more than $10 million — more than doubling last year’s budget for rodent control. The money paid for 22 rodent abatement crews, supplies, brochures in several languages and signs with tips and reminders on eliminating food sources for rats.
Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams said rodent control workers respond to complaints within five days, checking around property for rat burrows and putting down bait. To deal with the scourge, the city may use nonlethal liquid contraceptive bait in a feeding tube to make rats infertile, feral cats and dry ice placed in rat burrows to suffocate the scurrying rodents.
“You have to remember you’re never going to completely eliminate the rats from our society, but you want to keep it under control,” Williams said. “(But) by properly responding, you’re preventing that rodent problem from spreading elsewhere.”
The most common city rats, also known as brown rats or Norway rats, can live almost anywhere and eat anything from grains and meat to dead animals and pet waste to survive, according to public health experts. They have been known to carry disease, and female brown rats can breed any month of the year and produce up to 22 babies in one litter, experts say.
As for the Logan Square couple, they are staying put in their home and are determined to fight off the fearless rodents, though there’s little left in their arsenal.
“We’ve tried everything,” McFall-Johnsen said.
Top Chicago communities for rat reports in 2017
1. West Town —1,640
2. Logan Square — 1,580
3. West Ridge — 1,529
4. Lakeview — 1,436
5. Irving Park — 1,318
6. Clearing — 1,175
7. Austin — 1,118
8. Portage Park — 1,097
9. Lincoln Park — 1,038
10. Belmont-Cragin — 989
*As of Sept. 21, per Tribune analysis of city portal data.