It’s official. Parents and children at Willard Park need a Pied Piper. And fast.
Wendee Taylor, who works nearby and visits the park on most days, first saw rats coming out by the dozen from the bushes surrounding the Willard Park Tot Lot almost two years ago.
“Every time I bring out a cookie or a ham and cheese cracker to feed my daughter, they suddenly appear,” she said. “They come out from the trash cans, from under the ramp and from around the bushes.”
Wendee is not the only one to have sighted rats in the Willlard Park Tot Lot.
David Soloff has being going to Willard Park for the last seven years, and he noticed a dramatic increase in rats since last summer.
“It was really bad last October,” he said. “I was walking my 19-month-old son in the Tot Lot one evening, and these huge rats just raced across. I had to beat them with a stick, and only then did they leave us and disappear down the ramp. We stopped going there after that.”
According to Soloff the large quantities of food and human waste in the park are an open invitation to the rats.
“I have seen people smoking pot, cooking, and sometimes even defecating and urinating in the park,” he said. “The city needs to police these activities in order to control the rat infestation.”
Doreyne Douglas said she has stopped taking her children to the park in the evening.
“It’s a great park except for the rats,” she said. “As soon as the sun goes down we see the little heads popping out. I am scared of letting my children play there now.”
George Beier, president of the Willard Neighborhood Association who lives on Derby Street, told the Daily Planet that he has heard of several sightings from neighbors.
“It’s an endemic problem,” he said. “The population comes and goes. A lot of parents feed their kids in the Tot Lot and sometimes picnics are held. Rats by nature are attracted to leftovers and bio-degradable things like orange peels and banana skins which we often don’t think of as food. But it’s food for rodents, all right. As a result they keep coming back for more.”
The Willard Neighborhood Association has been working with Jim Hynes, assistant to the city manager, to eradicate the menace, Beier said.
Rats have also been sighted in the tennis courts next to the Tot Lot.
Students of Willard School, located adjacent to the park, have also reported seeing rats in the school grounds in the past. However the school staff was successful in controlling the problem when it occurred in 2003, according to a few eighth-graders.
Hynes said that rat infestation is a common problem in most urban areas.
“Since fall 2005 there has been a slight increase in the rat population in the Willard Park Tot Lot,” he said. “As a result the baiting or trapping of rats has also increased. We have plans to remove the planks in the raised platform in the Tot Lot and bait the rats.”
Baiting is a way of killing rats by poisoning them. Hynes also said that the homeless population camping out at the park often left food crumbs behind which attracted the rodents.
Manuel Ramirez, manager of environmental health at the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, said that Berkeley faces rodent issues similar to those in other cities.
“Most metropolitan areas struggle to keep rat and mice populations under control,” he said. “Rats and mice are communal rodents by nature, which means that they have a relationship with people who provide their food source. As a result they need to live among humans to sustain their needs.”
Ramirez added that inspections have been carried out around the Willard Park neighborhood for several years now and they are yet to find any particular explanation for rats in the park.
“We have found no violation of the Berkeley Municipal Code that could contribute to this problem,” he said. “Parks are good settings for picnics. We inadvertently provide rodents with water, food and shelter.”
Although the Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) has been sighted most often in Willard Park, the roof rat (Rattus rattus) and the house mouse (Mus musculus) are also common.
“Rat infestation is a community issue,” Ramirez said. “We need to practice good sanitation. Trash dumpsters must be monitored, garbage needs to be kept in sealed bags, and public areas need to be routinely cleaned. Leaking pipes and standing water also need to be controlled. Thinning out vegetation also makes planter areas less inviting.”
Ramirez also said that according to the integrated pest control management policy, the city is first required to look at the least toxic way of controlling rats.
“We need to look into environmental issues before we start using poison to kill the rats,” he said. “The least toxic alternative is always the best.”