Rattus rattus: Malone’s rat plague

July 1, 2016

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— Calvin Luther Martin, PhD

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Rats are turning up in people’s homes in alarming and unprecedented numbers in the Depot area, down below the Franklin County courthouse.
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(Generic photo, not from Malone)

(Generic photo, not from Malone)

“I had one on my damn porch,” writes one incensed neighbor.  “It about gave me a heart attack. The little fucker chewed a hole in my big plastic trash can at the top. I put a trap out there with poison and it hasn’t been back! I have lived here for almost 5 years and never have I seen something of the sort. It was disgusting!”

Another wrote: “Been here since 1999 and never seen, heard or had any evidence of their presence until last year, when the neighbors caught 2 in traps. And then my dog barking and barking at the garage.  We finally decided to let her go, to find out what her problem was — ” whereupon they discovered this:
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Rattus rattus
.  Also known as the black rat, as distinct from Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat.  Turns out the family pooch was barking at Rattus on a car wheel in the garage.

It gets worse.  This one was photographed by a woman in her kitchen!
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And “worser.”  This was photographed — yup, you guessed it!
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(What if you were in a hurry and didn’t think to inspect the toilet before — oh no!  Let me just say, if you live in the Depot, be sure to check the toilet seat.)

While I was typing the above paragraph, this gem arrived in my Inbox.  Trapped by a gentleman living on Fort Covington Street, in (what I’m going to call) Rat Depot.
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Rats are worth worrying about.  Consider the Black Death, which killed roughly half the population of Europe in the mid-14th century (1300’s).
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The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics [a pandemic is a huge epidemic] in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people and peaking in Europe in the years 1346–53.  Although there were several competing theories as to the etiology [origin] of the Black Death, analysis of DNA from victims in northern and southern Europe published in 2010 and 2011 indicates that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague.

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, where it then travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1343.  From there, it was most likely carried by Oriental rat fleas living on the black rats that were regular passengers on merchant ships. Spreading throughout the Mediterranean and Europe, the Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe’s total population.  In total, the plague reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century. The world population as a whole did not recover to pre-plague levels until the 17th century.  The plague recurred occasionally in Europe until the 19th century.

— Wikipedia, “The Black Death

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Geographic range of the Black Death in Europe

The disease agent for the “plague” (Black Death, also known as the Bubonic Plague) is still around, still carried by rats.  The bacterium is endemic among wild rats in the American Southwest and parts of the American West, for instance, as well as other parts of the globe.  Campers and ranchers out west are routinely checked for “plague” when they show up at a clinic with the telltale symptoms.  So far, it has not spread from “wild” rats (defined as rats living outside cities and towns) to “urban” rats (like Malone’s rats), despite the fact the rat species can be co-mingling.  Nor has the plague bacterium spread beyond the SW and West in North America.  (It’s easily treatable with antibiotics.)
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“Plague” bacillus seen under electron microscope

However, with global warming, all bets are off regarding the geographic spread of wildlife diseases like the plague.  And nobody really understands why the plague bacillus has, so far, not spread to urban rats.

If you’re interested, here’s a YouTube video worth watching on the subject.
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This may also interest you, on rats in Paris, France.
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Back to Malone’s rats.  Urban rats, like Malone’s rats, can be laden with disease.  Disease carried by their fleas, for instance.  This is how the Black Death got going.  When urban rats succumbed to a mysterious illness, their fleas jumped from a rat host to a human host and began feeding on human blood.  As it happened, the rat fleas were loaded with the plague bacterium, thus inoculating human victims and touching off the worst epidemic in human history.

Plague-carrying rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis)

Malone rats have these fleas. If the fleas detect that their rat host is ill or dead, they will abandon it and dine on you and me.  Whatever pathogens happen to be thriving in the flea serum will be transmitted to you and me via a flea bite.  It’s as simple and as gross as that!
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Besides their infected fleas, rats transmit disease via their urine, feces (poop), and saliva (rat bite).

In 2014 a group of immunologists and microbiologists at New York City’s Columbia University, Cornell, and other leading universities published a report in the American Society for Microbiology’s peer-reviewed journal, mBio, titled “Detection of zoonotic [wildlife] pathogens and characterization of novel [new] viruses carried by commensal [means “living with humans”] Rattus norvegicus in New York City.”  In plain English, it’s a report on the shocking number of human-infecting pathogens typically carried by urban rats — like our Malone rats.  (Although the report focused on Norway rats, it is virtually certain the black rat is host to the same diseases.)
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ABSTRACT

Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) are globally distributed and concentrate in urban environments where they live and feed in closer proximity to human populations than most other mammals. Despite the potential role of rats as reservoirs of zoonotic [wildlife] diseases, the microbial diversity present in urban rat populations remains unexplored.

In this study, we used targeted molecular assays [lab methods] to detect known bacterial, viral, and protozoan human pathogens and unbiased high-throughput [molecular] sequencing to identify novel viruses related to agents of human disease in commensal [means “living with humans”] Norway rats in New York City.

We found that these rats are infected with bacterial pathogens known to cause acute or mild gastroenteritis in people, including atypical enteropathogenic Escherichia coliClostridium difficile, and Salmonella enterica, as well as infectious agents that have been associated with undifferentiated febrile [means “fever”] illnesses, including Bartonella spp., Streptobacillus moniliformisLeptospira interrogans, and Seoul hantavirus.

We also identified a wide range of known and novel viruses from groups that contain important human pathogens, including sapoviruses, cardioviruses, kobuviruses, parechoviruses, rotaviruses, and hepaciviruses. The two novel hepaciviruses discovered in this study replicate in the liver of Norway rats and may have utility in establishing a small animal model of human hepatitis C virus infection.

The results of this study demonstrate the diversity of microbes carried by commensal rodent species and highlight the need for improved pathogen surveillance and disease monitoring in urban environments (emphasis added).

IMPORTANCE:  The observation that most emerging infectious diseases of humans originate in animal reservoirs has led to wide- scale microbial surveillance and discovery programs in wildlife, particularly in the developing world. Strikingly, less attention has been focused on commensal animals like rats, despite their abundance in urban centers and close proximity to human populations. To begin to explore the zoonotic disease risk posed by urban rat populations, we trapped and surveyed Norway rats collected in New York City over a 1-year period. This analysis revealed a striking diversity of known pathogens and novel viruses in our study population, including multiple agents associated with acute gastroenteritis or febrile illnesses in people.

Our findings indicate that urban rats are reservoirs for a vast diversity of microbes that may affect human health and indicate a need for increased surveillance and awareness of the disease risks associated with urban rodent infestation (emphasis added).

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Click on the arrow (lower right corner) in the PDF, below, to read the abstract in the actual report.
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If New York City’s rats are carrying these pathogens, so are Malone’s.  Count on it!

Rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis)

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Here’s a Fox News report on the NYC rat study.
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I urge you to read the Discussion section of the NYC rat study, below.  (Click on the arrow in the lower right-hand corner.)  It’s sobering.  (Do your best with the scientific words and names.  Regardless of your level of science training, you can get a good feel for what’s being said.)  Most of all, it will persuade you that Malone’s rat problem needs to be taken seriously and in fact corrected, rather than papered over with bureaucratic bullshit, evasions, inertia, or passing the buck.
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So, how to fix our rat infestation?  European legend tells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin — a mysterious “piper” (flutist) who turned up at City Hall and offered to rid the town of its rat plague for a fee.  The town fathers were rapturous.  Here’s the rest of the story, in a famous poem by Robert Browning.
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The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Into the street the Piper stept,
Smiling first a little smile,
As if he knew what magic slept
In his quiet pipe the while;
Then, like a musical adept,
To blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled,
And green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled,
Like a candle-flame where salt is sprinkled;
And ere three shrill notes the pipe uttered,
You heard as if an army muttered;

And the muttering grew to a grumbling;
And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives—
Followed the Piper for their lives.
From street to street he piped advancing,
And step for step they followed dancing,
Until they came to the river Weser
Wherein all plunged and perished!

Robert Browning

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Alas, Malone has no pied piper!  What we have is the NYS Dept of Health, the Franklin County Dept of Public Health, and the Village of Malone Code Office.  That’s it, folks!  Here’s where the evasions and buck-passing begin.

Start with the NYS Dept of Health (NYS DOH).  Basically, NYS has told Mayor Joe Riccio, “you guys handle it!”

Franklin County said essentially the same thing, so far as I can tell.
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An email from Donna Kissane, Franklin County Manager, to the Malone Telegram phrases it this way:

Franklin County Public Health is not the regulating agency, so no “official” inspection was done [on the TAP Industries site].  However, the [County Public Health] agency had received a number of calls.  As an advocate of public health, she  [Kathleen Strack] wanted first-hand knowledge, so performed an unannounced visit to TAP Industries.  No rats were seen.  She [Kathleen Strack] stressed that the Village of Malone is the lead agency.

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This leaves the Village of Malone Board of Trustees and Mayor Joe Riccio.
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Mayor Joe Riccio

I’ll stop with this.  Part 2 of this article will explore what the village is doing and how effective its efforts are.  By way of preview, let me be clear that Mayor Riccio responded immediately when he was notified of the crisis several weeks ago. Mayor Riccio, the village trustees, Code Officer Mark Villa (who is now full-time), and Chief of Police Premo are doing all they can to fix it.
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I’m happy to report that there is an ace the village can play in this poker game — the ace being a little-known law that was brought to my attention by a village resident who wishes to remain unnamed, though she may turn out to be Malone’s pied piper savior.  To wit, we can insist that the NYS Dept of Health exercise its authority under PHL (Public Health Law) §§ 1303, which states that the “local health officer ‘may enter upon or within any place or premises where nuisances or conditions dangerous to life and health . . . are known or believed to exist’; local health officer ‘shall furnish the owners, agents or occupants of the premises with a written statement of the results and conclusions of any examination’; local board of health ‘shall order the suppression and removal of all nuisances and conditions detrimental to life and health.’”

PHL (Public Health Law) §§ 1305 goes on to declare:
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(1) owners and occupants of premises “shall permit sanitary examinations and inspections to be made”; (2) if owner or occupant of premises “fails to comply” with an order of the local health officer, the health officer “may enter upon the premises . . . and suppress or remove such nuisance or other matter”]; 1306 [“The expense of suppression or removal of a nuisance or conditions detrimental to health shall be paid by the owner or occupant of the premises or by the person who caused or maintained such nuisance or other matters.”]. See also 10 NYCRR §§ 8.2 [local health officer to file report of nuisance complaint with local board of health]; 8.3 [local board of health to serve on owner or occupant written statement of condition found, a notice to appear before board of health at a stated time and place and, after a hearing, if condition constitutes “a nuisance dangerous to health,” an order directing abatement].

NYS Public Health Legal Manual § 1.67, “Public Health Law [Nuisance],” pp. 34-35.

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Click on the arrow in the lower right-hand corner of the document, below, to read the full text in the original.  (Click here for a PDF of the NYS Public Health Legal Manual, 2011, in its entirety.)
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The local health officer in this case would be Dr. Emile Benardot, I believe.

With NYS Public Health Law §§ 1303, 1305, and 1306 in hand, the village should be able to resolve the rat plague swiftly and decisively.
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European legend credits a mysterious pied piper with eradicating disease-bearing rats.  Nowadays we invoke public health laws.  To date, the NYS Dept of Health (DOH) is derelict in its duty, and the mayor and village trustees should insist that DOH do its job.  If need be, District Attorney Craig Carriero should weigh in and demand that state law be enforced.
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In the meantime, while the state and county shirk their duty and pass the buck, Malone’s rats continue to proliferate.
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My advice?  Call Mayor Joe Riccio (483-2414 or 483-4570 village office) and trustees (most of whom, regrettably, don’t give their contact information) and tell them what’s on your mind — and keep an eye on your toilet seat!
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