Columbus is offering new fertility-based option to control rats

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They’re calling it a birth-control campaign, conjuring images of family planning and contraceptives.

Promotional materials show a couple framed in a heart.

Except in this case, the couple is two rats. And they’re accompanied by the web address randyrats.com.

Columbus apparently was drawn to the pitch from an Arizona-based company to curb rat problems. The city entered into a contract earlier this year with SenesTech to offer residents with rat issues what’s billed as an effective, nontoxic, nonlethal, long-term solution to control or eliminate them.

SenesTech contract offers fertility-based solution to get rid of rats

The idea is that the wide-eyed critters with sharp teeth lurking in back alleys, abandoned homes or compost piles can continue to do what rodents do best while experiencing a precipitous decline in their propagation.

Kelli Newman, Columbus Public Health spokeswoman, called the concept of fertility-based rat control “just another tool in the toolbox” for addressing the issue.

Fertility treatment has been used to control deer herds and other nuisance pests. But the rat’s renowned prowess to procreate, combined with a surge of critters during the coronavirus pandemic, is creating new urgency.

With more people working from home and fewer people leaving garbage in urban centers, rats have branched into new areas, Newman said.

While Newman indicated that the city doesn’t promote the method over other options — saying it doesn’t endorse particular products — it is one of the options that it has made available to residents since early this year.

“We did add it to our integrated pest management system. We are using it,” she said of the initial cost of about $5,000.

How the rat control method works

A pair of rats can multiply with impressive efficiency — producing more than 15,000 critters in multiple generations in just one year, each of them hungry, clever consumers of garbage or raiders of pantry shelves.

So distributing fragrant, syrupy sweet concoctions that include an infertility ingredient was an ideal solution, according to Senes Tech.

The new treatment is called ContraPest, and it targets the reproductive capabilities of both sexes in rat populations, inducing egg loss in female rats and impairing sperm development in the tests of males.

Columbus has had recurring problems with rat infestations, often addressed by Columbus Public Health when there are demolitions or major development projects that displace rats and rodents, according to Newman and previous accounts published in the Dispatch.

The fertility treatment, approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency, is most effective when used together with traditional methods of rat control, such as poison and traps, SenesTech said.

Here’s how it works: The liquid formulation is placed in bait boxes, which attract rats. It has a high fat content, is sweet tasting and very attractive to the rodents, which need to consume approximately 10 percent of their body weight in water each day.

“It tastes like a milkshake, fatty and sweet. … They drink it out of a trough and they gorge on it,” said Nicole Williams, chief strategy officer for SenesTech.

The rats are not rendered permanently infertile, she said.

“It’s like a birth control pill that you have to continually take,” Williams explained.

Newman said the initial program may expand, depending on demand and whether health inspectors deem it effective and necessary.

“We take complaints, we look for signs of rats, we provide education to remove the things that attract rats … and then provide bait boxes that could be another option,” she said.

The product when used alone may take up to a year to eliminate rats. When used with poisons or snap traps, the effect may be a few months, according to SenesTech.

“Once they knock the population down, this can be a great maintenance tool,” Williams said.

Humane treatments are being sought by consumers wary of chemicals and their effect on the environment, animal rights advocates say.

“Poison and traps not only don’t work, they’re cruel. Nature will always trump whatever we try to do, so we might as well do something relatively kind than something that’s cruel,” said Catie Cryar, an assistant manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Kathleen Bailey, a long-time activist and member of the South of Main Civic Association, said she was unaware of the new rat control program, but added that “if it slows them down, I could see the long-term benefit.

“When it comes to rats,” she said, “I’m not too concerned about it being humane.”

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@DeanNarciso

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