This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.
Danièle Pichette stands at the ready, holding her dog's collar and waiting for the signal. When she hears "Go!" Pichette releases her grip on Salty. The Jack Russell Terrier frantically rushes to the bales of hay, in search of one thing: A rat.
Salty takes only seconds to signal that he has found his target. The small crowd erupts into applause as the judges mark down the time. Pichette calls Salty back and walks out of the field, making way for the next dog-trainer duo.
This is what a modern day ratting competition looks like. A dog training school on Nun's Island in Montreal hosted the event in early March, PVC tubes protecting the rats from the dogs.
"The rats are very safe. They're well cared for. They're bred and trained from birth to be around dogs," says Marie-Claire Guindon, one of the event's organizers and board president of RATS! Canada.
Although it may seem like a novel sport, this tight-knit group of dog owners is carrying on the centuries-old activity of ratting. Farmers historically relied on dogs to protect their crops and livestock by hunting rodents. Terriers were bred specifically for that purpose.
Watch | Dogs compete at ratting event in Montreal:
Some, however, are still holding on to the practice's initial purpose. For over 30 years, a group of volunteers have taken New York's infamous rat problem into their own hands. Based out of New Jersey, the Ryders Alley Trencher-Fed Society — or R.A.T.S. for short — uses dogs to sniff out, catch and kill rats.
The group formed after attending a dog show in a state park overrun with rats. "We decided to see if our dogs might solve the problem, and they did. And the rest is history," says Richard Reynolds, head rat catcher for the American group.
R.A.T.S. responds to calls for help, rather than working by a set schedule. Once an infestation is reported, Reynolds emails the volunteer list and the first eight to respond are invited to the hunt.
"Over a period of time, we have an effect. But it's not a magic wand solution," Reynolds says, adding that while everyone always focuses on the dead rats, the group is really in it as an activity for their dogs.
Rodent infestations cause numerous harmful effects on communities. Rats can damage infrastructure, carry and spread dangerous diseases and compromise the cleanliness of houses, businesses and public areas.
And while this approach might help with individual infestations, its effect on an overall rat population is unclear.
Some in Montreal are calling for a more systematic approach to regain control over the growing rat population.
The state of Montreal's rat problem
Sarah Soifer has been living with a rat infestation in the basement of her building for years. The resident of Montreal's western Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood recalls finding the first rat only a few months after the city had finished redoing the pipes on her street. Since discovering that first rat in 2018, Soifer says she avoids the basement.
She says that since the construction ended, her landlord finds a rat about every four months.
Construction can generate rat infestations in nearby buildings. Projects that open the sewer system cause the rats living underground to search for new shelter. Soifer suspects this is the cause of her building's rat problem.
Oscar Morales, exterminator and owner of PestBros Pest Control, started getting more calls about rat infestations as pandemic restrictions were being lifted. But while fewer people were going to restaurants during the pandemic — resulting in less food and garbage — he says that doesn't lead to fewer rats.
"It's the contrary," he says. "If there's no human activity, they tend to go to those places."
He generally has long-term relationships with his clients.
"We might catch this group of rats, but then another one will come," says Morales.
Extermination can therefore become an expensive, unforeseen cost for businesses.
Gilbert Proulx, the director of science at Alpha Wildlife Research and Management, stresses the difficulty of controlling rat populations in cities. According to the wildlife biologist, they offer the perfect conditions for the reproduction of rodents. Easy access to food through open trash cans and litter left by citizens, combined with the absence of predators, can lead them to thrive and multiply.
"These are prolific animals that can endure many hardships before dying," he says from his office in Alberta, one of the few places in the world to have eradicated rats from its territory.
The number of reported sightings of rats in Montreal points to a growing problem. Based on numbers obtained from the city, in 2021, citizens made 1,288 calls to 311 regarding the presence of rats in public areas, such as streets, parks and alleys. That's an increase of 34 per cent since 2019.
Sightings of rats reported to the City of Montreal in 2021
But that might not show the true scope of the problem. According to a study published by the World Health Organization in 2008, complaints received by cities are an unreliable way to assess the size of rodent populations.
In Montreal, many rat infestations on private property remain undisclosed. Homeowners and businesses are expected to handle the problem, though tenants' complaints are recorded by the city.
The City of Montreal says it is, however, taking steps to be proactive.
"Prevention work is carried out upstream, in order to prevent and control rat populations on the territory," wrote Yohann Goyat, a city spokesperson. He says the city cleans public spaces every year, which helps limit the presence of rats. And about 100 inspectors are tasked with searching apartment buildings for rodents and other health hazards when tenants file complaints.
But Goyat added that controlling rat infestations is the responsibility of the boroughs.
Villeray–Saint-Michel–Parc-Extension, the borough that recorded the most rat sightings in 2021, did not respond to a request for comment.
What can Montreal do?
An effective solution must target the key factors contributing to the reproduction of rodents without harming other species, according to Proulx. Integrated pest management (IPM) aims to achieve just that.
In 2018, Ensemble Montréal, the Opposition party at city hall, proposed a rat-control plan inspired by IPM programs. They asked for a systematic rat extermination protocol for construction projects, review into waste management and replacement of garbage bags and open-lid bins with closed ones. The motion also encouraged residents to report infestations to the city to help quantify the rat population.
While that motion failed, Proulx believes these measures could yield positive results for the city.
"Exchanging plastic bags for closed bins is something that works very well," says the biologist. Proulx also believes that a consistent rodent-control procedure in construction projects that affect the sewage system would tackle the problem at its root.
"The goal is to use all possible measures at the same time," he says. For him, there is no single golden-ticket solution to rid the city of rats, a belief echoed by both Morales, the exterminator and Reynolds, the American rat catcher.
"If we want to eliminate rodents, everyone has to get to work," says Proulx.