ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
If you live in a big city long enough, you're bound to see some rats. In one Chicago neighborhood, residents are about to see a lot more of them. Crews are preparing to tear down an old hospital. The city and the developer are setting poison baits and traps, and some neighbors are turning to one of the rats' biggest enemies. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Chicago's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood is known for its fine dining, trendy bars and clothing stores amid elegant row houses, luxurious condos and yuppie apartment buildings. And like many densely populated urban neighborhoods. Lincoln Park also has rats, a lot of rats.
KELLY MCGEE: Every night when I walk down the sidewalk, I see rats.
SCHAPER: Thirty-six-year-old Kelly McGee has come to accept it.
MCGEE: It freaks out my sister. She screams when she sees them, but they don't bother me so much.
SCHAPER: Well, McGee can expect the rat problem to get a lot worse. She lives just down the block from the old Children's Memorial Hospital which is about to be torn down as part of a massive redevelopment project. When the wrecking ball starts swinging, the rats living in and underneath it will scurry.
MICHELE SMITH: Construction all over the city often disturbs rodents who are living underground.
SCHAPER: Lincoln Park's alderman, Michele Smith, wrote what she says is the most stringent anti-rat development ordinance in the country.
SMITH: Before excavation begins and throughout excavation and construction, every developer has to do active rodent abatement on site.
SCHAPER: So there are now poison bait boxes all around the old hospital complex, but the developer still warns the rat problem could become awful. And if anyone knows what constitutes an awful rat problem, it's Victoria Thomas.
VICTORIA THOMAS: At one point, we had around 400 rats living next store.
SCHAPER: Staying in the unusually big backyard behind her condo building on Chicago's North Side, Thomas says a few years ago, she was completely overrun by rats.
THOMAS: No one used the yard one summer because every time you would go out, they'd, like, run across your feet. Once it got dark, you'd hear them (imitating scurrying) back-and-forth on the deck. And I'm like, oh, my gosh. And we'd all lift our feet up because they're underneath the table.
SCHAPER: The rats came from the yard of the apartment building next door. Thomas tried everything - trenching, underground fencing, poison, traps. Nothing worked until she got a couple of cats.
THOMAS: Oh, my God, that one - that's my killer out of the three. Like, that one loves to hunt.
SCHAPER: Three rescued feral cats sterilized and vaccinated by the Tree House Humane Society were relocated and put to work in Victoria Thomas's backyard to prey on rats.
THOMAS: These cats are amazing. They cleaned up everything. We have a couple of dead rats. You know, once a month, we'll get a dead rat. They'll leave it here. They'll bring it to my door.
SCHAPER: These aren't cuddly house cats. They stay outside. Thomas provides them food, water in a heated dish and insolated shelters while the cats patrol her yard and others on the block. Paul Nickerson manages the Cats at Work program for the Tree House Humane Society.
PAUL NICKERSON: They don't just kill rats in their territory. They create a territory that rats will stay out of based on their pheromones.
SCHAPER: Nickerson says those predator pheromones are the secret to keeping the rats away. Now he's getting calls from people living near the old hospital wanting their own cat colonies. That could mean that more feral cats, ones that might otherwise be euthanized, will instead be cared for while doing something that they love. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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