Pest management calls regarding rodent populations are not new to Humane Solutions. 

While these jobs are among our most frequent service calls, we were struck by both the human/animal welfare situation that we discovered at a Vancouver Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) hotel in downtown Vancouver.

A breeding pair of rats, originally kept as companion animals, multiplied exponentially in population over the span of 2 months, exposing the case of an individual failed by our healthcare system and the damages caused by ineffective and inhumane rodent management practices.

In this article, we discuss the many complex layers of just one case of rodent infestation in a building where residents are not in control of their own environment – a case that represents a much more insidious societal problem.

Vancouver's SROs in the past

Collage by Christopher Cheung. Brochures from the collection of Glen A. Mofford. Background image from the City of Vancouver Archives, AM1184-S1-: CVA 1184-3343.

History of SROs

There are 87 privately owned SROs operating in Vancouver. These low income housing accommodations are typically made up of small rooms measuring at 10’x10’ square feet with a basic, hot plate cooking setup and a shared bathroom in the hall. Residence in SROs is often regarded as the last stop before homelessness.

The majority of Vancouver’s SROs were built between 1908 and 1913 to house masses of seasonal workers coming into town – like loggers from camps around the province. Originally designed as temporary lodging, seasonal resource workers often stayed for good after retirement – and the buildings continue to function as affordable lodging today. 

Sadly, these once beautiful old buildings – which could have been monuments of heritage and a solution for low income housing – endured years of severe neglect and are now decrepit and barely habitable. Residents of SROs have long reported unreliable heating, structural damage, safety concerns from lawlessness and pest infestation as issues with living conditions at SROs.

Rats kept as companion animals by SRO residentRats kept as companion animals by SRO resident.

Getting the Call

Humane Solutions’ first project with an SRO was a random call with a desperate situation.

A resident who very much needed mental health support kept two pet rats – a male and a female – as companion animals. These rats started breeding and multiplied exponentially far beyond the resident’s control. 

Contrary to regular rodent calls which are issues of rats coming from the outside in, here the rat population implodes from the inside out.

The situation got so bad that SRO staff could not even enter the resident’s room because of the amount of rats inside for fear that they would spill out into the hallway. 

At this crisis point, traditional pest removal companies are at a loss for what to do. The building management decided that the resident must vacate the room to allow for rat removal … and that’s when our team here at Humane Solutions got the call.

We came in to do an assessment and found a complex problem with much deeper implications than a simple rat infestation.

SRO - Covered in Rat & Human Debris

Every square inch of the room was covered in rat and human debris.

Our Initial Visit

Every square inch of the room was covered in rat feces, used needles, and human debris. So much debris that we couldn’t even see any rats – for there were so many places for them to hide.

We went down to our vehicles to bring up our traps. Upon returning to the room, we were met with what can only be described as a ‘tidal wave’ of starving rats running to get into the bag with traps and food – and once they fell into the bags, they were instantly and humanely euthanized. 

The preliminary estimate we received was that there were 30 or so rats living in the room. What we saw that day was close to 60.

Despite our vast history dealing with pest management, this was a shocking experience that represented a situation of absolute turmoil. 

Desperately needing support and turning to a breeding pair of pet rats for a feeling of companionship,
this resident was living in an unlivable situation that perpetuated the decline of their mental health.

We learned that the resident and the building management had been communicating back and forth for two months before Humane Solutions was called. Two rats can turn into a couple million if left unchecked for a couple of years. This is not an exaggeration as female rats reach sexual maturity after only 4 weeks, and birth 6 litters of up to 12 rat pups per year. 

While this project shines a light on the global issue of rat overpopulation, it also shows the story of someone who has been completely failed by basically the healthcare system. Had the resident received the attention and support they so desperately needed, the rat population could not have gotten this bad. This is an example of a completely avoidable crisis with awful implications on both humans and animals.

Rats kept as companions by SRO resident

Just one of the many rats in the SRO.

The Humane Solutions Process

Once we arrived, we had only a few days to get all the rats out until the cleaning crew would come to completely gut the space. We visited everyday for the next few days to humanely euthanize, collect and remove the rats. By the end of it, we had removed between 60-100 rats – including mounds of dead rats hidden within the walls which were being cannibalized by baby rats out of absolute desperation for food.

We saw the transformation of this room from an impossible situation for both staff and resident – a space covered in human and rat filth, needles, blood, with holes in the walls filled with decomposing rats… into a living space where one has a new chance to live rat free.

We have since managed many more rooms in this particular SRO. Beyond the opportunities to manage the rodents humanely, our visits are so valuable to help us understand the deep dimensions of such a complex problem. During our visits, we have a chance to speak with residents in person and assess their individual situations… including those that end up in a second chance at life for the rodents, as well as the humans. 

Rats that are completely wild and never handled are deemed unsafe for rehoming, as we don’t know how human friendly they actually are. However, those that have been kept in cages may be and deserve a second chance if possible.

Rehoming rats is not something we can always do… but it’s so special when we can. 

Happy Rats in their new homes.. thanks to Vancouver Rat Club!
Happy rats in their new homes, thanks to the Vancouver Rat Club!

Thanks to the Vancouver Rat Club, we were able to re-home a number of rats. Our COO and Animal Welfarist, Emma is now the proud owner of 2 rescued rats – Shro and Puddles. Shro was rescued from an SRO after he had been fed drugs, and Puddles was rescued from a puddle in the DTES.

Shro and Puddles enjoying a cheesey snack

Humane Solutions in the Community

After interacting with these rats now kept as family pets, we are so touched by their intelligence and ability to pick up on emotion and energy. They have their own personalities, love to play hide and seek, and will come when their names are called. 

On a personal level, these interactions remind us of our mission to eliminate needless suffering caused by ineffective, costly and inhumane methods that are only perpetuated because they are industry standard. We are moving forward and upward as conscious humanity and a part of that is changing the perception of rats as vermin that must be destroyed to animals that can be controlled humanely.

To help change the stigma against rats, the Humane Solutions team is running educational campaigns – doing outreach in schools and stimulating community engagement to impart empathy on children who may not have the opportunity to get a new perspective on rodents. 

We teach children that it’s not the rats’ fault – homes can be fixed by humans to prevent their unwanted presence.

This is an important lesson – as we have learned that when dealing with wildlife / animal control, we are often dealing more with the human than the animal.

We hope that our educational outreach helps teach children that rats are beings that deserve respect – and while those in the wild who have conflict with humans and our resources need to be controlled, domesticated or fancy rats can make amazing pets. 

Research and Reflections

Our involvement with SROs is ongoing and very dynamic. Today, we manage 2 SRO buildings and visit spaces 3 times a week. Our points of contact include staff, residents with severe mental health concerns and rodents – and the extremes that come with these situations. Everyday, we make contact with staff who are repulsed by the rats, the mental health issues that compound with an impossible living situation of rats crawling all over you, and people who rely on their pet rats for companionship and emotional support.

Beyond managing the animals, we are also looking at the SRO issue from a research standpoint. 

While the Vancouver Rat Project conducted a study on the resident experiences of living with rats in a disadvantaged urban neighbourhood, very few studies have been done on the companionship aspect of the rodent problem. 

We want to learn more about the human/rat companion relationship and why no one seems to talk about it. How has the SRO rodent problem gotten this bad? How can the problem be solved on a mass scale? How can people suffering poor mental health and addiction be better supported by the system? 

The rodent situation at the SRO exposed two huge concerns: First, the state of the rooms was a physical representation of the mental turmoil experienced by residents not getting the support they needed. Second was also a massive welfare issue of companion animals allowed to multiply beyond control. A welfare issue that deserves attention – even if they are rats.

These projects are extraordinary. While they have been among the most challenging emotionally, they have also been the most rewarding. We saw firsthand the transformation of these living spaces from one of total turmoil and despair, to rooms where people can have a second chance to live in dignity, rat free.

Our team is committed to pursuing more understanding of this immensely complex situation that underscores both animal and human welfare in Vancouver’s DTES. 

By understanding the human to rat companionship embraced by many of our community members living in isolation, maybe we can help more people see rats as sentient beings that deserve humane deaths – even as their populations must be controlled.

There are Humane Solutions to these complex problems. By stepping away from harmful industry standards, we are stepping into a more innovative and conscientious future, with greater welfare for both animals and humans.

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