Gabe Kober fought fires as the chief of his hometown department in New Jersey. As the state's director of civil defense, he helped fight the Great Flood of 1955 when twin hurricanes turned the Delaware River into an awesome killing machine.
Now in the twilight of his life, Kober, 91, has one last fight on his hands: fruit rats.
Sitting on the front porch of his Snell Isle home in St. Petersburg one pretty spring afternoon, Kober spied a squirrel making its way along the roof line of the house next door, a half-eaten tangerine in its mouth.
"Yeah, the squirrels sneak over and get the tangerines," Kober said. "One must have fallen and he knows it. But what we're having the most problems with are the damn rats."
Anyone in west-central Florida with a fruit tree in the yard — orange, tangerine, lemon, mango, grapefruit, avocado, kumquat, you name it — knows about these pesky pests and the destruction they can cause. They scavenge scattered fruit on the ground and reproduce at a rate that would make Darwin's head spin, and, left unchecked, they'll move into your home.
Anything that can be gnawed will be. Think electrical wiring, insulation, air-conditioning duct work. Think four- and five-digit repair bills. Think stench, as in the monstrously fetid aroma of a decomposing rat.
But better yet, think prevention. And if that doesn't work, execution.
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The fruit rat goes by many aliases: roof rat, citrus rat, black rat, gray rat. Its scientific name is a fitting one: Rattus rattus.
University of Florida professor William H. Kern Jr. (PDF), who wrote the seminal article on the beasts ("
"Then they make their presence known with a vengeance," Kern writes. "As we progress through the citrus season (from September through March), the roof rats that may have been living quietly around your house make themselves known."
Rarely are fruit rats content to pirate your citrus and move along. Oh, no, they're also looking to set up housekeeping, get busy with Mrs. Fruit Rat and start making baby fruit rats. This all too often entails moving into your home.
Kober tells the story of a former neighbor, Jack, who would leave his garage door open during the day.
"I don't know who is educating these rats, but they know when you're gone," Kober said. "Leave the garage door open and they'll be in your house. They like to elevate. The next thing you know, they'll be up in the attic."
Jack told Kober that he heard scritching in his ceiling. "Those rats are the guys in there dancing all night," Kober told him.
Jack didn't believe it at first. But when he sold the house and property for a tear-down, the two neighbors visited the demolition site. The air-conditioning duct work was eaten through, like Swiss cheese.
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Mike Ahles is St. Petersburg's pre-eminent pest expert. He heads the city's two-man rat patrol, assisting residents and commercial property owners in all things creepy crawly, including squirrels and Africanized bees .
"Fruit rats can do a lot of damage," Ahles said. "They chew through wires, which can cause fires. And the biggest problem I've seen is in the duct work. They chew holes in it. I'll ask if you've noticed a spike in your power bill. Then check your AC lines. Once they chew holes, then you're air-conditioning your attic."
If you aren't already disgusted by the little rodents, Ahles offers this: "They carry disease. They chew through wires. They're very adept at getting through small spaces into your attic and walls and do damage there. They can have babies every 28 days. And rats don't know economic boundaries. They go anywhere they can get to food, water and shelter. And then they multiply."
Which is why Ahles, who has been at his job for 33 years, will have job security for the rest of his working days.
To eradicate rats, Ahles first must determine if the critters are outdoor or indoor pests. If they're outdoor, he can provide bait boxes that entice rats to feast on poison; then they go off and die. If they're indoors, you've got a problem.
Ahles recommends against poison for rats that have already nested in the home. "If someone tells me to go ahead and treat and they get a house full of dead rats, then it's 'I told you so,' " Ahles said. "When (the rats) start stinking, they call back upset with me because they've got dead rats in the house."
In an indoor-rat situation, it's better to call an exterminator to get rid of the rats, then make home repairs to prevent reentry. Also, set out poison bait for any more rats outside the home, he said.
To combat rats in the wild, Ahles said there's a lot you can do before you need to call the city.
• Keep your yard simple, and don't make it a jungle paradise.
• Don't feed birds (or anything else) outside. Rats love birdseed.
• Seal holes and cracks in doors, window frames and walls.
• Get rid of clutter, including old furniture, newspapers and boxes.
• Pick up fallen fruit, on a daily basis if necessary.
• Keep your garbage closed up, and don't put the curbside containers out until the morning of collection.
• Work with your neighbors to ensure that their yards are rat-free, too. If your neighbors have rats, you'll have rats.
Also, notes UF's Kern, snakes are your friends when it comes to rat control. While snakes can't solve all rat problems, they do enjoy eating them. Hawks and owls are good ratters, too.
And if you live in Tampa, which doesn't have a rat control program, check with Bay to Bay Hardware for a Rat Zapper ($55.99). "It's like 'Old Sparky' for the rodent population," manager Mike Pisarski said. A licensed pest exterminator can take care of your problem, too.
Whatever your choice of weapon, realize that the fight will be a long one.
"As long as you have fruit trees, you'll have a battle with the rats," Kober said.
Logan D. Mabe is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.