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Rats raid Spring Hill residents

People have their own way of dealing with the recent rat infestations, but health officials say education is the strongest weapon to fight the rodents.

Each member of the Monahan family takes his or her station with a field hockey stick or broom. When a rat makes a move, it is ricocheted, one to the other, and out the door.

"We're the rat house," jokes Skip Monahan. "The only way to deal with this is humor."

But the recent rat problem at the Monahan house on Liberator Court has been anything but funny.

Monahan's 6-year-old daughter, Sydney Paige, wasn't laughing when she opened up a kitchen cupboard one night this week, and a rat fell on her arm.

To date, exterminators have taken 30 to 40 rats from the home. The rats have eaten duct work in the attic, damaged a living room couch and torn through some blinds.

Every night between 2:30 and 5 a.m., the Monahans can hear the rats running up and down the walls. Every morning, they awaken to find insulation on their bedroom floor.

"It's gotten to the point, I just can't deal with it anymore," Monahan said. "This is crazy. No one should have to live like this."

Monahan surveyed his neighbors and found that seven of eight reported rat sightings. The Monahans' neighborhood isn't the only one. Several neighborhoods in Spring Hill have experienced infestations of roof rats, said Al Gray, environmental manager for the Hernando County Health Department.

An area around Tipton Lane and Skyline Court was particularly infested.

Violet Bartakovits of Tipton Lane was the first to report the problem. She saw rats running along a fence and climbing a tree in her neighbor's yard.

"They were like acrobats," said Bartakovits, who cut a vacation short when she learned rats had made their way into her garage.

Steve L. Butts, an environmental specialist with the Hernando County Health Department, climbed the tree, a large Florida oak, to assess the situation.

When he reached a low-lying limb near a nest the rats had overtaken, the rodents scattered. Butts stopped counting at 30 and estimated the nest contained three times that number.

"It was the worst infestation I'd seen in my life," Butts said.

Health department officials are unsure what triggered this latest infestation. Spring Hill has had a recurring problem with roof rats, Butts said.

"The lack of water could be a contributing problem," Butts said. "A lot of retention areas are dry, and they retain rodents."

In addition, some of the lakes in Spring Hill are starting to recede, he said.

Perhaps more important, Butts said, is that many residents need to be more careful about not creating habitat for the rodents.

For example, the Tipton Lane area is far from a dirty neighborhood, but some residents had debris piled in places. In one case, a shed containing cardboard and old rugs provided a good habitat. Others left garbage in uncovered containers. Some homes had leaky faucets. And other residents left dog food outside or had excessive bird feed on hand.

Unknowingly, Butts said, they were providing the three things rats need: shelter, water and food.

"They multiply so quickly, within a couple-week period we had an infestation," Butts said.

Butts went around to a dozen neighbors and handed out fliers that warned of the rat problem and contained information on ways to eradicate them.

"We had some upset citizens," Butts said.

Butts said he works so feuds do not erupt between finger-pointing neighbors.

If residents don't comply with cleanup efforts, the heath department resorts to enforcement. To date, Butts has only had to send out one notice of enforcement to a property owner who had a debris problem. It was taken care of, Butts said.

"We had really good community support," Butts said. "Everyone did their part. It has dropped off from an infestation to an occasional sighting in the Tipton area."

"Steve (Butts) has spent quite a bit of time in the community," Gray said. "I think that has paid off."

The same sort of neighborhood education program will likely be initiated in the Liberator Court area, Butts said.

"There needs to be an education process for all of Spring Hill," Butts added. "Roof rats are not new to Spring Hill. It has been an ongoing problem for years."

For example, he said, residents are discouraged from killing snakes.

"Some people have a natural aversion to snakes," Butts said. "But they are a natural predator of rodents."

The health department even discussed releasing snakes in high-rodent areas, Butts said, but decided against it.

"Can you imagine putting that expense order in?" Gray said. "It would never get approved."

Aside from the Tipton Lane and Liberator Court area, the county has gotten complaints from residents on Chase Street and Fireside Street.

Monahan says government help is his only remaining hope. He has already paid a private pest removal company $2,000.

"I don't have any more money," Monahan said.

Already, he has had to patch seven holes in his tile roof. And he recently screened in his front porch.

"But they just keep coming," Monahan said.

The family now keeps most perishables in plastic containers. Rats chewed through a bread bag left unprotected this week.

Monahan suspects other area residents have been experiencing rat problems but are keeping quiet.

"I think people are afraid to say anything," Monahan said. "They're afraid people will think they're dirty."

That's not necessarily the case, Monahan said. This is a man who insists his carpets be vacuumed every day.

If enough people complain, he said, the problem may be properly addressed.

"Everybody needs to speak up," Monahan said.

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