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Are pandemic-related rats taking over Tampa Bay? Well ...

Residents are noticing rats in their homes in the time of the coronavirus — and seeing snakes and spiders, too. Rat aficionados say there’s a reason for that.
Rats keep local pest control businesses busy.
Rats keep local pest control businesses busy. [ Times ]
Published Jun. 8, 2020
Updated Jun. 8, 2020

TAMPA — Like a lot of people, Kevin Officer worried how the shutdown caused by the coronavirus might affect his business ― a service that gets rats, raccoons and other Florida critters out of people’s houses.

The business is “still relatively young,” said Officer, owner of Affordable Wildlife Removal, and "we were unsure what it would look like.”

Then, like a light switch turned on, the calls started coming. We have rats, people said.

Was it a sign of those “aggressive” rats the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about — rats searching for new food sources with restaurants slowed down or closed? Was it just another unbelievable development in an already unbelievable year?

Probably not, say those intimately familiar with our local rats — usually roof rats and Norway rats.

With lots of residents home-bound because of coronavirus concerns, “we’re more aware of our small environment that we live in, and we start noticing things,” Officer said. “That particular flower in the backyard ... that noise that sounds like something scratching in the walls.”

“Now that they’re home, and they’re hearing it, and they’re stuck at home, it’s making them feel uneasy," said Blake Forester, owner and operator of Premium Pest and Animal Control in Tampa.

“We sure are" getting rat-related calls, said Wade Wilson, technical director for the Jacksonville-based Turner Pest Control, which has offices around the state. "People are home, so they have a tendency to notice things that they normally might not notice.”

Bob Turner, assistant director of sanitation for the city of St. Petersburg, concurred. He also has been a rodent-control technician.

“Rats do their best to never be seen, and they’re very good at it,” Turner said. “You’re asleep, and they wait 'til everything’s quiet before they come out.”

“You’ve got a lot of time to notice things,” he said.

(A tip for St. Petersburg residents: The city will inspect the exterior of your home free for rat-related issues. For an appointment, call the Rodent Line at 727-893-7398.)

So does this mean that oftentimes the rats were already there, going about their rat lives with human residents off at work and school, oblivious?

“People are under the impression it’s only one rat, and it just showed up,” Officer said. “But it’s never, ever just one rat. It’s never a rat that’s just been there a few weeks.”

Forester said he’s seen peaks in rat-related calls in suburban Carrollwood and high-end South Tampa.

“South Tampa’s always been kind of busy,” he said.

William H. Kern Jr., a University of Florida associate professor in the department of entomology and nematology at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, said his calls lately have been for help in identifying spiders.

And also, for assurances that the spiders people are seeing are not of the brown recluse variety.

“I think it’s because people are home, so they’re more likely to see spiders crawling," he said. “People are just noticing them.”

Nor have snakes escaped scrutiny. Officer said the company’s four offices across Florida are doing three to five black snake removals a day ― snakes that may have long been sunning themselves in yards back when homeowners were gone and family dogs were locked inside. These snakes eat rats, by the way.

"They’re here. They’re very, very well established,” Officer said. “It’s just Florida.”

So we don’t have more creatures because of the coronavirus?

“It’s not that we have more animals," Officer said. "Just more people” seeing them.

Correction: Due to a source error, an earlier version of this story listed an incorrect phone number for the St. Petersburg Rodent Line.

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