Much ado about UK rats

Published: Sunday, 15 Apr 2007

About 80 mice travelled with human beings on a Saudi plane late last year. Media reports indicated that the local flight was about 28, 000 feet when the mice suddenly started scurrying around the cabin. Some fell on the heads of the fear-gripped passengers. The rodents, it was later discovered, escaped from the bag of a fellow traveller. The aircraft, though, landed safely.

This mice owner should thank his stars that this incident did not happen in Britain. He would have just gone straight to jail. Brits, more than any group of people, perhaps, loathe seeing these rodents in their land. This may be why I have never seen mice or rats since I came to Cardiff in September last year. Nor have I seen cockroaches. Occasionally, I see flies. I was almost beginning to believe that such rodents and insects were not meant to survive the harsh British weather until I started reading about them in the media.

Late last year, for instance, a court reportedly fined Tesco, the largest supermarket in the UK, £14, 000 (about N3.5m) over an infestation of mice at its store in Northamptonshire. The court also ordered the company to pay costs of £5, 300 (about N1.325m). Environmental health officers were said to have discovered the mice infestation in May 2005 after a tip-off.

Similarly, a Southwark Crown Court, in 2004, was said to have fined a supermarket chain, Safeway, £33,500 (about N8.375m) after mouse droppings and urine were found in one of its stores in Hackney, east London. The judge, Andrew Goymer, was quoted as saying that companies must take seriously their responsibility to prevent rodent infestation.

In yet another serious episode, three food firms in Hull were forced to close down in March 2006 because of rat infestations. A Chinese takeaway in Kent was also closed because of this same problem. And in January this year, a primary school in Gwynedd, Wales, was closed for a week for specialist cleaning after a rat was found on its premises.

Rat-related complaints to local councils in 2005/6, the media reported, rose to 14 per cent as against that of the previous year. This prompted some rat experts to call on the UK governments to take a more coordinated approach to tackling what they felt was a menace.

Local authorities in Britain take serious actions against rat infestation because they consider it a serious threat to public health. These rodents, experts say, carry such viruses and parasites as leptospirosis, salmonella, toxoplasmosis and cryptosporidiosis. Doctors can tell better.

This is why civilized nations don’t joke with their environment. Cleanliness, they say, is next to godliness. Every night in Cardiff, motorised sweepers sweep the roads and major streets in the city. They trim their flowers and cut their grasses with machines. People are conscious of not littering the streets with garbage. There are bins in strategic places where one can put any waste item. At a particular day of the week, refuse collectors come to pick bags of refuse from the front of people’s houses. Recyclable refuse are put in green bags while non-recyclable ones are put in black bags. Those who mismanage their refuse disposal have the Environmental Protection Act of 1990 (sections 87 and 88) to contend with. Putting one’s bin bags outside on a wrong day could attract a fine of up to £110 (about N27, 500). And whenever council officials notice rats anywhere, they consider it an emergency situation even as pest controllers move in to arrest the situation.

Poor oyinbo! They panic because of a few rats here and there. They should come to Lagos, Port Harcourt, Aba, or any major city in Nigeria and see how these ubiquitous rodents have transformed from pests to pets living with humans. Some build their houses inside the upholstery chairs in sitting rooms. Some live inside cupboards and wardrobes. Some others struggle with cockroaches for food in the kitchen. I know a woman who visited his son-in-law in Lagos in 2005. She was used to small rats in the village. But when she saw the size of the ones in Lagos, she was so frightened that she cut short her visit and hastened back to the village. Whenever she sees her son-in-law now, she not only asks after his family, she also asks after his rats.

The ones you find in many restaurants and food stores are as big as cats. There are some that move beside the road in the night. Some religious experts (we have our own experts too) refer to some of these ones as witches and wizards going to their coven for a meeting. Bimpe, my neighbour in Lagos, once advised me to keep lemons at strategic places in my house as an antidote against such witches that might come in as rats.

One of the main reasons we have rats in abundance is the dirty lifestyle we live. Everywhere you turn in our major towns and cities, people drop refuse at random. Some block roads and drainages with their wastes. There is no conscious effort to live a clean life. And because rodents and insects like flies, mosquitoes and cockroaches thrive in dirty environments, they breed and hold parties in our houses.

The surprising thing is that we don’t seem to bother about the health risks this poses to us. We tend to pass off many diseases as malaria. But some of them could actually be diseases emanating from rodents. And because the majority of the people are too poor to seek adequate medical care, they die like fowls. The next thing we say is, that is the way God wants it.

Some citizens resort to buying rat poison. But this poses some health danger especially where there are children. Rats could eat the poison and infect food items with their poisoned mouths. In any case, some of the poisons are even fake as the more the mice eat them, the more they get fat and the more they multiply.

I am happy that at least, the Lagos State Waste Management Authority is doing something about the insanitary condition of the state. They are said to have started night sweeping in Lagos. This is a step in the right direction. The state Commissioner for Environment, Tunji Bello, was also reported to have said that the state was collaborating with many organisations in the world to convert wastes to useful purposes.

What remains to be done is to find a solution to the menace of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes in the state. Can there be pest control measures in the state and elsewhere? Can they produce and distribute genuine but cheaper rat poisons to the people of the state? If these options fail, can they make arrangements to start catching and exporting these rodents to such places as Saudi Arabia where, it seems, some people rear them for business?

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