[Photo: One of many rats Jordan Balfour and her family have had to deal with in recent weeks. (Photo by Jordan Balfour)]
By Catharin Shepard • Editor • Dead rats littered the road last week along part of Highway 20 in Hoke County, while residents reported seeing live rodents in their houses and even vehicles.
It might sound like a horror movie, but it’s become daily life for some who live in the Stonewall community.
Chuck Morris said he spotted the rats for the first time Thursday, July 13. Before then, he said, he had lived in rural Hoke County for 25 years without ever having a rat problem.
“We are covered up in rats, thousands of rats,” he said.
When his wife went out to the barn Monday morning to turn out their horses, she was greeted by eight of the large brown rodents. More of them were in the horses’ feed trough, and still more drowned in water buckets.
They aren’t the only ones struggling with the sudden surge of rodents. Nightly phone calls among neighbors in the area share stories of finding rats in vehicles and chasing them off of front porches, Morris said.
Carolyn Burnette said she’s seen hundreds of rats. What started as a trickle, seeing one or two here or there, suddenly turned into a flood.
“You would not believe it, it’s horrible,” she said. “They’ve been in the house, they’re on the road. I’ve got videos that I’ve taken.”
“Since the chicken houses have been here we’ve seen a few just off and on, but it’s just got ridiculous,” Burnette added.
Her family is facing what she estimated to be about $6,000 in damages to a vehicle, after their guard dog tried to get to rats hiding inside it.
“They got up in our vehicle, and we have a guard dog, a Pyrenees that detests rats. She tore the front off of my husband’s old work van,” Burnette said.
Jordan Balfour said her husband has taken to carrying a gun around to deal with the rats, which don’t even run or hide. In the evening they can be seen running around like rabbits near the road, Balfour said. Their family cat has killed anywhere from 20 to 30 of the pests, and the rats reportedly caused damage to one of the family’s vehicles.
Even the nearby Stonewall Fire Department has had problems with the pests. Rats got inside the fire department building, and more were out in the parking lot and smashed by cars on the road, a firefighter said.
Liz Joseph, interim director of the Hoke County Cooperative Extension, said she was familiar with the situation.
“When I first heard about it, I was like, I don’t think you’re lying to me but I need to see it with my own eyes. When I started driving there and I saw the rats dead on the road, I was like, yeah, okay, this is pretty bad,” she said.
Agriculture agents investigating the problem suspect that a large clean-out of chicken houses near the intersection of Highway 20 and Boyle Road is likely to blame for stirring the rats up.
“They are suspecting that the rats came from some chicken houses that recently did a whole house clean-out, and they think that when they disturbed those shavings in there, that’s where the problem came from,” she said. “I do know that folks from the Department of Agriculture as well as folks from the Department of Environmental Quality have been out to that farm and were working with the farm and the company that they grow for to help fix the problem, to make it better.”
At the moment the suspicion is that the rat problem is related specifically to the chicken houses that did the whole house clean-out, Joseph said. A whole house clean-out is when workers take out all of the shavings that are inside the chicken houses and replace those shavings with clean bedding.
Catherine Bassett, director of communications for Mountaire, said Wednesday in an email that the company suspects recent rain was to blame for the problem.
“As soon as Mountaire learned that neighbors were complaining about rats near a Mountaire contract grower’s farm, our team visited with the growers to assess the situation and call an exterminator,” Bassett wrote. “All farms have a rodent control program in place, but it was clear that recent heavy rains and flooding of a nearby stream had forced rats to seek shelter in and around the chicken houses. Our team provided additional bait and traps immediately and the exterminator was there on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to make sure the traps were working.”
None of the chicken houses on the site have any chickens inside them at the moment, Bassett said. The company won’t place any more chickens on the site “until we are confident that the steps in place have resolved the situation,” she wrote.
Spokespeople for several state agencies said that they hadn’t identified any regulatory violations.
Josh Kastrinsky, the public information officer for the North Carolina Division of Water Resources, confirmed Monday that the agency was one of several that sent staff to Hoke County last week to meet with locals. The Division of Water Resources determined there didn’t seem to be any violation of water resource regulations, Kastrinsky said.
An agent with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture was also in Hoke last week. Although some rumors had spread in the community that improper disposal of dead chickens might have been to blame for the rat problem, the NCDA did not find that to be the case, according to a spokesperson for the agency.
“We did a site visit but determined we did not have any regulatory authority regarding the rats. Our regulatory authority is the disposal of livestock and poultry which did not appear to be the cause of the issue,” Heather Overton, assistant director of public affairs for the agency, said in an email Tuesday.
As for what can be done about the rat problem, Joseph said she heard the company that owns the chicken houses has apparently baited them.
Poisoning the rats is one option for locals struggling to stem the tide, but the interim director warned about the downsides. Putting out poison for the rats can also kill other animals, including pets and wildlife.
“I am hesitant, especially if there are animals in the area, especially if they get a hold of those rats that have ingested that poison. The rats don’t necessarily die right away. If a dog or a hawk or whatever gets a hold of that rat, that can harm the animal that gets hold of the poisoned rat,” Joseph said.
She suggested several things people can do to try and deal with the rat population.
“The recommendations that I have given for people, just in general, if they are having any rat problems, make sure that you don’t have any standing water. Try to take care of any piles of trash or debris, yard debris, anything like that. Don’t have animal feed out where they have access to it, try not to provide any spaces where they can create a house,” she said. “Those are just some general kind of guidelines to help take care of rodent issues.”
Morris said the Terminex exterminating company contacted him and other Stonewall residents, and told them the company was hired to help residents with the rat problem. Bassett confirmed that was the case.
“Our growers were very concerned about their neighbors and have offered to provide one year of pest control for free to those most impacted by the situation,” the Mountaire communications director wrote in an email Wednesday.
Morris said of the effort, “That ain’t a spit in the bucket.”
Burnette said she and her husband weren’t sure who to contact about compensation for damages due to the rats.
Joseph recommended that residents document any damages they suffer due to the rat problem.
“They should document it and the problem, while hopefully it will get better eventually, it’s not a quick fix,” she said.