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Rat wars: Boston’s unending battle against a rodent invasion and lessons from surrounding cities

As Boston looks to improve its rodent policies, what can the city learn from the other areas of Greater Boston?

Boston, dubbed one of the rattiest cities in the country in 2022, is looking to create an Office of Pest Control. George Rizer, Globe Staff

In 2022, Boston was dubbed one of the rattiest cities in the country. Scurrying around alleyways, construction sites, and residential homes, the hub of the universe has recently proven to be a more-than-comfortable home for rats. 

That’s why in April, Boston City Council President Ed Flynn announced a proposal that would create a centralized Office of Pest Control, overseen by a “rat czar,” echoing similar initiatives in New York City and other urban areas in Massachusetts.

Residents told Boston.com they have noticed a stark increase in rodent sightings, saying rats have “moved in, taken over, and blackmailed the city into doing nothing.” And city data echo readers’ stories, showing a 111% increase in 311 rodent activity sightings over the past decade. 


This increase can be partly attributed to a change in residents’ waste patterns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as Bostonians started spending more time at home and rodent populations moved to more noticeable areas.

Cities and towns like Somerville, Brookline, and Cambridge have implemented a host of various rodent-control practices, from free residential inspection services, centralized online reporting databases, and compost and waste management for small businesses. While these policies may differ across municipalities, the issue of mitigating rodents is the same.

“Rodents don’t care about boundaries, property lines, or municipal lines between cities and towns,” Sigalle Reiss, director of Brookline’s Department of Public Health and Human Services told Boston.com. “So it does take a community-wide approach, where everybody needs to be on board, doing what they need to do to try to reduce the population.”

While Boston already has over 500 “Big Belly” trash compactors, a curbside compost program, and an educational pest management website, based on anecdotal and statistical evidence, the city’s approach to fending off rodents has fallen short.

So as Boston looks to appoint its first rat czar, tasked with overseeing pest management throughout the city, how have other municipalities tackled handling rodents? And how successful have they been?


Nearly a decade ago, Somerville introduced an initial, comprehensive plan to fight back against the city’s growing rodent population. The plan included the creation of an aptly named interdepartmental Rodent Action Team (RAT), offered residents free, one-time rodent control services, discussed piloting rodent birth control, and proposed a uniform residential trash barrel program. 


Since then, Somerville has officially created a Rodent Special Issues Committee and the city’s Inspectional Services Department introduced and expanded its free residential rodent control assistance program, so more than 90% of the city’s residential properties have access to as-requested weekly inspections from city officials and exterminators.

“I think it’s a really cool program because a lot of people probably have rodents that they see but have no idea what to do about it,” Colin Zeigler, Somerville’s environmental health coordinator told Boston.com. “So that one-on-one conversation is probably very helpful.”

A high voltage warning is seen on a SMART box that was placed along the bike path in Somerville. This week the city distributed 50 so-called SMART Boxes across four areas as part of an effort to curb the city’s rodent problem.
Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In late 2020, the city introduced a “rodent baiting program,” offering free rat bait to homeowners and renters for individual rodent issues. The city has contracted exterminators to provide rodent control services on municipal property. And in 2022, the city piloted a 5-month SMART box program to deploy 50 SMART boxes across the city. The boxes electrocute rodents upon entry and provide real-time data on where and when rodents are trapped and killed. Over the 5-month program, the city reportedly killed over 1,000 rodents and obtained “crucial” data on rodent populations that can help guide future policies. 

“I would definitely say the pilot has been successful in providing the city with a clearer data set,” Zeigler said. “It has allowed us to identify spaces that we should be paying some more attention to, and that the city should heighten its efforts in, providing support and education. In particular, areas of high urban infill, so locations of high dumpster permits and then a lot of human activity in addition to … abutting dense residential spaces.”


As Zeigler notes, another key aspect of Somerville’s plan to combat rodents is residential and business education — “My approach is always education first,” he said. 

Along with the advice residents can receive from the city’s rodent control assistance program, Somerville has continued to distribute pamphlets and other literature to residents and businesses. The city’s “Rodent Control and Public Education” website offers several educational resources, from advice on how to trim outdoor plants to discourage burrowing to information on how to identify rodent pathways. And now, using SMART box data, the city will also be able to increase education resources where needed. 

“The city is now going to start working at heightening the amount of education and resources that are going to be distributed to those spaces to help alleviate the problem long term,” Zeigler said. “It’s going to allow us to justify … decisions and then make them more clearly and accurately. I’m really looking forward to it, and 1100 rats off the streets isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world either.”

Despite these efforts, the pandemic curtailed many of the early strides the city made. According to city data, Somerville saw a jump from 923 rodent calls to 1173 calls between 2019 and 2020. 

But as residents started returning to restaurants and offices in 2022, waste patterns — and rodent sightings — reverted to pre-pandemic levels. 

Zeigler said the city has quarterly interdepartmental meetings to discuss new strategies, business permits, and educational literature distribution. And while the department could improve from greater staffing, Zeigler believes that the city’s early plan and investment from city officials has led Somerville’s rodent problem to “a good place.”


In a January Rodent Issues Special Committee meeting, Zeigler and other officials discussed looking to expand SMART box placement in East Somerville as well as relocate SMART boxes to areas with greater activity. The city will also look to hire more inspectors, increase community site visits, implement carbon monoxide pumps to choke rodents in their dens, and offer financial assistance to lower-income residents dealing with the high costs of rodent issues.

“I think we’re in a good place because the city has had so much buy-in from the council and the mayor’s office,” he said. “I think a lot of cities right now are just realizing that they should have had a plan ready to go, and we’re happy to help folks with that because we were there 10 years ago, even five years ago.”

“As long as we feel as though folks are starting to see less rats, and less damage is being done, then we’ll be in a better place,” he added. “But right now we’re continuing on the same mindset that it’s a problem, it’s a serious quality of life issue. We need to do all we can.”


Similar, but to a greater extent than Somerville, Brookline’s rodent problem worsened during the pandemic. The town neighbors Allston, the Boston neighborhood dubbed rat city by local officials and residents, and over the past few years Brookline has become a home for rodents itself.


“Like most urban areas, we have seen an uptick in our rodent activity,” Sigalle Reiss, director of Brookline’s Department of Public Health and Human Services said. “We do attribute that to some of the changes in behavior and patterns in human behavior because of the pandemic. There are more people working from home, different patterns of solid waste, things like outdoor dining. But in addition to that, we do also attribute this to climate change and some of our changes in weather and climate.”

The town has seen a steep incline in rodent reports since the start of the pandemic, and has only recently taken decisive action to mitigate the problem. According to Brookline’s recently introduced Rodent Control Action Plan, the town saw an over 300% increase in rodent sightings to the Department of Public Works and Department of Public Health and Human Services from 2019 to mid-2022. 

The action plan, announced in October 2022, reallocates $200,000 from pandemic emergency funds toward pest management and outlines short, mid, and long-term steps the town can take to improve rodent response. Short and mid-term steps include increasing interdepartmental cooperation, implementing the use of SMART boxes, collaborating with food safety consultants, creating a centralized website for rodent sightings, residential and business education, reviewing the town’s solid waste regulations, and purchasing five Big Belly trash compactors. 

In December 2022, the town began its contract with Modern Pest Control to monitor and track rodent activity. From December 2022 to March, the town recorded nearly 300 catches, removing hundreds of rodents and informing Brookline where it should allocate its resources.


“What’s great about [SMART boxes] is it gives us another dataset to look at and that stuff is all on our website,” Reiss said. “We went up and running in December. January was our first month where we had all the boxes out, and so we’re starting to track numbers. We did see a reduction in the February catches, mainly I think due to weather and activity. But we do expect that with the warmer weather coming, that activity will increase, and that those boxes out in the community will hopefully be very effective at helping to reduce the population.”

In the long term, the town will look to purchase improved waste management technologies, such as a small trash packer; hire an inspectional services and code enforcement supervisor; and implement more Big Bellies and repair the town’s dumpsters.

While some say the town hasn’t gone far enough in its rodent initiatives, Reiss said as Brookline continues to collect data and educate residents, the town will be better equipped to combat its rodent problem.

“It’s very hard to measure your success when it comes to rodent activity,” she said. “I think what we do is try to throw the kitchen sink at it, and do everything we can. You know, taking integrated pest management, a multi-pronged approach.”


Often working in collaboration with other Greater Boston municipalities, Cambridge has taken an aggressive approach to addressing the city’s uptick in rodent sightings.


In January 2020, Cambridge centralized its rodent reporting system, which streamlined how the city received and documented rodent complaints. While the logging system, ran by the company SeeClickFix, reflected an uptick in rodent sightings, it also allowed the city to address an accurate dataset of where rodents were being seen in the city. 

“With the introduction of more streamlined data collection in 2020, we can now begin to see a ‘baseline’ of activity for 2020, 2021, and 2022 showing an approximate average of around 700 rodent reports per year,” City Manager Yi-An Huang wrote in a November 2022 report to Cambridge City Council. “Knowing that we now have some “good data,” we’ll continue [to] monitor these overall complaint numbers to be able to see if there is, in fact, a marked increase in a certain year that tells us that activity is on the rise.

In the report, Yi-An Huang also outlined several other policies the city is using to fight back against its rodents. Similar to Somerville and Brookline, in April 2022, Cambridge implemented 30 SMART boxes and 10 SMART pipes in September 2022. In the pilot’s first four months, the boxes reportedly killed nearly 280 rodents, and throughout September, the pipes killed just over 100 rodents. The city is looking to expand its SMART program, allocating $300,000 to fund additional boxes and pipes.

In September 2021, Cambridge launched its Private Property Rodent Control Program, a free initiative that provides residents with traps, bait, and inspections to alleviate rodent infestations. The city has worked to expand the program, allocating over $286,000 to renew its contract with a private pest control company.

In August 2018, Cambridge became the first city in Massachusetts to enact universal composting.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Similar to other municipalities, Cambridge has also used over $300,000 to fund Big Belly receptacles, started evaluating the implementation of rodent birth control, and used $1.7 million to provide residents with over 20,000 free rodent-proof trash carts. 


In March, Cambridge reached the  5-year anniversary of the city’s curbside compost program — the first of its kind in Massachusetts — and John Nardone, Deputy Commissioner of Cambridge Public Works told Boston.com that the program has been invaluable to address the rodent population in the city. The city said they have diverted over 6,500 tons of food from landfills, protecting the environment while providing residents with a way to fight the city’s rodents.

The city has also expanded similar composting programs for small businesses, picking up compost from restaurants and small commercial locations to reduce their food waste and the possibility of rodent infestation. 

“Current participants in the program reported saving an average of $200 per month and many have cited that rodent activity has decreased due to the addition of the compost program,” said Cambridge Acting City Manager Owen O’Riordan when the program expanded in August 2022. “We are incredibly proud to offer this program to help businesses save money, reduce rodent activity, and protect our environment. A true win-win-win program.”

According to Cambridge’s most recent data, the city has received around 130 rodent sightings in 2023, a number that is likely to increase with warmer weather. 

But with free services to residents and businesses, and expanded traps and waste receptacles, Cambridge officials believe the city is on the right track to combatting its rodent population. 


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