Cynthia Callnan thought it was a mole that was harassing the squirrels feasting on the bird feeder behind her Huntress Street apartment – until she used her binoculars to get a closer look.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s a rat,’ ” Callnan said. “The squirrel won the first bout. The rat won the second.”

Callnan, who also had two rats run across her feet in broad daylight while taking out the trash recently, is one of several residents who has complained to the city and state about an infestation of rats in a small section of Portland’s Libbytown neighborhood. They say the rodents first appeared and began burrowing and chewing their way into the neighborhood last fall, after the Maine Department of Transportation cleared brush around a nearby exit on Interstate 295.

City and state officials confirmed that they had received complaints about the rats in Libbytown, but said they can’t provide any direct relief for the neighborhood. While the city will attempt to eradicate rats from the sewers in the area, the state doesn’t plan to take any action.

‘STARTING TO EAT EVERYTHING’

The brush-clearing operation had been criticized by advocates for the homeless because the operation was partly designed to reduce the number of areas along the highway where homeless people could camp. The DOT crews dismantled about two dozen camps that had been set up in the brush along the highway.

The project also led to complaints by residents concerned about the loss of a buffer between their homes and the busy interstate, as well as the loss of wildlife habitat.

And Callnan isn’t the only Libbytown resident to notice, and complain about, the rats. She said she complained to the city and state, but received no response before writing a letter to the editor published in the Portland Press Herald on Friday.

A couple who lives nearby echoed her concerns in an email to neighbors, saying they had witnessed a cat running down the road with a rat in its mouth. That couple didn’t respond to a request to discuss the incident.

Another neighbor said Friday that she encountered one of the rodents in her driveway and that she believes the state has a responsibility to remove them. But she didn’t want to be identified in a newspaper story about rats in her neighborhood.

Callnan pointed out tunnels burrowed beneath the Dumpster where she puts out her trash. She also pointed out a path leading to the 10-unit apartment building, where rats appeared to have chewed their way into the basement. There were similar holes in the garage, where it appeared that rats had eaten through a plastic bucket, wooden wall supports and a bag of slug-killing bait, leaving behind clumps of rodent droppings. Fortunately for the rats, at least, the slug bait is nontoxic and safe for wildlife.

“I had never seen a rat before, then all of a sudden I started seeing all those holes after they had removed the brush,” Callnan said. “They’re just starting to eat everything.”

STATE: WE’RE NOT RESPONSIBLE

The presence of rats can be more than off-putting. Rats can damage property and carry diseases, and they can be difficult to get rid of once they take up residence.

Based on her own research, Callnan believes the rodents are Norway rats that fled into part of the neighborhood when crews hired by the DOT began clearing a heavily wooded buffer near Huntress Street. Much of the cleared area is wet from stormwater runoff and includes a large culvert under the interstate off-ramp that makes it an ideal habitat for swamp rats, she said.

Callnan said she has complained to both state and city officials, including three postings on Portland’s SeeClickFix app, which allows residents to quickly report problems, but said she hadn’t received a response.

Jessica Grondin, City Hall’s communications director, said the city has a contractor responsible for pest control in the city’s sewer system and is asking the contractor to lower poisoned rat bait through manholes in the Libbytown area. But there is little the city can do about the off-ramp, which is the state’s property, she said.

“I know they’re not complaining about the sewer, but we are asking the contractor to go out to the sewers that are closest to that address to do an application,” Grondin said. “Hopefully, that will resolve the issue.”

DOT spokesman Ted Talbot doesn’t doubt that rats had been living in that area and that the clearing project may have stirred them up, but he said the DOT wasn’t responsible for the infestation and would not take any action to eradicate the vermin.

“It’s our position these rats are from the Fore River and they rummage through the leftover trash from the homeless people,” Talbot said. “Now that that has gone, it may be they’re still in the hunt for that type of stuff. But we didn’t increase the infestation by clearing out that shrubbery.”