The 2007 film “Ratatouille” managed to make animated rats so adorable and appealing that moviegoers were happy to imagine them cooking gourmet repasts for humans to savor. But in the flesh, rats usually generate fear and loathing.

Last month, the latter attitude was in the forefront when I came home from work one evening to find a typed, unsigned sheet of paper stuck in my door and headlined “Rodent Infestation in our Neighborhood.” According to it, recent sewer projects at Capisic Pond and on Bancroft Street in the Rosemont neighborhood of Portland had led to rat sightings. “This is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with ASAP,” the sheet said.

At about the same time, a thread on rats on the Portland section of the online community forum Nextdoor drew 26 comments about more sightings, suggestions for getting rid of rats and even a few admirers (“We saw a small reddish brown beautiful one, the coat was amazing. We were hoping someone didn’t lose a pet. :)” )

Jessica Grondin, Portland’s director of communications, confirmed in mid-June that the city has had recent reports of rats, which is often the case, she said, when sewer work is underway. “We definitely have heard about it in the last few weeks, and we have been mobilizing to do something about it.”

The city is cleaning sewers on Marginal Way and Commercial Street, standard maintenance, Grondin said, necessitated in part by the number of grandfathered restaurants with fats, oils and grease that can go down the drain. City workers are also plugging away at EPA-mandated stormwater-sewer separation projects, at Bedford Street, Washington Avenue and in North Deering. Whenever the city does sewer work, it contracts with a pest control company for “sewer mitigation,” Grondin said, using a substance that is toxic only to rats.

When a near neighbor of mine who claimed to have spotted a rat mentioned she was thinking of putting out poison, I decided to mobilize too: I called rodent specialists to ask about more sustainable ways to discourage rats.

Rat poison is sealed in boxes, so while your pets and children are almost certainly safe, it can work its way into the food chain and kill raptors and other wildlife. Poison, said Kathy Murray, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, is “absolutely the last resort. First, identify the pest. Make sure it’s a rat and not a mouse or other things that burrow in the ground. Second is prevention.”

Here’s what the experts advise:

STARVE A RAT

“The average rat, an adult rat, is going to want 2 to 3 ounces of food every 24 hours. To get that food,” says Bobby Corrigan, a New York City rodentologist with a Ph.D. and a specialty in urban rats, “90 percent of the time, it’s going to be your trash. If there are rats on your block, I would say you don’t need any poison, often all you need to do, quite frankly, is look in the mirror.”

Practically speaking, if rats have become a problem in your neighborhood:

Do not put your garbage out the evening before pickup; rats are most active at night.

Or, if you must, use a solid, rat-proof (read metal) trash can. “They can chew right through a plastic garbage can. They have pretty good incisors,” Murray said. Be sure the trash can itself is clean, she added, and seal your garbage in a trash bag first to make it a little more difficult for the rats to smell. Secure the lid, weighting it down if necessary.

Do not put out birdseed.

If you keep backyard chickens, store their feed in pest-proof containers and be sure their coop is completely sealed. “Even if it’s just a 1/2-inch opening, a rat can get in,” said Pamela Hargest, a horticultural specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Falmouth. Rats are drawn to the chicken feed, the chicken eggs and any chicks themselves. “It’s all protein,” Corrigan said.

Do not feed your pet outside. “Dog food is very nutritious,” Corrigan said. “Not only that, dog manure is very nutritious for rats. It’s like a snack bar.”

If you’re cleaning your car, don’t sweep food debris onto your driveway.

Many people believe that compost attracts rats. “A fair is a veritable smorgasbord orgasbord” for a rat, a resident wrote in the thread on rats on Portland’s Nextdoor, “but so is a foodie city; especially a composting city.”

But Corrigan says that “Compost is not an issue for rats as long as people compost correctly. There is not enough nutritional return in a compost pile.” You may spot a rat “sniffing around,” he said. “Whenever rats smell decay, they are going to check it out.” But if the compost pile is limited to items like rotten tomatoes and vegetable peels, he said, they’ll lose interest. Bones, eggshells and meat is another story, he said.

DENY A RAT A DRINK

Eliminate standing water on your property. “If you’ve got a rat concern, you might not want a birdbath in your yard,” Murray said.

DEVALUE RAT REAL ESTATE

Rats, which typically live in colonies of 10 to 15, like to burrow. They are looking for homes with concealed entryways, which feel safe to them, and with plenty of dirt so they can dig their burrows. “We encourage people to keep their yards clean, orderly and organized,” Murray said. A breeding rat, it goes without saying, is not something you want near your home. A female rat can have four to seven litters a year, Murray said; about 20 offspring a year survive.

Do not store lumber on the ground. A stack looks like a luxury estate to a rat in search of a home.

Prune overgrown shrubs so that there is “a good foot of clearance underneath,” Murray said.

Block off entry points under sheds with low clearance.

Since rats may also make themselves at home in gaps in the walls of your home, basements or garages, pest-proof your homes with things like metal weatherstripping and metal garage door flashing, which they can’t gnaw through.

Grondin is on the money about the sewer system. “These are sewer-dwelling animals,” Corrigan said. “They really like the sewers. That’s their No. 1 population reservoirs.”

IT TAKES A VILLAGE:

Unfortunately, if you do everything right but your neighbor doesn’t, you’ve still got a problem. “Picture a suburban street of some sort. There are 20 houses on both sides. If 19 of those houses do their trash correctly, but one does not,” Corrigan said, “the rats will be feeding at that one bad property.” In this case, call the city. Portland will send out inspectors, cite homeowners and property managers according to Chapter 6 of its Buildings and Buildings Regulations Code of Ordinances, and put a pest management program in place, the city’s Grondin said. Rats on private property are the occupants’ and property owner’s responsibility, but if you have concerns about rats in Portland, call 874-8703.

AND REMEMBER:

“Sanitation is pest control,” Corrigan said. “When we clean up our own nests, you clean up the pests.”

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or:

[email protected]

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