Brittney Smith looks for rats under the bridge at Harbor View Memorial Park in Portland on Thursday. Smith and other members of the “Help Harbor View Park Rats” Facebook group are trying to save what they say are domestic rats that are living in the park. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Brittney Smith pulled up to Harbor View Memorial Park on Thursday and started unloading rat traps, plastic carriers and food.

She wasn’t there to get rid of the rats, which have sparked complaints from many neighbors nearby. The 20-year-old had commuted more than an hour from Fryeburg to rescue them.

Dewey, a rat rescued from Harbor View Park in Portland, is being fostered by Clara Rautenberg. Photo by Clara Rautenberg

She’s one of more than 150 people insisting that the park’s large rat population isn’t from the homeless encampment that the city cleared on Jan. 2, but is made up of domesticated rats. How they got there remains up for debate.

Wearing checkered pajama pants and Ugg boots, she slipped on a pair of too-big work gloves and headed into the park, arms full of supplies. Underneath the bridge, she pulled out a piece of pepperoni pizza and tore it into hunks, which she placed in a wire trap. She trekked through the snow and set the trap, then began tapping on rocks and shining a flashlight into dark crevices where she hoped rats might be burrowing.

Smith has been out in the park every day this week – she planned to spend eight hours here on Thursday, well past nightfall – and the process of luring and catching rats has become routine to her.

“I catch them with my hands,” she said, holding up her gloves. “It’s definitely freezing today but still so worth it.”


Smith got involved with the rescue effort after she saw the Facebook group “Help Harbor View Park Rats” last week. She joined immediately. She has long been an animal lover and rats are no exception.

“Every single animal that needs rescuing, it could be a caterpillar, I’m gonna do it,” she said. She has owned five rats before, she knows what they look like, how they act, what they want to eat. “When I take in an animal I learn every single thing I can.”


The Facebook group formed shortly after News Center Maine broke the news of the infestation. A photo of a white rat sitting beneath a shopping cart caught the eye of many self-described “rat people” in the area, including Elm Dylan.

“Immediately I knew that’s not a wild rat,” Dylan said. “It had a shorter, rounder nose, its ears were on the side of its head and it was white. … If you know rats, you know rats.”

Elm Dylan with their pet rat, Nirn, on Thursday. Dylan is one of the people helping organize a rescue of what they believe are pet rats at Harbor View Memorial Park in Portland. Nirn is not one of the rats the group has found in the park.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Within days, more than 150 people had joined the group. It’s stunningly organized, with spreadsheets of information about who’s willing to foster the rats they catch, the names of rescued rats and their health status. There are detailed instructions outlining how to safely and humanely catch a rat. There is a GoFundMe fundraiser that has raised nearly $2,500 in a week.


At Wednesday night’s City Council meeting, several rescuers, including Dylan, spoke before the council, imploring the city to stop using poison to exterminate the rats.

“There is so much more to worry about here than just the rats,” Dylan said. “It’s that, but it’s also the wild animal population, like hawks and owls are going to be like ‘Oh look a bunch of really dumb free food.’ But it’s all poisoned. The rats won’t be the only ones being poisoned because they’re part of a food chain.”

In a statement Thursday afternoon, city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said that the rat infestation was “severe” and is a public health concern. She said it contributed to the city’s resolve to clear the encampment.

“We are aware of the group who believes there are domesticated rats in the park,” Grondin said, noting the city doesn’t have any information indicating the rats are not wild. “Even if there are domesticated rats … there are still public health risks that exist for those rats, as well as people.”

The city’s exterminator is “using a variety of methods – bait traps and canine control,” Grondin said. She couldn’t name the specific type of rat poison used but said it is allowed under the city’s pesticide ordinance.

“Things are going well and we expect to continue efforts over the next few weeks,” she said.


She said she did not know how much the city has spent on the extermination efforts and would not provide an estimate of how many rats the city believes are at the park.

Brittney Smith uses a flashlight to look for rats in a culvert in Harbor View Memorial Park in Portland on Thursday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The volunteers say they have brought the rats they have rescued from the park to vets who have confirmed that they are domestic. The group admits there are some wild rats among them, but believe the large majority to be domestic. Pine Point Animal Hospital confirmed that one rat brought to them from the park did appear to be domestic.

“We aren’t rescuing wild rats,” Dylan said. “We know the difference.”


As she made her way slowly through the snow, peaking under rocks and looking for tracks, something stopped Smith. She sighed and walked over to a what appeared to be a rat hiding in the snow, the first she’d seen all day. It was completely still.

“This one has passed,” she said solemnly, scooping it up in her palms.


“I think this one died from the cold. Domestic rats aren’t as good at burrowing and with all the snow he probably couldn’t get underground,” she explained, setting the dead rat down beside her collection of traps and crates and torn up pizza. “He has bloody feet too from frostbite, wild rats don’t get that.”

Smith doesn’t understand why the extermination efforts are necessary. To her, it’s clear most of these rats would die from the cold anyway.

“These are pets, they kiss you, they cuddle you, they love you. They were already going to die out here, they don’t need to be poisoned as well,” she said.

Sheila, a rat Brittney Smith rescued from Harbor View Memorial Park in Portland on Tuesday. Photos courtesy of Brittney Smith

In all the days she’s spent in the park, Smith has brought home four rats, but only one survived. Two died from poison shortly after she got them home, another had to be euthanized at the vet after sustaining a head injury. The last one, Sheila, survived.

“She’s so sweet, she’s obviously used to people and being handled. I’m starting to get really attached, but I think I am going to rehome her once she’s healthy,” Smith said.

As Smith wandered through the park on Thursday, the temperature dropped. She slid on the ice in her boots and clumps of snow clung to her knees, she had crawled through the snow to set traps. There wasn’t a rat in sight.

“I’m really worried because last time I saw them hopping all over the rocks, but now I don’t see anything,” she said.

Wild rumors have circulated about how the rats might have made their way to Harbor View Memorial Park. During the City Council meeting on Wednesday, Councilor Kate Sykes raised the idea that the rats might have been cruelly dumped there while the encampment still stood. Others say the encampment drew the rats. Some think homeless people were keeping domestic rats as pets.

“This might not be the most popular answer, but ultimately we’ll never know how they got there,” Dylan said. “The thing is though, they’re here now, and they need our help.”

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