unique quinquagenarian anniversary. For 50 years the province has boasted the status of being rat-free. This is a more remarkable claim than it might first appear. Rats inhabit every continent in the world except for Antarctica, and have even “reached at least 90% of the world’s islands” (Rachel Nuwer, 2014). Conservative estimates place the worldwide population of rats “at many billion and most consider the highest of all mammals - including humans.” (Jerry Langton, 2006) The United States alone is home to 150 million or more rats (Brian Handwerk, 2003). Alberta is currently the only region in North America free of rats (Frances Reilly, 2016), a point of pride for the province. Brian Bergman writes that “outsiders may be forgiven for believing that what gives Albertans their unique identity is their aversion to a provincial sales tax and a certain fondness for turning right-wing fringe parties into formidable political forces...but no, as important as all that is, what really keeps us united is a common enemy, one that walks on four legs and boasts continuously growing incisors that can chew through anything from electrical wire to concrete.” (Bergman). John B. Bourne, head of Alberta Agriculture's rat control program, states that "we maintain and broadcast our rat-free reputation, so that Albertans know that the province is free of rats." (Handwerk)
To comprehend the unusual and extraordinary effort put into Alberta’s anti-rat campaign, it's important to understand how daunting a task is the creation of a rat-free environment. Rats are members of the order Rodentia, the largest order of mammals. “The characteristic that unites this order - and its most conspicuous trait - is a single pair of razor-sharp incisors.” (Ed. Wolff & Sherman, 2007) The name “rodent” itself derives from the Latin rodere, meaning “to gnaw”. The success of rats as a species is largely based on their exceptional adaptability. Jerry Langton notes that it “doesn’t take long for rats to adapt to any environment, no matter how inhospitable it seems...Colonies of rats have even been known to thrive in meat lockers, where constant freezing temperatures would kill humans in a manner of minutes.”(2006) Rats also reproduce at an alarming rate. With a gestation period of roughly 3 weeks and litters between 6 -12, “it's possible for a three-year-old rat to have given birth to forty-three different litters, up to 516 separate births.” (Langton)
Rats possess exceptionally acute senses, a rapidly-evolving immunity to poisons, preternatural agility, and the ability to squeeze through holes no larger than a quarter by collapsing their rib cages at will. (Langton) Though rats will prefer to flee rather than fight, their nails are capable of rending human skin and their bite is an evolutionary wonder. “The hardness of the enamel on the front of the rat’s incisors is comparable to some grades of steel,” notes Langton, “[and they] can exert a force of 7000 PSI in a bite, much greater than the 1000 or so for a dog.” There are actually three types of rat bites; besides the ordinary one for eating, a rat can gnaw through materials including brick, concrete or lead by sliding down a protective membrane, and, when aggressive, their incisors “separate to create a wider wound and more damage.” (Langton) This is to say nothing of the deadliness of a rat’s saliva, host to numerous communicable diseases, with infected bites “fatal in 13% of cases in humans, despite antibiotic treatment.” (Langton)
In 1950, the Alberta government officially declared a “War on Rats.” (Jeremy Berke, 2015) Utilizing a 1942 law, The Agricultural Pest Act, allowing the Ministry of Agriculture to “designate any animal likely to destroy crops or livestock a pest,” (Reilly, 2016), rats were deemed an official threat to be killed on sight. Rat Patrols were created, but the ultimate success of the venture depended on civilian participation. To that end a propaganda campaign was initiated that mirrored the anti-communist campaigns in the States. Whereas U.S. citizens were watching the public service films such as The Red Scare, “Albertans were fed a steady diet of anti rat animus.” (Walton). Posters extolling the “Rat Menace” even made obvious allusions to the parallels between “the rat’s historical migration from east to west and the feared spread of communism along the same trajectory”. (Reilly) As U.S. citizens were entreated to monitor each other for subversive behaviour, Albertans were encouraged to keep watch for signs of rodent incursion. (Reilly) “While it might be tempting to scoff at the comparison between rodent and ideological control...both governments used similar tools of persuasion to urge residents to, well, rat out enemies of the state.” (Walton) And just as suspected Communists in Hollywood ended up testifying in HUAC trials, “Albertans who didn't control rats ended up in court.” (Reilly)
Now 60 years from its Cold War origins, Alberta’s War on Rats continues on well after McCarthy was discredited. The Rat Patrol regularly hosts educational programs in Alberta’s elementary schools, and citizens still keep a watchful eye for any signs of rodent infiltration. For a modern Albertan, the province’s remarkable status as a rat-free environment is an essential part of their identity and something that defines them as unique in the world. While Alberta may have started out symbolically hunting communists, Albertans ended up cementing a sense of community and provincial pride.