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The Citizen

Dealing with Unwanted Guests: Finding a humane solution to the HKS rodent problem

 By Sheila Choi, MPA ’12

As I left the Harvard Kennedy School library at 3 AM one morning, I was startled by a rustling sound near the bushes in the courtyard. I slowly approached the moving object and found a rat with her leg stuck in a wooden snap-trap, desperately struggling to get away. As I moved to help her, she escaped on her own, but not without leaving a piece of her leg behind. I grabbed an empty pizza box lying nearby to scoop up the trap and discard it in the trash bin.

I was saddened to see our school resorting to such methods to exterminate rodents. I later learned that HKS also uses glue boards to get rid of these unwanted pests, leading to their slow and agonizing deaths.

Wooden snap traps and glue boards are inhumane and cruel. They also go against Harvard University policy—endorsed by HKS—which mandates the use of humane methods of pest control whenever possible. Snap traps have a spring-loaded bar that swings down rapidly with great force when anything, usually a rodent, touches the trip to eat the bait. The rodent’s neck, spinal cord, ribs, or skull are broken or crushed by the force of the bar. If the trap snaps down on the wrong place, it can lead to a very painful and cruel death.

Glue boards consist of cardboard coated with a sticky adhesive. Many trapped rodents sustain severe injuries, including severed limbs and torn skin caused by gnawing them off as they try to escape. Rodents also can suffer for days before they die from exposure, dehydration, starvation, suffocation, or predation.

These traps are also dangerous to our community. Should any of our students inadvertently step on a snap trap in the courtyard and get their feet caught, there could be serious injuries. Visiting pets can also die from the toxins that are shed from glue boards. There is no fail-safe way to hide these traps away from people and pets.

Norway and black rats can pose a major dilemma in urban settings including our school. Rats can be carriers and transmitters of human diseases, and can bite and spread bubonic and pneumonic plague, murine typhus, salmonella, leptospirosis, Hantavirus, and tularemia. These rodents breed all year long and their offspring grow at rapid rates, often leading to infestation. They are hardy, intelligent animals capable of resisting extermination.

There are no truly humane ways to kill rodents, only methods that are less inhumane. Compared to poisons, snap traps, glue boards, and maze-type traps that drown rats, the newer traps that use an electric charge to stun and kill are the least inhumane. If our school must resort to exterminating rodents, then we should look into using less inhumane alternatives, such as electrically-charged traps. These traps may be slightly more expensive, but are worth the cost to avoid unnecessary mess, mutilation, and suffering of rodents.

Rather than searching for more powerful and potentially dangerous means of killing rodents, however, we can alter their habitats by making HKS less attractive to them. Responsibility falls on our students, staff, and faculty to clean up after themselves. Everywhere at HKS there is leftover food out in the open. It is imperative that we dispose of our food items in the trash bins.

Two combination solar-powered Big Belly trash bins have recently been delivered to our campus. These bins have an enclosed design that reduces odors, keeps litter neatly contained, and prevents access to rodents. We should use them accordingly.

Our community must be responsible and compassionate toward animals, including the unwanted rodents. I am not advocating that we tolerate a potential rodent infestation, nor am I urging others to embrace rats and mice. But by cleaning up after ourselves, keeping our campus tidy, and properly discarding our food, we can prevent rodent infestation without resorting to no-holds-barred extermination techniques.

Sheila Choi is a second-year MPA student at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is also the Founder and CEO of The Fuzzy Pet Foundation, a nonprofit and no-kill pet welfare organization based in Southern California.