A moment in history: Sept. 13, 1954

A moment in history: Sept. 13, 1954

· The Pulse

On this day in 1954, someone saw a rat in downtown Edmonton. Police were dispatched to track down the rogue rodent near 109 Street and Jasper Ave, but came up empty-handed, according to a newspaper account of the incident.

For most other cities, newspaper articles and police aren't the typical response to someone seeing a rat. But Alberta claims to be one of the few inhabited places on the planet free of rats. That status didn't come naturally, however — it's the result of a 73-year-old war on the creatures.

Norway rats have made their home in North America for hundreds of years, having likely stowed away on ships arriving from Europe. However, the first confirmed sighting of the animal in Alberta didn't happen until 1950. A rat's nest was found on a farm near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.

The news brought fears of disease and economic destruction if the rats spread further. So, the provincial government began an all-out blitz. The Norway rat was officially declared a pest under the Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta, which required every person and municipality in the province to eradicate and stop the spread of rats.

The government even established a 600-km "Rat Control Zone" along the border with Saskatchewan. Cities and towns within no-rats-land were provided with funding, poison, and other supplies to eradicate nests wherever they popped up. Between 1952 and 1953, the province used 63,600 kg of arsenic tracing power to treat buildings in the zone (a practice that was later changed because it was deemed too expensive and dangerous.)

The province also employed pest control officers to work within the Rat Control Zone, inspecting farms and other places attractive to rodents. And then there was the massive public education campaign: town meetings, posts, and pamphlets that would teach people how to identify, report, and destroy rats and rat nests. Scores of anti-rat posters carried the same feeling as the wartime propaganda posts from the 1940s: KILL RATS ON SIGHT, one proclaimed, while another example shows a giant, menacing beast with Alberta in its sights, quite literally.

The province's crusade against the Norway rat was zealous but effective. During the 1950s, hundreds of rat infestations were confirmed every year. That started to decline sharply into the 1960s. These days, there might be a couple of official sightings annually. When rats are found, it makes headlines, like when dozens of rats were discovered and killed in the Medicine Hat landfill in 2014.

It is worth noting that "rat-free" doesn't actually mean Alberta has no rats: they are frequent travellers on trucks, trailers, and even airplanes, so keeping them out completely is impossible. Instead, Alberta claims to have no breeding populations. The animals that do hitchhike into the province usually die before mating. It is also illegal to keep rats as pets in the province; universities and labs can use them for research, however.

This August did see a spike in rat sightings at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. Rat Academy, a play depicting the survival strategies of the last two rats in Alberta, drew acclaim and was one of the four productions held over after the festival wrapped up.

This is based on a clipping found on Vintage Edmonton, a daily look at Edmonton's history from armchair archivist @revRecluse — follow @VintageEdmonton for daily ephemera.