Bob Stratman still remembers the day back in September 2003 when he began noticing hollowed out tangelos and grapefruit from the trees in the yard of his home in Tempe's Rural-Geneva neighborhood.
And it wasn't long after that he came face-to-face with one of the citrus-eating culprits.
"I just came in from outside, and there he was sitting on my work bench," Stratman said. "It was about 5 o'clock in the evening. It was like, ‘Whoa, what is this?' "
It was a roof rat - light brown and 15 inches long - that Stratman later caught in a trap. But that was not the only one. His neighbors began discovering them drowned inside their pool and would notice them creeping along the utility wires in the evening - "their highway in the sky," Stratman said - before they would maneuver their way down to the citrus trees in the neighbor's yard to pillage and plunder them as if they were a free buffet.
Residents in the Rural-Geneva neighborhood bound by Alameda Drive to the north, Southern Avenue to the south, Rural Road to the west, and Dorsey Lane to the east then went on the offensive in an attempt to stave off the invasion of roof rats - a nocturnal rodent ranging 13 to 18 inches long that is shy of people. Roof rats can cause damage to homes, including wiring around awnings and fixtures in attics as they find a place to nest in the winter months while waiting for the citrus season.
"We started using snap traps and bait stations with plastic irrigation-like pipes of Just One Bite poison filled with bromadiolone, a blood thinner," Stratman said. "We pretty much had gotten rid of them by the first spring after we first saw them. We thought they were gone. But now, another neighbor is showing me hollowed out oranges with about 70 to 80 percent of the rind left over. We think they've come back and the strain of roof rats is becoming more resistant to the poison."
People with older homes that may have small openings or holes around the attic or screens should repair them to cut off the access that would allow roof rats into a home.
"They can crawl through a hole the size of a quarter," Stratman said.
Keep the lids on your garbage cans and make sure your trees are trimmed at least four feet away from the house.
Other signs that roof rats are taking up residence in one's yard include torn up places in the yard where they may nest, agitated pets, and gnawing sounds in your walls or in an attic.
Tempe city officials say that no neighborhood is immune from roof rats. Wherever there is an abundance of citrus, they can appear.
The city's community outreach department is hosting a roof rat prevention meeting on Thursday to better educate residents about how to combat roof rats and prevent them from setting up residence in yards and homes.
"We want to be proactive about this," Stratman said. "The whole neighborhood must participate in this effort, or the roof rats could move into your yard and start doing damage to your property."
The black or brown roof rats have an Asian lineage. They first emerged about 10 years ago in the east Phoenix Arcadia neighborhood after being unknowingly transported to the Valley on fruit trucks from coastal states such as California, Washington, Texas and Florida.
Barry Pacely, who lives in Arcadia, is a pioneer in the roof rat prevention process. Pacely also helps coordinate the citrus drive in south Scottsdale where people can donate their citrus from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays until March 26 at the Elks Scottsdale Lodge No. 2148 at 6398 E. Oak St.
Along with Stratman, Pacely also will be speaking at Thursday's meeting in Tempe to offer tips on how to rid one's yard of roof rats.
"There's no doubt that when you see damage to your citrus, that you can have roof rats," said Shauna Warner of Tempe Neighborhood Services. "It's best to be proactive to prevent further damage."
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