October 05, 2018
Last summer was all about rabbits – and how their poop was making lives miserable for residents in the tony seaside resort of Longport, Atlantic County.
This year, it’s all about the rats. Dozens of the beady-eyed, long-tailed rodents – scurrying around lawns, under barbecue grills, along decks and inside sheds on one block since the end of summer – have sent creepy chills up the spines of those who stick around after the summer tourist season ends.
Meet Richard and Debi Kreisl. They live on South 30th Avenue a block-and-a-half away from the ocean and four blocks from the bay. They love it here so much that it’s their primary residence but for the cold winter months they spend in Florida.
Just before Labor Day Weekend, though, they’ve found themselves in a battle with borough and county officials regarding a rodent infestation the likes of which their friends and neighbors claim to have never seen before, the Kreisls said.
“I was out in the yard doing something when a woman renting the house next door came out, asked if I live here and then if I’ve ever seen or heard of rats,” Richard recalled on a sunny, warm Thursday morning. “We’ve been here seven or eight years now, and I hadn’t. She told me her daughter opened the door and saw one run across the front porch.”
As they were talking, Richard said, he saw a rat run along the front porch where they were standing.
That was just the start.
But let's get back to the Kreisls, who have taken up the rat-remediation cause in Longport.
“A day or two later, I was on the porch at dusk and saw something in the grass. I thought it was a rabbit but then I saw the long tail. Fifteen minutes later, it was out there again so I got rat traps and put them out,” Richard said.
“Our first catch was August 30,” added Debi, who’s spent the past five weeks seeking answers and responses from borough officials.
“At the time, my thought and hope was that this would be the end of the problem,” Richard noted.
Soon, a neighbor would see one in the beach-gear shed that borders the Kreisl property. She won’t go near it anymore. Down the block, another neighbor would find a dead rat's body in a driveway as she was walking her dog. Then, a caretaker working for an elderly resident a block away would report he's killed at least a dozen of the rodents.
In the time since the "first catch," the Kreisls have trapped an additional 13 rats on their property – just the ones that weren’t sly enough to lick the peanut butter off the traps before escaping. ("They love peanut butter," the homeowners said.)
“We were catching some good-sized ones at first and, recently, smaller ones. We talked to neighbors because we didn’t know what was going on,” Richard said.
When Debi first called the borough seeking help, the response wasn’t exactly reassuring. She said she was told that “this is unfamiliar territory for us.”
In early September, inspectors came out to their neighborhood. They confirmed the presence of rats just by looking at the two dead rodents the Kreisls had left in their trash can. The couple says they were told that they’d have been issued a citation if the inspectors found negligent conditions were drawing the rodents there.
In other words, they got no answers about how to address the situation, just an acknowledgement that, yes, there are rats around.
"I'm glad I saw it before the dog walked over and sniffed it," said Dougherty, a resident of Longport for the past 32 years who called borough hall upon making that discovery. "My neighbors Jim and Michelle told me over the weekend that they've each seen one running around.
"People are on the lookout now. I'd never seen rats before, except for the bay rats at the Point. It's a health hazard. They're a public nuisance."
Solomon Gyamfi, the caretaker a block over from the Kreisls, said on Thursday that, "yeah, I've killed a dozen of them."
He chalked it up to food and trash being left next door, where the finishing touches are being put on the construction of a gorgeous yellow mansion.
“That’s a lot of rats in a one-block area,” Richard said.
Despite all the rat sightings, answers are limited.
Food left behind at construction sites – and those sites by their very nature – can contribute. So too can an uptick in rainfall, which was a wet feature in August and September. Rats also tend to be found around jetties where fishermen leave food and bait, but the Kreisls don’t live near any.
“Maybe it’s a feeding frenzy and they’ll just live under the deck, but I think something else is afoot,” Richard said. “I think there’s an explosion in population and they’re looking for new habitats. When the exterminator we called came out, he called his boss and said, ‘You’re not going to believe where this house is.’ He couldn’t believe it.
“There’s something going on in town, something odd and unusual that’s led to this, and nobody is doing anything to deal with it. They’re hiding behind legalese to avoid it.”
Officials aren’t ignoring their concerns outright, however. Borough officials spoke of sending a pest-control company out to treat the public areas of the blocks in question, but not the properties themselves.
Then, at a Longport Commission meeting on September 19, Mayor Nicholas Russo “discussed a complaint from a borough resident regarding an area in the Borough in which a resident was trapping rats.”
“After considering all of the information, including the reports from the Borough contracted pest control contractor, it was noted that the Borough could not act at that time without further evidence that the problem affected more than one private residence,” read the minutes from the meeting.
“It was noted that absent a public health emergency the Borough was unable to treat private residences and that the Borough would wait until the Atlantic County Health Department issued its report,” the minutes continued. “The mayor indicated the issue would be monitored and It will be further discussed at a future meeting if any action needed to be taken.”
Atlantic County spokeswoman Linda Gilmore confirmed that the county Division of Public Health is conducting an "ongoing investigation,” which included sending an inspector to the site, performing rodent activity surveys and distributing “education materials and information.”
She said rats need three things to live in such an environment – food, shelter and water – which all fit the dynamics in the area they've been seen. (Russo did not respond to an emailed request for comment for this story.)
“I firmly believe the Borough of Longport has a significant rat infestation throughout the entire town." – Richard Kreisl
"A recent follow-up inspection of the area showed some improvement with reduced rodent activity and food litter that can attract rodents,” she said.
Still, according to an email sent from the borough to the Kreisls, the inspection report “indicated there was no abnormal activity within the borough.”
“Rodents are primarily attracted to a food source,” it continued. “Once the food source is removed the rodents move onto the next source. The Borough has been unable to identify the food source.
"If there is a seminal source for these pests, once that source is identified the person or persons who are creating the nuisance can be held responsible, cited and the Borough will act accordingly.”
The responses irked Debi on two levels: She knows they’re not the only ones complaining, and calling it “possible rodent activity” doesn’t mesh with obvious rodent activity, including the piles of rat poop they can point out in the neighbor's shed and side yard.
The Kreisls say they have been told – by other residents – that rats have been seen several blocks from their home. Their research indicates those rats can’t be from the same pack of "very large" rodents they are seeing near their home.
“The woman who lived in this house before us has lived around here for 45 years. She said she’s not once seen a rat,” Richard said.
There is some pushback to their theory of a new rat explosion, and claims from those who said they'd never seen any before, though.
“There are two different schools of thought in town: People who say they’ve never seen one in decades or they’ve always been around Longport," Richard said. "The latter tends to come from construction guys.”
That includes the foreman of the construction site around the corner who they say responded condescendingly when he heard the complaints. (There was nobody working at the site on Thursday when PhillyVoice checked out the area with the Kreisls.)
Harry Ross is an associate certified entomologist with Ross Environmental Solutions, the company hired by the Kreisls to help remove the rats.
Ross said rat populations exist along the barrier islands, but "mostly on the bay side because rats are very good swimmers." What's going on in this case is "slightly unusual" though, but since rats live in groups of six to eight, he can understand the volume.
According to a report from the Atlantic County Health Department, the contractor cleaned the site up after a September 7 county inspection and maintained that steps are taken to avoid litter.
“If this was happening over Fourth of July weekend, everybody would be talking about it, but now everybody is pretty much gone,” Debi said. “We love living in Longport. We’re just so disappointed. Longport says it’s up to the county, and the county says it’s up to Longport.
“How many have to be caught and killed to be considered a public health concern?”
Richard echoed that sentiment, talking about rats shouldering (some level of) blame for the bubonic plague and the hantavirus that killed a woman in New Mexico earlier this year.
They’re not holding out much hope that things will change, though.
For the time being, they're paying for a pest-control company's attention and putting out traps on their own since the borough has steadfastly maintained that they can’t come onto private property to help remediate the issue. (The former step doesn't make all that much of an impact, though, since the neighbors' aren't doing the same and rats don't abide by property lines.)
“I just don’t understand why the town and county are not concerned about this,” he said. “When I spoke to (Atlantic County Executive) Dennis Levinson on the phone about it on Monday, he said, ‘We can’t just come down there and take care of tony Longport. What do I do if people in Egg Harbor Township, or Pleasantville, come to me with the same complaints?'
“There are at least 26 (dead rats) that we can document. Why isn’t someone saying we have a serious problem and acting to remediate it?”
Richard said he sees it as a borough-wide issue that needs to get some traction.
“They’re failing the residents, not just the Kreisls. It’s not just a one-block problem. What’s happening here is an indication of a large problem,” he said. “It was never an issue before this year. We just want to know what’s going on."
Even if they lack an answer to the question of what's brought so many rats to their block, they're still eager for someone, anyone, to listen.