In mid-August, dean of student life Patricia Jacobsen was planning to clean out the closet she uses for Student Council’s materials, as she does every year.
But when she opened the door, located in the senior quad, she was unpleasantly surprised.
Rats had broken into the closet, and all of the supplies were covered in rat feces and urine.
“I was so disgusted!” she said.
For as long as both Jacobsen and director of the physical plant Jay Holman can remember, rats have been a problem at Country Day, mainly because of the large amounts of food on campus, particularly in the middle and high school quads and the MP room.
In Jacobsen’s case, the rats were attracted by dried corn in the bean bags of a toss game that was given to Student Council by the Parents’ Association for the school’s 50th birthday, she said.
Jacobsen said she knew the bean bags had attracted the rats because the bags had been torn open and had rat urine and feces around and inside them.
The closet contained decorations for dances, school events, spirit wear and more games.
“I had to throw out a whole bunch of stuff because I didn’t want to take a chance,” Jacobsen said.
And the problem hasn’t gone away.
In an April 24 poll of 97 students, 32 said they have seen at least one rat on campus in the past month.
And 11 percent said they saw rats more than once.
Jacobsen’s room, particularly, remains a hotspot for rat activity.
As early as October, she said, rustling could be heard in the bushes near Rm. 1, her classroom, and she would occasionally see a rat in the bushes, too.
She’s also seen rats scurrying between sets of bushes or to the parking lot, Jacobsen said.
The rat activity near Jacobsen’s room, Holman said, has been caused by a single rat (nicknamed Harry by Jacobsen) who has not yet been caught, although there have been several attempts by the maintenance department.
Though Holman said he has not seen the rat since March, some students said they have seen it recently.
Sophomore Rebecca Waterson, for example, saw a rat go under Jacobsen’s room in mid-April. So did sophomore John Snyder.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a little colony under there,” Waterson said. “I think we should hire an inspector to see what is going on under Ms. J’s room specifically.”
And on April 27, a rat was seen running from Jacobsen’s room to the bushes near the parking lot during break.
Students have also spotted rats in the high school gym.
Freshman Lily Brush said she saw a rat in the weight room during physical education near the end of the semester.
Brush was on the rowing machine when she noticed a rat in the storage unit containing exercise balls above the machine.
P.E. teacher Michelle Myers said such incidents aren’t uncommon.
When another student attempted to move an exercise ball in the weight room after seeing a tail underneath it, Myers said, “a huge rat ran down the wall.”
“(My students and I) would look for (the rat), but we could only see its tail. It always came back,” Myers said.
Soon after the incident, though, maintenance took care of the rat problem in that room using traps, Myers said, and there has not been a sighting since.
A few years ago, it was the MP room that was plagued by rodents, band director Bob Ratcliff said.
According to Ratcliff, rats entered the room through open doors and holes in the wall.
Then they traveled underneath the false floor in the storage closet and, through the ventilation system, got everywhere in the MP room.
In the fall, Ratcliff said, he would pull the public address system equipment out and scrub everything down and disinfect it.
This would happen about twice a year, he said, and the cleaning process would take a full weekend.
Eventually, though, the maintenance department sealed up all the holes and doorways.
They also laid traps all throughout the MP room. In the storage room alone, there were at least five traps, Ratcliff said.
Furthermore, he said he started “really cracking down” on always keeping doors closed.
The rats went away, and Ratcliff said it has been at least four years since he has seen signs of activity.
So what attracts rats to campus?
Holman, Jacobsen and Ratcliff believe it’s the food.
“Why would (the rats) not be here?” Jacobsen said. “There’s free food. Tons of it.”
“Everybody leaves food out,” he said. “You walk through the quad at any time, there’s trash everywhere. That’s the stuff these animals feed off.
“It’s like leaving milk out for the neighbor cat. The cat’s gonna get the milk, right?”
Though the garden also contains food, Holman said that he has not heard of any rat activity in the garden, nor has garden coordinator Michael Covey reported to Holman that the garden’s produce has been eaten.
Both Ratcliff and Jacobsen said that Country Day’s proximity to the American River might also attract rats.
Rats often flock to rivers because they need a stable water source.
“(Country Day) has river rats,” Ratcliff said. “We’re close to the river, and it’s full of rats.”
Holman added that the vacant lot adjacent to the rear of the school’s property might also increase the rat population.
To fight the rats, Holman said, Country Day works with Western Exterminators, an extermination company with offices in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. And the maintenance department addresses individual sightings as they occur.
Western Exterminators visits the campus every weekend, Holman said.
The company uses activity boxes (which can detect whether a rat has been near the box) as part of its weekly service to monitor the area for pests.
There has been only one recent incident of rat activity detected by the boxes, Holman said.
Snap traps or rat poison in a controlled box are also used in some cases, but are not part of the company’s weekly service, Holman said.
In addition, exterior trash receptacles with closed lids were added about 12 years ago to prevent rats from entering the trash cans in search of food.
Despite the rat sightings, Holman said the school won’t be changing its extermination methods.
“I believe we will continue on the same path that we have for the last 10 years,” Holman said. “The number of pests on campus are nowhere near what they once were.”
But students can help solve the problem, Holman said.
First, they need to store their lunches in lockers, not on the ground. And all remaining food after lunch should be deposited in the trash cans.
“If the rats do not find a readily available food source on campus, they will move elsewhere,” Holman said.
“If the students don’t want rats around, then they should do a better job of throwing their garbage out,” she said.
Jacobsen, though, has another solution.
Years ago, she said, El Camino High School had a small stray cat population, according to her ex-husband, who taught at El Camino.
The cats presumably took care of the rodents on campus, because when the school got rid of the cats, the school’s population of mice and rats increased rapidly, she said.
A similar concept might work at Country Day.
Still, there may be benefits to having rats on campus.
“If they’re not really hurting anybody, they do clean up – the students leave food around, and the rats eat the food,” Jacobsen said.
However, Holman said he doesn’t believe that there are any advantages.
“There may be benefits to having rats in the wild, but I think it’s safe to say that no one would feel those benefits extend to the school campus,” he said.
In the Octagon poll, 41 percent of high school students said they thought rats are a problem at Country Day.
And there are more negative consequences.
Jacobsen said Student Council has stopped using its storage closet after the rat infestation last summer.
Thus, all Student C supplies are stored in Jacobsen’s garage, which can be a problem because there are so many, she said.
Furthermore, Jacobsen said she doesn’t want to enter the closet anymore.
“I don’t want to go in a dark closet to get some tablecloths for Student Council and have there be a crazy rat or a dead rat or rat poop on what I want to use,” she said.
Originally published in the May 8 edition of the Octagon.
—By Héloïse Schep