Bermuda Department of Health: Rat Man Begins

By John McCormick Print this article Print

Ross Furbert had to find a way to rid an island paradise of rodents. At stake: the tourist dollars that kept Bermuda's economy afloat.

When Ross Furbert cleans out a rat infested building, he doesn't know how many creatures he's battling. But he knows when they're gone—the rodents stop eating the poison in the traps his team sets.

"We have businesses where we have baited for a whole week, constantly. And that indicates to me that it was really, really bad," he says. Furbert can't tell how many rats there were "because most of them, in that situation, die in the burrows. So you may only see maybe 10 or 12 that die above ground. You can only assume, [since] they've eaten 10 or 12 pounds of bait a day, that there could be 15-plus that died in the ground."

Furbert isn't working the tenements of some large, decaying American city. He's general foreman in charge of rodent control on Bermuda, an island paradise located in the Atlantic Ocean some 550 miles off the coast of North Carolina that is better known for its pink-sand beaches than disease-carrying rodents.

Furbert oversees environmental control teams on search-and-destroy missions for Bermuda's rats. His job: Make all public spaces and businesses safe for the island's 65,000 residents—and the half-million tourists a year who bring with them currency that amounts to 30% of the island nation's annual economy. He's the island's top rat catcher. And his job is to get rid of the rodents.

But as unexpected as finding rats in paradise is the system developed by Furbert's agency, Bermuda's Department of Health, to combat the pests. Bermuda's health service uses a geographic information system (GIS) to monitor rats' movements around the island, to quickly scan the garbage dumps and sewers the rodents love, to send poison-armed pest control officers to lay rodenticide in infected areas, and to keep tracking families of rats until the groups have been eradicated.

The system helps Bermuda control its rat population, says Furbert. And that's a good thing. "We don't need to have rodents running around the restaurants," he says. The sight of the brown and black rats can turn anyone away. The rodents can grow longer than a foot, not counting their six-inch tails, and can weigh more than a pound. They will eat just about anything they can get their little clawed hands on and regularly consume up to a third of their body weight in a day. And if they're not eating, they're breeding. A female can give birth to 20 young and may produce up to eight litters a year.

While Bermuda officials say there's no way to know how many of these creatures are on the island, the number of rodent complaints—which is how they gauge success against the vermin—was down by 20% in the fourth quarter of 2004, to just 467, compared to the fourth quarter of 2003. And the pounds of poison used by the department decreased 18%, from 4,538 pounds in the fourth quarter of 2003 to 3,725 pounds in the same three-month period of 2004.

Since the system was deployed in 2001, David Kendall, the Department of Health officer in charge of the mapping and tracking system, says the system is probably responsible for cutting the number of rat complaints lodged with the department by 35% to 40%.

Chasing rats is just one of the newer uses for geographic information systems, which combine street names, landmarks, topographical description and other spatial data with mapping software. These systems have for years allowed people interested in demographics and logistics to analyze digital maps. Retailers have turned to these maps to look for the best places to open a shop, based on an area's income and the proximity of its other stores. And they are a tool for law enforcement agencies to spot high-crime areas.

More recently, geographic information systems are turning up in health care. Hospitals are managing room and bed occupancy, and radiologists are mapping parts of the brain with the technology, says Bill Davenhall, health and human services solutions manager at Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), which supplied Bermuda with its mapping software.

"The technology is kind of like putty," he says. "You can morph [it] into a variety of different applications."

Including rat catching.

This article was originally published on 2005-07-08
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