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Meet The Woman Keeping Alberta Rat-Free

The province has been the world’s largest jurisdiction to rid itself of the rodents since 1950. It’s Karen Wickerson’s job to keep it that way.
Meet The Woman Keeping Alberta Rat-Free

(Photo: Allison Seto)

On Easter Sunday in 2023, Karen Wickerson was at home in Airdrie, Alta., when an email arrived in her inbox. The sender got right to the point: There was a rat in her backyard. As evidence, she attached a photo of a large black roof rat eating out of a bird feeder.

Wickerson pulled on her work boots and her Government of Alberta jacket and drove 25 minutes to meet the woman who sent the email. The woman didn’t want rodenticide used in her backyard, so Wickerson set up two traps big enough to catch a rat and filled them with a stinky, non-poisonous bait. Then, some time over the next 48 hours—snap!

Alberta’s Rat Lady got him.

“That was kind of a feather in my cap because I actually trapped a live one,” says Wickerson. The rat later died in the trap, as planned.

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Wickerson’s official title is rat and pest specialist, but in Alberta, she often gets called The Rat Lady. Her role is unlike anyone else’s on the planet: She is responsible for keeping rats out of the province, the largest jurisdiction in the world to call itself rat-free.

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” says Wickerson of her job.

Since 1950, when rats established themselves next door in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia, Alberta has run a program to stop the rodents from setting up residency within its borders. Its rat specialists monitor a 600-kilometre stretch at the Saskatchewan border known as the Rat Control Zone. (Rats have a harder time getting across mountains, so Alberta’s western border has historically been left largely unguarded; Montana, to the south, is considered too sparsely populated to attract many large rodents.) The team also organizes public information campaigns, educating Albertans on what rats look like and asking them to be on alert for the invaders.

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A poster from the Alberta provincial archives advertising the Alberta Rat Control Program. “You can’t ignore the rat. Kill him!” it reads. (Photo: Courtesy Provincial Archives of Alberta)

“You can’t ignore the rat,” read one poster put out by the provincial government in 1948. “Kill him!”

But it’s a challenging task, says Marc Johnson, professor of biology and Canada Research Chair of urban environmental science at the University of Toronto Mississauga. “I think Alberta is employing the right strategies,” he says. “But whether they’ll be able to stay rat-free—that’s a very tall order.”

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Rats are smart, speedy and always-in-hunt-of-a-snack opportunists. They scuttle about, intentionally keeping their long tails to the ground and their whiskers to a wall to gather as much information about a space as possible, says Wickerson. And they keep finding ways to sneak into the province, often hitching rides on cars, trucks, camper trailers and even hay bales.

Wickerson, 50, calls rats “very personable.”

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“You have to admire them, right? You can’t just hate them because they’re very good at what they do.”

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Everyone in Alberta is supposed to report when they think they’ve seen a rat. Property owners who ignore rats on their property can face court action. Albertans are even asked to check for rats hitchhiking in their vehicle’s undercarriage when they drive home from an out-of-province trip—of the 26 rats found in 2020, many rode into Alberta on transport trucks or personal vehicles, according to the provincial government.

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The province is on guard for the Norway rat and the roof rat, both of which live in cities around the world. The rats rely on human structures and food for survival. They’ll make shelter from almost any object they can crawl under, like planks, buildings, piles of hay or other materials resting on the ground. Once they’ve set up camp, they can survive on pretty much anything humans might throw out—rotten meat and fish, stale grain, fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged foods, sugar and candies.

Alberta’s Rat Lady, Karen Wickerson, looks out at the sky in Airdrie, Alberta. She wears a black blazer, red shirt and jeans.(Photo: Allison Seto)

There’s an email address Albertans can use to alert Wickerson and even a hotline: 310-FARM. Most people take the responsibility seriously, she says. After all, it is a nice thing to live without rats. They spread dozens of pathogens, including potentially deadly C. difficile and E. coli. Rats damage structures, goods and local ecosystems. One analysis found that 200 million people a year could be fed with the rice lost to rats in Asia, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the equivalent of more than $2 billion in feed is destroyed by rodents each year. In Canada, rats have damaged cars, invaded poultry and swine farms and set up shop around Toronto’s City Hall.

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In Alberta, there’s a collective effort to keep the province rat-free. Almost every day—sometimes several times a day—Albertans email Wickerson to say that they’ve spotted evidence of an invader. They frequently make mistakes; one of the trade-offs of having no rats in the province is that few people know what they really look like. They’ve even sent in photos of dead squirrels, she says.

But people mostly confuse rats with their local doppelgänger, the muskrat—a water rodent that’s common on the Prairies. While the two share a bulbous body type and a pretty high “yikes” factor, rats are much smaller and have lighter fur and a ropier tail. Still, of 408 supposed rat sightings in 2022, only 27 turned out to be rats; 126 were muskrats.

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Wickerson must decipher who’s a real rat. And when she does smell one, so to speak, she comes up with a plan to stop it from making its home in the province.

A man once called Wickerson to rat (sorry!) out a recent ex-girlfriend who owned one as a pet. The woman, who claimed not to know that rats are illegal in Alberta, didn’t want her rodent killed. The SPCA in Cranbrook, B.C., offered sanctuary for her pet.

It’s all part of the job for someone who is a lifelong animal lover.

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Wickerson grew up in Ontario, unaware of Alberta’s rat-free status, and trained as a social worker. In 2002, she decided to make a career change and studied to be a vet tech at Olds College of Agriculture & Technology, just north of Calgary. After finishing her training, she spent seven years working with veterinarians, and her responsibilities sometimes included conducting studies with rats. (Alberta research facilities can get special permission to have rats.) Later, she moved on to working for the provincial government and conducting investigations into the deaths of food-producing animals in the agricultural sector.

In 2019, Wickerson was chatting with a colleague in the staff room about her time working with rats when Bruce Hamblin, director of the inspection and investigation section of the animal health and assurance branch of Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation, overheard. His ears perked up. Phil Merrill, the province’s rat specialist at the time, was about to retire after overseeing the program for 42 years. In a province without rats, Hamblin couldn’t find someone with enough expertise to replace him. Wickerson’s outgoing personality, people skills and rat know-how made her perfect for the job, he said.

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But it wasn’t an easy switch for Wickerson. The pest-control industry is overwhelmingly male dominated, and its practitioners didn’t roll out the welcome mat for a woman, says Hamblin.

“When she first took over, some of the older guys would still go to [Merrill] even though he had retired. They were kind of circumventing her,” he says. But “she’s won them over and gained their respect.”

Wickerson is now the face of the program, having been featured in the media on podcasts like This American Life and news outlets like CTV News. Wickerson, who says she’s shy and not a natural storyteller, trained herself to deal with the attention that comes with running Alberta’s Rat Control Program. After accepting the job, she joined the local Toastmasters, an international organization that teaches public speaking.

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But a crisis was brewing just as she stepped into her new role. Rats had shifted their focus from the farms along the border to Alberta’s cities, where they can easily find safe harbour and thrive. Recyclables that are shipped in from other provinces also provide an easy method of transport for rodents. So rats keep getting in.

In 2012, rats were discovered in a Medicine Hat landfill, and it took several years to eradicate them. In 2019, a recycling facility in Calgary had a small rat infestation.

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Today, Calgary is home to two rat infestations at local recycling facilities. Wickerson says the problem is made worse by people chucking food or uncleaned containers like peanut butter jars into their blue boxes, which then become rat buffets.

It’s a stressful predicament, she says. Alberta has never had to focus its rat program on cities. No blueprint exists for how to successfully eradicate rats from a city once they’ve taken hold.

Wickerson has called rat specialists in other jurisdictions for assistance, but they can only offer limited help. Every other place in the world, besides a couple of islands, is focused on controlling, not exterminating, established rat populations. Her job is to get rid of them, and she doesn’t intend to let them settle on her turf.

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She now has to focus on keeping rats out of the cities more than her predecessor did. She visits the recycling facilities weekly and works with the City of Calgary and local pest control. She has gotten used to climbing into dark, dirty spaces and using her flashlight to peer into the little rat pathways between the big blocks of recycled materials in the recycling facilities.

“When I work with the pest control technicians, I do warn them that I probably will scream if I see one,” she says. She laughs at herself: “Why am I surprised? I know they’re there.”

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The province is using a multi-pronged approach to keep rats from settling in—a combination of a public-awareness campaign and a speedy response of eliminating rats once they’ve landed. And the numbers are going down, she says.

Alberta can “absolutely” sustain its rat-free status “if Karen keeps up the way she is,” says Lincoln Poulin, president of Poulin’s Pest Control. His grandfather helped establish the original Alberta Rat Patrol program, and the family has worked in the pest-control industry ever since. This is just the latest challenge for a province that has long advertised its rat-free status, he says.

Its first-ever Rat Lady is adamant: “We don’t let them establish.”

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