Robert's column

Robert Barron column: Ban on rat poisons a good idea

Rat poisons can work their way through the food chain

When I was a youngster, I worked on a dairy farm close to my home.

Each day after school, I would change into my crappiest clothes and head to the barn where I was responsible for, among other things, cleaning the cow poop from the concrete trench constructed for that purpose behind where the cows spent their nights with their heads in a brace.

It wasn’t a very pleasant job, but the old farmer would pay me $10 a week (remember that I was only about 10 years old and it was 45 years ago) and I was young enough to be game for anything.

There was a huge hay loft attached to the barn where the farmer would store the large amount of hay that he harvested from his fields each year to feed the cows during the winter months.

But the hay brought vermin, and there were three cats that lived in the barn that were put there to deal with the problem.

These were no ordinary house cats.

They were big and battle-scarred from taking on rats that were, sometimes, half the size they were.

Their ears were pretty much chewed right off their heads and they had scars all over their bodies, but they seem to have loved their jobs and were rarely seen anywhere else on the farm but in the hayloft hunting their prey.

They were the only domesticated(?) cats that I’ve ever seen that actually learned to hunt cooperatively together.

One would flush the rats out of the hay while the other two would be waiting to pounce on them on their escape routes

Although I was fascinated by the hunting prowess of the cats, I remember thinking at the time that if the farmer used rat poisons, he would deal with the vermin problem much quicker and easier than relying on the cats.

But the farmer, who spent his entire life in his trade after inheriting the farm from his father, knew better than to do that.

When I broached the topic with him, he said he refused to use rat poison for many reasons, including the fact the rats would eat it and then burrow themselves into the hay and die, which would contaminate the hay.

But, more importantly for him, rat poisons can work their way through the food chain, and the owls, raptors and other critters that eat the poisoned and dead rat bodies often get poisoned themselves.

Animals were the farmer’s whole life, and the last thing he wanted to do was to inadvertently kill a lot of them in an effort to deal with his vermin problem.

He was content to absorb the costs of the damages that the rats caused, and rely on his cats to try to keep their population down to controllable levels.

In retrospect of that long-ago time, I think the farmer was likely the first environmentalist I ever met as rat poison was all the rage amongst most people in the 1970s who were dealing with vermin problems.

But environmental factors have become important these days, and rightfully so as the damage we are doing to this planet is fast becoming untenable.

That’s why I applaud the decision of North Cowichan’s council to ban the use of anticoagulant rodenticides to deal with vermin in all properties owned by the municipality.

The staff report on the topic, written by Dave Preikshot, North Cowichan’s senior environmental specialist, points to almost all the same reasons that the old farmer told me 45 years ago as he explained why he didn’t use poisons, including the unintentional impacts on the local raptor populations.

North Cowichan does not have the jurisdiction to ban the use of these poisons broadly across the municipality, and can only do so on properties owned by the municipality.

But it’s a good first step and I hope more people follow North Cowichan’s example.

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