Rats surface in toilets in one Midtown area
By Andrea Kelly and Erica Meltzer , arizona daily star

Tucson, AZ - Residents in one Midtown neighborhood are learning to look before they sit.

You think roaches coming out of the sewer are a problem? For the past 10 years, small white rats have been swimming their way up into toilets in the Blenman-Elm Neighborhood, just east of the University of Arizona.

The rats are not the beady-eyed, overgrown variety of which nightmares are made unless it happens to be your toilet they're splashing about in late at night.

"Mostly they're white. They're not like the rats you think of when you think of New York City sewers," said Laura Hagen Fairbanks, spokeswoman for the county's Wastewater Management Department.

But plenty big enough, said Carol Andrews, who spread the word about the latest sighting in a posting on a neighborhood message board last week.

Andrews wrote in her posting that she visited friends for dinner and "they told us of their 'adventure' on Christmas Eve. One of them went in to use the bathroom and when they lifted the lid, a rat emerged!"

Hagen Fairbanks said the rodents are of the white lab-rat variety, prompting a neighborhood rumor that they came from the University of Arizona, which is just across North Campbell Avenue. But she said county officials don't really know where they came from.

University representatives are quick to note the same type of white rats are sold in pet stores as food for snakes and other animals, which they said must be the genesis of this particular rat pack since UA researchers follow strict guidelines for their lab specimens.

The UA's lab rats are euthanized, then double-bagged in red biowaste plastic bags before they are taken to Phoenix and incinerated, said George Humphrey, spokesman for the Arizona Health Sciences Center.

"There would be no evidence that these are connected to us, and I wouldn't want that to become an urban myth," he said.

The Christmas Eve incident was the second in 10 months in which residents found themselves staring down a rat in the loo.

In the earlier sighting, the resident called the county, and Wastewater Management fished the rat out of the toilet, disposed of it and flushed the sewer line. When the county flushed the line, workers found another rat there.

In the more recent case, Wastewater Management officials said the woman saw the rat in the toilet, left the toilet seat up and put down sticky trap paper in the bathroom. Then she closed the bathroom door so the rat couldn't get into the rest of the house.

Once the rat got stuck on the paper, she threw it away, said Hagen Fairbanks. The resident didn't want her name used in association with the incident.

Hagen Fairbanks said no one knows where the rats in the sewer come from, why they are found in only one small area of town or why they show their faces only once or twice a year.

Although no one knows how they got there, Hagen Fairbanks said the theory at Wastewater Management is there is a small family of rats living in the sewer, and every once in a while one finds its way to a bathroom.

Making it from the sewer up the lines into someone's toilet is a difficult trip, however, she said.

A four-inch pipe, called the house connection sewer, or HCS, runs from the house to a sewer main. And there's no "trap door" or other barrier in place, she said.

But if the lines are running, the rats have to hold their breath and swim uphill in the pipes against the water current.

"If the rat makes it through your HCS, that's a determined rat," she said.

When calls come in, the department can dispose of the rat if the homeowner hasn't done so already. County workers then flush the sewer line in a precaution against any others trying to make their way up, as was the case 10 months ago.

The Pima County Health Department said it's best not to handle or touch a toilet-surfing rat, although the chance of getting rabies or plague often associated with rats is low in this situation.

"Usually if an animal that small has rabies it dies before it can transmit the disease," said Patti Woodcock, a Health Department spokeswoman. And a live flea would be necessary to transmit the plague, she said.

Although the rats are unwelcome houseguests, Andrews said they do provide an incentive for men to brush up on their bathroom etiquette.

"The immediate advice seems to be keep the lid closed (your wife will be happy)," she wrote.

URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16507961/