Reykjavík’s rodents make headlines
As a general rule, city-dwellers tend to nurse an active suspicion of, if not downright animosity, against rats. In many ways, this is unfair—rats have been shown to be highly intelligent animals, demonstrating the ability to strategise, show empathy and compassion and, according to a study published this month by researchers at the University of Minnesota, even feel regret over bad decisions. Nevertheless, people frequently think of rats as filthy vermin, harbingers of disease (admittedly, they can transmit a variety of these) that should be completely eradicated, or at the very least, assiduously avoided.
Except in Iceland, it seems, where the last couple of months have seen an increase in rat sightings and rat bites, most notably in cases where people (kids) have tried to catch or pet the creatures when they encounter them. This has gotten to be enough of a problem that in early June the City of Reykjavík’s Pest Control office issued a public advisory, warning residents to keep their distance from any rats they might encounter. “If you reach out to them, and try to touch them or pet them, they will definitely bite you,” Operations Officer Ómar Dabney explained in a media announcement.
Watch Out For Rats, They Could Bite You
The first newsworthy incident came last month when 15-year-old Kolbeinn Egill Þrastarson was bitten by a rat in the basement of his home on the west side of Reykjavík. “The rat hopped on my hand, dangled off my finger, hissed at me and then hopped up the steps,” he told local news site Vísir. Shortly after, Kolbeinn was joined by a friend and together the pair was able to capture the rat, which had apparently been “tormenting” the residents of his building all day. Kolbeinn was then taken to the hospital for a tetanus shot and antibiotics.
Following Kolbeinn’s run-in, a baby rat was spotted in the same neighbourhood, this time at the Vesturbærjarlaug pool. As it was 11:00 on a Sunday at the time of the sighting, the pool was quite busy, with about 200 guests in attendance. The facilities were immediately closed and there was an “orderly” evacuation of everyone present—standard procedure in case of any possibly unsafe conditions, says pool manager Hafliði Haldórsson. The City’s Pest Control office was then called to the scene where they laid traps and continued their search for the ratlet (never found, incidentally) until 4:00 PM.
That very same afternoon, a young girl named Ragnheiður Kolfinna Magnúsdóttir suffered a bite after trying to approach a rat. “I bent down and look at it,” she told Vísir reporters. “Then it came and bit me.”
“Watch out for rats,” Ragnheiður warned. “They could bite you.”
Kids Think They Are Nice Fluffy Animals
Fear not, however, Reykjavík isn’t overrun with ravenous rodents—far from it, according to people in the know. “There are not a lot of rats here,” says Ólafur Sigurðsson of Meindýraeyðing Reykjavíkur (“Reykjavík Pest Control”). “We have very good conditions here compared to many other cities.” Ólafur credits the recent rat incidents to the increase in construction work around the city now that the weather has gotten warmer. The rats live in the sewer system and the pipes and so when there is construction, he says, they surface in greater numbers.
Exterminator Óli Reynisson of Meindýraeyðing Óla (“Óli’s Pest Control”) agrees with Ólafur—there really isn’t a major rat problem in Reykjavík. “The rats have been eating poison that’s been laid out for them, and when they are dying, they come out,” he says. (Anyone who notices rat corpses lying about is encouraged to call the city Pest Control office to have these collected and disposed of properly).
But even if there’s no epidemic to speak of, it’s perhaps no wonder that rat sightings give many people, particularly those of older generations, the shivers. “People are afraid of them,” Ómar Dabney says. “From the old days, because they brought the Black Death, and that’s still on the minds of people here in Iceland.” But, Ómar assures us, these fears are unfounded today: “There are very few parasites on the rats of Reykjavík.” [And actually, for the record, scientists today no longer believe that the Black Death was transmitted by rats.]
If anything seems to confirm for certain that there isn’t a humongous rat infestation in Iceland, it’s probably the fact that kids aren’t familiar enough with rats to know better than to try and touch them. Exterminator Ólafur Sigurðsson puts this into a useful context. “In the old days when the British soldiers left, they left these shacks [Nissen or Quonset Huts] behind,” he says, and rats flourished around these impromptu dwellings. “There were so many rats in Reykjavík that kids knew how to kill them and fight them. Now things have been so peaceful that they just think rats are nice and fluffy animals.”
There are two species of rats in Iceland: Rattus norvegicus (the brown/Norwegian rat), and the far less common Rattus rattus (the black/roof rat).
The oldest known rat skeleton to be unearthed in Iceland was found at the President’s residence as Bessastaðir, and is suspected to date back to the 18th century, but this skeleton is considered an anomaly: some scholars believe that Iceland was entirely rat-free throughout the Middle Ages.
By 1932, however, there was a growing rat population, particularly around coastal areas.