On a day with six pest control trucks parked outside Los Angeles City Hall, rat traps strategically deployed, and council members in session seeking the next steps in dealing with a vermin infestation, an animal activist was poised to offer her recommendation:
"It's so simple," exclaimed Melya Kaplan, founder and executive director of the Voice for the Animals Foundation, which over the past two decades has placed hundreds of unsocialized cats on rodent patrol at a variety of locations, including the downtown Flower Mart and three Los Angeles police stations.
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"I've never seen a place it didn't work," said Kaplan.
The cats don't even have to catch the rats or mice, Kaplan told NBC4, explaining that scent of multiple felines in an area is enough to scare away the rodents.
Vermin in downtown have received renewed attention after an uptick in cases of the disease typhus was reported last fall by the LA County Department of Public Health. Fleas get Typhus from rats and other carriers, and then with a bite can transmit the bacteria to people.
Last month, Liz Greenwood, a deputy city attorney, revealed in an interview with the NBC4 I-Team that he had been diagnosed with typhus last November. She believes she was infected when she was bitten in her workplace inside City Hall East.
Comparing notes, city employees learned there have been several rodent sightings in Civic Center offices since late last summer, and the city's pest control contractor began setting traps, filling rodent holes in walls, and taking other steps.
On Feb. 8, a letter to city employees from the Personnel Department outlined expanded cleaning and hygiene in the Civic Center, the City Council called for a report on further steps, and the contractor began an office by office inspections of both City Hall and City Hall East, which are joined by a bridge across Main Street.
During an update at the council meeting a week later, council members were told the results of the inspection, including a count on trapped fleas, will not be ready until next week.
At Friday's session, when the council was joined by a panel of department heads and a medical epidemiologist from County Public Health, Council President Herb Wesson told the panel he also wants a representative of the pest control contractor present at the next session, and he broached the idea of bringing in cats.
The epidemiologist, Dr. Dawn Terashita Gastelum, was skeptical, expressing concern that the fleas would simply move to the felines, which can also be carriers. Feral cats have been identified as a public health worry, and there have been efforts to reduce their population.
However, Kaplan said experience has shown that working cats can be treated with anti-flea medications in their food, and as a result fleas have not been a problem.
Docile and friendly house cats generally are not as successful as unsocialized cats that Animal Control has recovered and taken to shelters. Such cats are seldom adopted, Kaplan said, and in many cases ultimately are euthanized — unless they get a working assignment.
Working cats generally require about a month of acclimatization in cages at their assigned locations, and then when the cages are open, they are comfortable staying in the new area, though in many cases they will hide from people and come out only at night. But Kaplan emphasized their scent is enough to drive off rodents.
Kaplan has been in discussion with the office of a council member in hopes he will proposed the idea.
The past year, Public Health has counted more than 100 cases of typhus across the county, compared to the baseline in recent years of about 60. Since this year, there have been only two cases, neither in downtown, but Gastelum said the incidence rate typically drops in winter, so it is too soon to say the outbreak has turned a corner.
Meantime, some city hall critics have seized on the rat in city hall motif. Friday, a giant inflatable in a rat’s likeness was placed outside City Hall's south steps as backdrop for a news conference by the Health Housing Foundation, lambasting some of the city's development decisions.