Conjuring a critter apocalypse

Rats and squirrels and jellyfish, oh my!

by Geoff Olson


• My partner, who works from home, found it hard to focus on her job once she began to hear scratching sounds from the roof. “Listen,” she said, putting a finger to her lips and pulling me into her office. “Sounds like rats to me,” I said after a moment’s silence. Too big to be mice.” I placed a call to a Vancouver pest control company and described the situation. “Could be rats,” the employee said. “Could also be squirrels. We won’t know until we investigate.” I was hoping for squirrels, in part because the quote was less open-ended than for rat removal.

The next few nights were difficult for my partner. Scratching and scampering sounds were now coming from behind the bedroom wall at night. Whatever critters had holed up inside our house, it seemed they were multiplying like Spielberg’s Gremlins. “They’re building a nest in there!” my sleep-deprived partner exclaimed with dismay. (They turned out to be rats.)

Ecologists refer to rats and squirrels as “synanthropes,” meaning animals that thrive in association with human settlements. My partner is as creeped-out by their squatting as I am, but as a committed animal lover she is the first to tell anyone these highly intelligent creatures are capable of “laughter” (high-pitched vocalization during play, scientists claim).

How smart are they? Bill Bryson’s entertaining and informative book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life, describes how rats will work cooperatively for a common goal. “At the former Gansevoort poultry market in Greenwich Village, New York, pest control authorities could not understand how rats were stealing eggs without breaking them so one night an exterminator sat in hiding to watch. What he saw was that one rat would embrace an egg with all four legs, then roll over on his back. A second rat would then drag the first rat by its tail to their burrow, where they would share their prize in peace,” Bryson notes.

If these critters ever evolve opposable thumbs, we’re screwed.

Rodents with designs on human dwellings come in three main varieties in temperate zones: Rattus rattus or the common roof rat, Rattus norwegicus or the Norway rat, and Mus musculis, the dusty-coloured house mouse. The first kind makes its home in attics and rooftops – like mine. The second is the scary one associated with sewers, urban back alleys and film noir. The third is the tiny scourge of kitchen floors and Disney flicks. All varieties are astoundingly prolific. Only the high death rate of rats – up to 95 percent for Norway rats – keeps the critters from tumbling from our cupboards and vents like coins from a slot machine.

If rodents were said to have any kind of superpower, it would have to be chewing. My partner and I put a compost bin in our backyard. Within a year’s time, rats – presumably the Norway variety – made their way through the bailing wire around the heavy-duty plastic, forming tunnels throughout the compost. But since it was outdoors, we weren’t all that concerned. Our cat, a mouser extraordinaire, was all the patrol we needed on the domestic front. Or so we thought.

Of course, there are multiple reasons why you don’t want rats in or around your home. “Rats consume and contaminate food with their fur, urine and feces. Rat burrowing causes streets and structures to collapse. Their constant gnawing damages property. This has caused power outages, Internet blackouts, computer crashes, fires and human deaths. It is estimated that 25 percent of all fires attributed to “unknown causes” are probably started by rodents gnawing on gas lines, electrical wiring and matches,” according to a document on municipal rodent management from the Illinois Department of Public Health.


The common squirrel is no slouch at destructive behaviour, either. Wild Ones author Jon Mooallem was intrigued by a story about a squirrel that immolated itself on a power line in Tampa Florida, cutting off power to 700 customers. So he set up a Google alert in 2013 using the term squirrel power. In less than three month’s time, he had catalogued reports of 50 power outages caused by squirrels in 24 states. “And these, of course, are only those power outages severe enough to make the news,” he wrote in the New York Times.

“Squirrels cut power to a regional airport in Virginia, a Veterans Affairs medical centre in Tennessee, a university in Montana and a Trader Joe’s in South Carolina. Five days after the Trader Joe’s went down, another squirrel cut power to 7,200 customers in Rock Hill, S.C., on the opposite end of the state… Nine days later, 3,800 more South Carolinians lost power after a squirrel blew up a circuit breaker in the town of Summerville.”

Mooallem’s list of rodent-related mayhem goes on and on: 9,200 power-deprived customers in Portland on July 1; 3,140 customers on July 23; and 7,400 customers on July 26 – 10,000 customers in Kentucky in two separate events a few days apart. The town of Lynchburg, Va., suffered large-scale power outages caused by squirrels on two consecutive Thursdays in June. “Downtown went dark. At Lynchburg’s Academy of Fine Arts, patrons were left to wave their lighted iPhone screens at the art on the walls, like torch-carrying Victorian explorers groping through a tomb,” observes the writer.

I discovered more of the same north of the border through a quick search of “squirrel power” on Google Canada. In June, thousands of Maryland, New Brunswick, residents were left in the dark, according to CBC News, after “a squirrel climbed in a substation, causing a breaker to catch fire, sending a trail of black smoke into the air,” in the words of a Brunswick Power spokesperson. In October, a bushy-tailed terrorist triggered a massive power outage throughout Fredericton’s downtown core. Also in October, a stretch of Highway 12 in Ramara Township in Ontario was closed for a few hours after a squirrel on a wire caused a utility pole to catch fire, resulting in Hydro wires falling onto the highway.

Canada’s national rodent-symbol has also made headlines in this context. On January 11 of this year, a 152-car train laden with coal was derailed in Burnaby after heavy rains washed out a beaver dam. “Almost the entire content of one car has been emptied into the creek and the contents of a second car are spread down the creek bank,” noted a spokesperson for Voters Taking Action on Climate Change at the time. It would be misleading to blame Castor canadensis for the derailment, but the incident demonstrates how bad weather and beastly habits can turbocharge the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Squirrels and other rodents cost US states hundreds of millions of dollars a years in repairs, all in a time of crumbling infrastructure awaiting trillions of dollars in uncommitted funds. The limit to their destructive ability has yet to be seen. A squirrel shut down the NASDAQ for 82 minutes in a 1987 incident. Another squirrel shut down the NASDAQ in 1994.

How do the creatures manage these assaults on the electrical grid? Two ways: the first is through obsessively chewing through wires. The second and more common method is for a scampering squirrel to touch on two pieces of energized equipment simultaneously, completing the circuit and exploding in a flash of squirrel-combustion (sometimes with an obliging pop). If the squirrel’s charred remains do not drop to the ground and remains stuck on the wires or equipment, it can generate a so-called “continuous fault,” which interferes with an electrical restart.

Utility companies have fashioned various guards to minimize these ongoing assaults on the grid, but rodents have millions of years of evolution behind them, as opposed to our few hundred years of industrial tinkering. One squirrel lights up on a wire like a Roman candle and a dozen more are ready to take its place, like a formation of nut-gathering insurgents.

Feral cats, raccoons and birds also contribute to the attack on electrical utilities, according to Mooallem in the Times and the disruptions can be quite counterintuitive. “Last month, reports surfaced in Oklahoma of Great Horned Owls dropping snakes onto utility poles, thereby causing frequent power outages.”


Back to the rats. In March 2013, after a mystery power outage at a Fukushima Daiichi power plant, engineers discovered the charred remains of a six-inch-long rat by a switchboard linked to the cooling system. The power outage deprived a pool of fuel rods of energy for cooling – a dangerous development, to say the least. The engineers believe the rodent gnawed on the switchboard cables, precipitating the blackout.

The nuclear complex, severely damaged by the March 2011 tsunami, requires a constant power supply so the repair work can continue uninterrupted and fuel rods do not overheat. The whole area is an atomic tinderbox, with many experts predicting terrible consequences from any unforeseen developments.

Just two weeks after its fried rat incident, Tokyo Electric Power Company shut down another one of the cooling systems to remove two more dead rodents. In November 2013, a warning alarm went off after a rat urinated on the alarm wiring. Then on December 10, rats yet again set off a power system alarm after entering a power panel box at the plant.

That’s four power-compromising incidents involving rats at a nuclear complex in under a year. We’re not talking about unrelated accidents, but a consistent pattern. Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but by a whisker?


In his 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued that societies disintegrate when their investments in social complexification reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. That is, they get less and less out of doing more and more, while small perturbations scale up into large, nonlinear gyrations. The only way back to a state of social stability is to shed complexity – that is, to collapse, either slowly like a failed soufflé or suddenly like a house of cards.

Whatever dire threat you can imagine for humanity – solar flares, asteroids, nuclear war, global warming, a return ice age, a reunion tour by Styx – rodents seem like outliers in the apocalyptic laundry list. Yet they represent small nudges to complex systems sensitive to disturbances. Even marine life is getting into the act. In 1999, 40 million Filipinos experienced a massive power outage. Many thought a coup was underway, and in a sense one was – from a jellyfish bloom in the South Pacific that had clogged the cooling system of one of the Philippines’ biggest coal-fired plants.

On July 27, 2006, while docked in the port of Brisbane, Australia, the USS Ronald Reagan suffered an “acute case of fouling” from jellyfish in the words of the commander of the US Naval Air Forces. Thousands of the gelatinous creatures, sucked into the cooling system of the ship’s nuclear power plant, brought the ship’s onboard capabilities to a standstill. Then the most modern aircraft carrier in service, the USS Ronald Reagan was forced out of port by a species hundreds of millions of years old.

Yet the creatures are capable of even bigger defeats. In September 2013, one of the world’s largest nuclear reactors was forced to shut down after tons of jellyfish clogged the pipes that bring in cool water to the plant’s turbines. Operators of the Oskarshamn nuclear plant in southeastern Sweden had to cut power to one of the reactors to perform repairs. It was not the first, nor will it be the last, shutdown at an atomic complex due to jellyfish, experts believe.

The enormous blooms of jellyfish in the world’s oceans and lakes are thought to have resulted from carbon-compound acidification, coupled with the decades-long decimation of large fish species and other marine life by the global fishing industry. This has given the sci-fi organism an edge over declining species, allowing them to occupy a niche friendly to their Precambrian habits. In Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin insists we have taken the ocean past the point of no return and an invertebrate species more ancient than the dinosaurs is rushing in to fill a vacuum largely of our own making. It is all unutterably sad.


In a 1969 essay, naturalist Loren Eiseley reminisces about a discovery he makes after a nearby lot is dug up for a supermarket development. In his apartment, he finds “a little heap of earth on the carpet and a scrabble of pebbles that had been kicked merrily over the edge of one of the flowerpots.”

It is probably one of the furry inhabitants of the lot, sent scurrying by the bulldozers and backhoes, he concludes. Somehow, in his flight, a mouse “had found his way to this room with drawn shades where no one would come till nightfall. And here he had smelled green leaves and run quickly up the flower pot to dabble his paws in common earth.” But the naturalist never sees the mouse in his burrow, even though he looks hopefully for several days into the fern pot. Perhaps it was a victim of a trap in another tenant’s room, he figures.

“About my ferns there had begun to linger the insubstantial vapour of an autumn field, the distilled essence, as it were, of a mouse brain in exile from his home. It was a small dream, like our dreams, carried a long and weary journey along pipes and through spider webs, past holes over which loomed the shadows of waiting cats, and finally, desperately, into this room where he had played in the shuttered daylight for an hour among the green ferns on the floor. Every day these invisible dreams pass us on the street, or rise from beneath our feet, or look out upon us from beneath a bush.”

Our human dreams – of gleaming spires, belching smokestacks and atomic reactors – have not, for the most part, factored in the Earth’s other inhabitants other than as pests, pets, food or fodder for laboratory experiments. The present unravelling of the environment may turn out to be a final, fatal reminder that we are not the ‘crown of creation.’ Like any of our animal brethren, we are just another spectral form in nature’s Great Dreaming.

photo © Rico Leffanta

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