CHICAGO — To bring down the city’s rat population, Chicago has tried a number of different methods over the years, including traps, birth control, poison, dry ice, waste management and even feral cats. Meanwhile, a growing number of Northeastern cities are taking a different, more high-tech approach to abatement.
SMART Boxes is a new rat control technology that uses electricity, sensors and data, rather than toxic bait, to trap and track rats and other pests.
The rat-trapping boxes are equipped with sensors that detect rodent movement and body heat. When a rat enters the box, it’s killed instantly by an electrical current. The dead rat is lifted up on a mini elevator and emptied into a container, then the trap resets. All of the catches are recorded and sent off to the SMART data hub. That gives officials a detailed picture of the rat problem in their cities.
Long-standing Swedish pest control company Anticimex is behind SMART Boxes. The company rolled out the technology in Europe before bringing it to the United States a few years ago.
Portland, Maine, which has a population of 68,000 people, was the first city in the country to use the non-toxic device.
Driven by an influx of sewer projects, Portland saw a surge in rat complaints earlier in the pandemic. The city installed 40 boxes, which went on to record nearly 1,000 captures in less than a year, a success by the city’s standards. A Portland official said the data helped them deploy resources more effectively.
Somerville, Mass., a comparably-sized city grappling with its own rat issues, followed suit and installed 50 boxes. The city saw more than 1,000 captures over the course of five months. Areas with permitted dumpsters had the highest capture rate, said Colin Zeigler, the city’s environmental health coordinator.
“It shows that the city needs to be looking at these mixed-use residential spaces moving forward,” Zeigler said.
Somerville is planning to expand the program to other neighborhoods as part of its rat control plan, which includes hiring more inspectors, doing more community engagement and using carbon monoxide pumps to choke rodents to death.
“We see the SMART Boxes as a tool, not necessarily a full-on solution,” Zeigler said. “In the rat world, there’s an understanding that you’re not going to completely eliminate the rodent activity by simply trapping and baiting. It’s just not possible. It’s hard to keep up with the reproductive rate of rodents.”
Cambridge, Mass. launched its own pilot program last year. After early success, the city is pumping an additional $300,000 into the technology.
Bobby Corrigan, a longtime New York City-based rodentologist, said the boxes are “very, very effective” when used properly, partly because they allow for early intervention.
“With rats and their reproduction, that’s everything,” Corrigan said.
Anticimex partners with local exterminators to deploy SMART Boxes. It is unclear how many American cities are using the device. The company didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Experts say it could be challenging to scale up the SMART Boxes program in a big city like Chicago, which is home to 2.6 million people and constantly facing a budget shortfall. Fifty boxes, which only covers a small portion of Somerville, cost $40,000.
But Chicago could incorporate the boxes into a larger rat control plan, Zeigler said.
“If you were to narrow its utilization, maybe make it restaurant-specific, dumpster-specific, you could utilize it as a tracking system to determine the cleanliness of certain restaurants in the city,” he said. “Do I think it could be deployed to every single building in Chicago? I don’t think that would be feasible or cost effective, but you could isolate it to what you want to track and you could move the boxes around.”
Chicago officials didn’t answer questions about whether or not the city is interested in using SMART Boxes or other new technology to crack down on rats.
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