It started with two pet rats. It exploded to more than 300. And they all lived in a van with their owner, parked near one of San Diego’s toniest communities.
The rats clawed their way into upholstery, gnawed through the engine wiring. They hid in door panels, burrowed into the seats. One video shows several clustered on the dashboard.
And they often skittered around outside the van, parked near a convenience store near Flower Hill Promenade on Via de la Valle about a quarter-mile east of Interstate 5.
The rats in the van prompted concern, complaints, and finally calls to the San Diego Humane Society.
Officials there were able to scoop up scores of rats from the vehicle. Now, several of those rescued rodents are available for adoption.
The agency’s role in the tale started Oct. 8, when law enforcement officers went to the van’s location — an area not far outside Del Mar — and spoke to the woman living inside.
At first sight, the agency’s officers “realized right away the situation was significant,” Capt. Danee Cook with the agency’s law enforcement department said Thursday, Oct. 17.
“They could tell immediately that it was a huge amount (of rats),” Cook said. “They were living out of the van, coming and going.”
Cook said the woman told Humane Society officers she was sorry matters with her pet rats had gotten out of control. She wanted help. She agreed to turn them over.
“This was not a cruelty case, this was a relinquishment, an owner asking for help,” Cook said, adding that the woman was not hoarding the animals.
“She was feeding all of them, had water for all of them,” Cook said. “This didn’t meet the standards of hoarding.”
Rats have lots and lots of babies — a healthy litter consists of roughly 10 to 12 rats. They multiply fast — gestation usually runs four weeks — so it didn’t take long for two rats to become hundreds.
Officials spent a couple days plucking as many rats as they could from the vehicle, tearing out the entire inside, finding rodents “in every crevice,” Cook said.
They collected about 320 of the animals, the majority of them juveniles. Many of the rats are pregnant, Cook said.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the woman living in the vehicle. As of Thursday, more than $4,700 had been raised to help her.
“She is an amazing person who has had a string of bad luck and if she loses her job it will be devastating to her,” the GoFundMe page states.
According to the page, the woman worked at the convenience store near where she had parked the van.
Cook said Humane Society officers have followed up with the woman, and she has found a place to stay.
As for the rats, they have all been checked out to make sure they are healthy and ready for new homes.
“They could be cared for and they should be owned,” Cook said. “These are not wild rats.”
Some 140 of the collected rats are up for adoption, $5 per same-gender pair. (As social animals, rats are usually adopted out in pairs.) More will become available as the pregnant rats give birth.
Turns out this is a lot of rats for the San Diego Humane Society to handle at once. On any given day, Cook said, the organization has around four rats up for adoption at each of its three campuses, located in Escondido, Oceanside and San Diego.
Authorities with the organization encourages animal owners who need assistance to reach out to them for help by calling (619) 299-7012.
— Teri Figueroa is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune