By Gary Walker

A vocal contingent of Venice residents have complained for months about rat sightings among the perpetual homeless encampments along Third Avenue and Hampton Drive, near Gold’s Gym and the Google campus.

Prompted by an anonymous complaint, a July 23 investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health detected four brown rat (aka Norway rat) burrows — not among the encampments, but on the fenced-in Google parcel between Hampton and Third.

Contrary to claims of hundreds of rats posing a potential communicable disease hazard, the burrows only represent “a small infestation,” Public Health officials said.

“A notice was sent to the property owner to trim out the vegetation, collapse the burrows, and eliminate the rodents,” a department representative stated in an email to The Argonaut.

Google was given an Aug. 7 deadline to complete the work, and then an Aug. 13 extension to place additional bait stations, ensure that burrows are collapsed and remove additional vegetation growth. Company representatives did not answer requests for comment.

“It’s a great first step. This should help reduce the rat population here,” said neighborhood activist Rick Swinger, who lives near Third and frequently documents activity among the encampments. Swinger, who has called Public Health about the encampments on prior occasions and has frequently posted evidence of encampment-related trash and human waste on social media, has stated in email chains that he has seen “hundreds of rat burrows along Third Avenue along with scores of rats jumping into their tents!”

Public Health officials surveyed Third, Fourth, Rose and Sunset avenues for evidence of rats and other potential public health hazards, but came up empty-handed. They also found no evidence of active rodent infestation at the nearby Public Storage facility, often a target of neighborhood concerns.

“The following were observed: a homeless community; no trash, fecal material, or debris were observed, but the trash cans were full; rodent burrows on the property occupied by Google (Third Avenue), but not on the surrounding city streets; rodent runways and gnawed fruit were observed under the dense vegetation at the Google property; rodent activity was not observed in the public areas around the property; and stagnant water (referred to West Los Angeles Vector Control District for possible mosquito control),” Public Health officials wrote.

“I just guesstimated that there were hundreds [of rats] because I saw so many,” Swinger said of the discrepancy.

Rats became a hot topic on social media after reports of infestation and a typhus outbreak earlier this year at L.A. City Hall. This summer the fiscally conservative Reform California political action committee issued a report claiming private pest control agencies are dealing with increased calls about rats driven by a proliferation of homeless encampments.

Venice locals who are concerned the Third Avenue encampments present public health dangers have asserted
that “1.5% of the rats in Los Angeles have the bubonic plague” and “when it hits 2% the plague will enter the human population, according to experts.”

The claim appears to have originated from media personality and addiction specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky, formerly of the radio show “Loveline,” in a May 31 interview for Fox News that has been reposted by conservative websites. Pinsky, who is not an epidemiologist, did not cite which experts told him that “bubonic plague is likely; it’s already here; it will get onto the rat fleas.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that plague can be spread by flea bites from infected rodents, but the last known evidence of plague in Los Angeles was in 1924.