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Etterbeek's ferrets provide a safe alternative in the fight against rats

A ferret seen in the wild (Wikipedia Creative Commons)
05:25 20/08/2021

It is generally estimated that there are two million rats in Brussels. They take up residence in damp, discreet places where food is available; in cellars, sewers or public parks, feeding in particular on the bread offered by passers-by to ducks or pigeons.

Apart from a few rodent lovers, they inspire mostly disgust and mistrust in people. They also cause a lot of damage. So how do you get rid of them when traps and poison in public spaces present a real danger to other animals and humans?

In the municipality of Etterbeek, the authorities use a safe method that has proved its worth and which has received little criticism: the ferret.

Ferrets may look cute and cuddly, but they are fearless rat killers and have been employed in the municipality for the past decade. Etterbeek even has a designated ferret trainer, Jean De Marcken, who has taught several of the animals to hunt the municipality’s vermin over the years.

"The ferret is a ruthless natural predator,” said De Marcken. “It is powerful and slender, it easily sneaks into burrows and rat lairs, it pursues them and leaves them with no chance. Its technique is infallible: bite at the base of the skull and destroy the cerebellum, which paralyses the prey and kills it almost instantly."

The rat is a rodent equipped with fearsome teeth, yet the fight with the ferret is uneven, De Marcken confirms. "Unlike the ferret, the rat does not attack, and this applies against humans too. It only defends itself if it is cornered. So, it can give a nasty bite but faced with the ferret, it  has already lost because the ferret has a thick skin and, above all, it has steel jaws."

When sending his ferrets into battle, De Marcken usually introduces them into a recognised rat burrow and then refills the hole with a stick, letting his protégé accomplish its mission, which is to eliminate all the rodents present in the maze below the surface.

"Everything happens underground, the ferret locates the rats through their smell, it kills them and gathers the remains in one place of the burrow as if it were a reserve, like the squirrels who store their nuts,” he said “It only emerges from the hole once all the rats are dead, but it does not bring them to the surface. In half an hour, I estimate that one could neutralise a dozen rats. In total, my seven ferrets each have hundreds of kills to their credit."

"In homes, the effectiveness of ferrets against rats approaches 100%,” De Marcken added. “Over the past week, I have worked in two or three private homes. Mostly, I take care of public spaces but not only rats as I am also in charge of hunting other pests in the commune."

Of course, not all missions are a success. Rats sometimes manage to find an emergency exit and escape. When this happens, he occasionally employs his dog to catch up with the runaways but then the unpleasant result of that is that the killing is sometimes done in public, which obviously unnerves passers-by. However, sometimes the public help out too: on one occasion, a passer-by chased an escaping rat, caught it and brought it back to him.

For the mayor of Etterbeek, Vincent De Wolf, ferrets are an ideal solution to the rat problem: "The ferret is a natural means of pest control; they are less problematic than using poison and their use is in accordance with the law,” he said. “Ferrets make it possible to respond to any of the recurring complaints we get from the inhabitants of rat-infested neighbourhoods."

Written by Nick Amies