Original Published 10:43 Jun 02, 2022

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

On May 12, people on the banks of the Hay River weren’t just watching the ice move. A number of muskrats could be seen paddling through the water. 

Not long after, humans were required to evacuate as well. When they returned, they found they weren’t alone: residents in some areas of Hay River, N.W.T., are reporting an uptick in rodents.

“We usually always have some mice, but on 101 Street I see them running everywhere… it’s hard to [get] it all in a photo as there’s one over there, then you turn and there’s another one. It’s kinda scary,” said Darlene Lamb. 

One resident was reported by the CBC to have caught as many as 20 of the creatures in their home. 

“It’s insane,” said Gene Hachey, who owns a business on Vale Island. “I have never seen mouse condominiums like I’m seeing out here.” 

“We definitely had an increase at our house,” said Henry Braun, who lives in the same area.

Nafissa Ismail, a professor at the University of Ottawa who uses mouse behaviour to study the effects of stress on the brain, says natural disasters are just as traumatic for rodents as they are for humans. Indeed, the recent flood might cause visible changes in their habits. 

“They will react in a way that is disorganized, and panicked, and anxious, for all the same reasons that we would react this way,” she said, explaining that while human brains and rodent brains differ in complexity, they function quite similarly. 

“After a stressful event, the same physiological and neural changes occur in rodents as in humans. And we don’t know how long these neural circuits remain activated, because this is a bit of a chronic stress situation, after a flood occurs. 

“Water levels recede, yes, but the consequences of the flooding may persist over time where their habitat has been destroyed. They may have lost members of their social group, they might have become separated from their colony, so they are affected by that and will be affected by that for a long time.”

The area in and around Hay River is home to a number of native vole species, which can usually be spotted digging networks of tunnels in grassy areas. In times of threat to their habitat and extreme weather events, voles have been known to enter homes, but are typically not an indoor pest species. 

“Just like humans, in the weeks after a disaster, rats and mice will be actively trying to rebuild, trying to find new food sources because their original ones have probably been destroyed,” Ismail said. 

If you’re feeling an odd swell of sympathy for such troubled rodents, Ismail says pest control is still likely the right approach for homeowners who find themselves besieged by furry evacuees. 

“It’s important to let them know that this location here is not good habitat for them to occupy,” she said. 

“The idea is to make it clear that, while they’re in the process of looking for novel habitat, this particular area is not appropriate.

“They are also undergoing a disaster of their own and they’re simply trying to rebuild. We just need to communicate to them that our homes are not the best location.” 

Animals are often perceived to pick up on early warning signs ahead of humans. Ismail says the muskrat sightings just before the flood could well have been an indicator of what was to come. 

“Animals are much more in tune with environmental changes than we are,” she said.

“They notice things we might not even be aware of, because they’re so dependent on the environment and what is happening within it for their survival.”

This item reprinted with permission from Cabin Radio, Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories