World War II and Korean War veteran Neil Olson has seen swarms of rats in his life, and now the 89-year-old Lincoln Avenue resident is waging a one-man battle against the rodents in his neighborhood.

“Rats and me, we don’t get along,” Olson said. “They’ve got a lot of places to hibernate and populate.”

Olson has trapped 11 rats near his home over the last three weeks and ventures he’d have more if he used all of his traps. And these aren’t just any rats: three females were more than a foot long, he said — big enough to thwart any cat that fancied itself a mouser.

Olson suspects the pests are in the neighborhood because there are so many vacant homes. Five are empty around his block alone, some of which are being remodeled and have yards strewn with debris.

“People are moving out and the rats are moving in,” laughed Mitchell Stachoviak at his mother’s house across Lincoln Avenue from Olson. While he and neighbors interviewed for this story had not noticed rats in the area, Stachoviak said he’s glad Olson has taken it upon himself to get rid of and possibly contain them.

Wausau has been working in recent years to address animal control issues and blight, but neither the city nor Marathon County has a program targeting rodents. When Olson called the city clerk’s office he was forwarded to the county health department where he declined to leave a message.

“We would certainly want to be notified of that,” said Wausau Chief Inspector and Zoning Administrator Bill Hebert, who hadn’t heard anything about the rats on Olson’s block until asked about them by a reporter. The city has recently beefed up codes, added another inspector for enforcement and taken over stray cat management from the county, in part to address the city’s urban decay.

Hebert said that if his office were to receive a complaint of a housing violation with proof, staff would follow up. But, he said, they cannot wait around for a rodent to run out of a house to issue a citation.

“We need some substantial proof,” Hebert said. If a property owner is absent or resists city efforts to crack down on violations, city staff can get an inspection warrant from the municipal judge allowing them to go on the property and issue citations. They then can follow-up with enforcement actions, such as fines, if the owner doesn’t comply.

But Olson’s not waiting around for judges and bureaucrats.

‘A good funeral’

Olson, who speaks affectionately to his has cocker spaniel-mix Lucky during conversational lulls, said he has been trapping animals since he was “12 years old on the farm.” At that time he used wooden box traps and spring traps.

Many critters end up in his traps, including 40 to 50 chipmunks this summer, all of which have gone to meet their maker. When he gets a squirrel or rabbit, it goes into the frying pan, he said.

Several years ago Olson had to pay a fine for using a pellet gun in the city to kill rats, which he said wandered up the street from a house where they were raised to feed a pet snake. Now Olson catches neighborhood rats in live traps, then drowns them and throws them in the sewer.

“They get a good funeral, but they’re wicked,” Olson said.

That’s not how county health workers prefer the rats meet their end. Their advice: kill them, bag them and throw them in the garbage for regular collection.

We’re gonna need a bigger trap

Olson has a daunting task before him. A common sewer rat reaches sexual maturity at five weeks of age and produces up to five litters of seven to 15 babies a year — all of which also begin reproducing at five weeks of age.

Mathematically, one female rat can produce more than 10,000 descendents in the course of a year. The only thing that limits them is territory size and the availability of food, which is abundant in a city.

“The challenge is, there are many food sources for rats,” said Dale Grosskurth, director of environmental health and safety for Marathon County.

Rats can thrive off compost piles that aren’t lined with wire mesh and in gardens with unharvested produce. They damage structures and food products, Grosskurth said.

About the only good news is that rats generally aren’t responsible for spreading much disease in the area, he said.

His office gets calls “occasionally” on rat problems, and the county gives advice on methods of trapping and poisoning the animals. The risk with poison, Grosskurth said, is that it can harm other animals who find the bait or a dead rat.

“You gotta give a little and take a little,” Olson said about poison. “I say get rid of the rats.”

He doesn’t favor poison because it’s expensive, but Olson would gladly add toxic chemicals to his arsenal if the city would provide it.

And whether the city cleans up his neighborhood, gives him poison or takes no action, Olson will keep at the rats. He never did like the creatures he sees as sneaky. When he shot a few rats in a dump while serving in the Air Force in Korea, a whole pack of them swarmed. To this day he counts himself lucky he was there in a solid steel cab truck.

“I’ll keep trapping ‘em,” Olson said. “I don’t want them sleeping in my bed with me.”

Nora G. Hertel can be reached at 715-845-0665. Find her on Twitter as @nghertel.