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Authorities are trying to keep track of a San Francisco woman who was breeding rats in her room at a residential hotel then releasing them in public parks. But they say their hands are tied as far as trying to stop her.
She's been nicknamed "Rat Girl" by the people who've followed her behavior over the years. The situation is no laughing matter, however, because her affection for rats could endanger her health and the health of the Bay Area public.
Video shot in April of 2011 of a room in a San Francisco hotel packed with piles of filthy clothes, a dirty mattress and dozens of rats burrowing in and out of the debris was obtained on Thursday.
Animal Care and Control officials say the then-resident, a 43 year-old woman known as "Erica J.," bred hundreds of rats in the room. By the end of May 2011, San Francisco's Public Health Department said it had exterminated a thousand rats in the room and neighboring areas.
"The rats have actually burrowed into other people's rooms," said Animal Care & Control Captain Denise Bongiovanni. "They can carry disease; they can carry parasites."
"I was immediately concerned for the well-being of Erica," Bongiovanni said. "I believe that there's a serious underlying mental health issue that needs to be addressed and it seems to be unresolved."
Bongiovanni said that in the last three years, Erica J.'s social worker, landlords and members of the public have reported her for breeding the rodents.
At one point, Bongiovanni said Erica J. lived under a Japantown pedestrian bridge and brought her rats with her.
"She had the rats living off of a cart and apparently some of them had escaped and were burrowing into an area near a pedestrian bridge," said Bongiovanni. "Our officer went out and tried to locate them and tried to collect them, but was unable to at the time."
The latest incident happened May 8. Bongiovanni said a passerby reported Erica J. was living with at least eight rats in a park. Video shows rats eating out of a plastic bowl filled with dog food.
"The officer that responded noted that they had been there for some time. They had actually sort of dug a maze and had areas to tunnel and burrow," said Bongiovanni. "We collected seven, unfortunately I believe one of them was really sick and died in transport. We impounded the rest."
Bongiovanni said the department has been able to adopt out some of Erica J.'s domesticated rats over the years. Sick and feral ones have either been euthanized or exterminated. Bongiovanni said the woman has surrendered some animals but suspects she hides others.
"She has come across as being very anxious and always concerned that she could keep a couple of rats," said Bongiovanni.
Animal Care & Control Department head Rebecca Katz told KTVU her department often has trouble tracking down Erica J. and said prosecuting her under the municipal code is unlikely to solve the problem. Bongiovanni said the woman needs treatment to prevent her behavior from harming herself, others and the rats.
"We understand that Erica has housing again in the city and I can only imagine that this situation is probably going to continue wherever she lives until she gets the help that she needs," said Bongiovanni.