MODESTO -- Where's a pied piper when you really need one?
Westgate Village is a gated, very clean mobile home park in southwest Modesto.
The park caters to the 55-and-older crowd, and nearly all take very good care of their homes. Neighbors are friendly and watch out for one another.
Usually, the place seems calm and quiet.
But down one of its narrow streets, creatures stir shortly after dusk. And when the sun beats down on a hot summer day or a breeze kicks up, the stench is unbearable.
The cause? Rats. Well over 100 rats, and quite possibly two or three times that number (nobody's done an inventory). Tree rats that are difficult to exterminate.
An infestation in one particular home is disturbing the health conditions and quality of life for the immediate neighbors, and threatening to spread throughout the entire park.
They scurry and climb, using trees to reach the metal rooftops and then skitter across. They carry diseases. They eat the neighbors' peaches and grapes. And worse than being full of stolen fruit, they are fruitfully multiplying at an alarming rate.
Indeed, these rats are promiscuous little buggers.
It's a problem the park residents and managers have been battling for a couple of years, and it worsened recently when the elderly woman who lived in the home suffered a stroke and had to be taken to a convalescent hospital. Her son and caretaker lives in the home while himself dealing with cancer.
"It's a tragic situation," said Annette Schwartz, Westgate Village's on-site manager.
The neighbors truly feel for the mom and son. At the same time, they are grossed out by the rat problem emanating from the home.
The son continued to stay there after his mother went to the hospital. The neighbors equate him to a real-life Willard, the rat-loving title character of a 1971 horror genre flick in which Michael Jackson sang the theme song "Ben." They told me he's actually tamed many of the rats that live (and tinkle) inside the home with him.
Neighbor Phyllis Davies said that early one morning, the man went for a walk and some of the rats got out. After he went back inside, she said, "the rats were scratching his back door and he let them in."
"I hear them every night," said Jane Haerle, Davies' daughter, who moved in with her mom two weeks ago. "You see the curtains moving back and forth."
It's bad enough that they roam free inside the home, neighbors Sandy and Will Kostamo said. The critters also live beneath the home, poking their noses out through the metal skirting, escaping through holes and making their way next door and off to other homes in the neighborhood.
"We don't sit outside anymore," Sandy Kostamo said.
Last week, someone complained to the police. A social worker already was there when officers arrived and knocked on the door, according to Will Crew, Modesto's chief building official.
The son didn't answer, and fearing the worst, the officers broke a window pane in the door and went in to investigate. They brought him outside and summoned representatives of other agencies. After talking to him for more than an hour, they loaded him into an ambulance and took him away, Will Kostamo said. Stanislaus County health officials also are involved, Crew said.
The son has not returned home.
Inside, conditions are so bad that city officials deemed it uninhabitable for humans, though pretty standard for rats.
"In the top 10," Crew said, when asked to rank it among the rankest conditions city workers have encountered.
Schwartz said park owners and residents share responsibility for pest control. The homeowners are expected to pay for services to protect their homes while the park contracts with a service to cover the grounds.
Consequently, the city issued notices Crew said were requests to the infested home's closest neighbors to protect their properties. But the city cannot simply go inside to exterminate the rats or demolish the home, as the other residents would like.
"He (the son) has Fourth Amendment rights," Crew said, referring to protections against unlawful searches and seizures of personal property. "I don't have the police powers to go in there. I have no immediate tools myself to go out and hire a contractor (to eliminate the mess)."
To the contrary, the homeowner's right to due process makes a speedy resolution unlikely.
Park workers recently trimmed foliage between the infested and neighboring homes to limit the rats' access to the rooftops. One resident, Glenn Lasley, told me he's been plugging holes with a pressure-spray foam sealant to keep the rats from getting beneath his place or into his walls.
In the meantime, the rats in and beneath the infested home keep breeding and multiplying.
The rodent rampage doesn't lack for ironies.
Schwartz was named after Annette Funicello of "Mickey Mouse Club" fame.
"I have a Mickey and a Minnie (statues)," she said.
Haerle, the newcomer, is meeting her neighbors.
"I've gotten to know all of these people because of the rat story," she said.
And finally, even though he is responsible for the rat proliferation, the son's absence actually is affecting the neighborhood, Haerle said. "They're just starting to spread out now because he's not here to feed them."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.