MELBOURNE, Fla. – Hungry rats wreaked havoc in Naomi Rivera's attic days before Christmas, chewing holes in PVC waterlines and causing an estimated $30,380 in structural flood damage.
Waterlogged ceilings collapsed in Rivera's dining room, kitchen and front entryway, spewing soggy insulation on top of furnishings. An estimated $11,078 worth of possessions were ruined, ranging from her living room and dining room sets to her Christmas tree.
"Rodents ate my house out from the attic," Rivera said Monday night while a construction contractor inspected her wrecked kitchen.
Rivera lives in a duplex in the Quail Ridge neighborhood off Croton Road, a stone's throw from heavily wooded Wickham Park. The destruction was caused by animals that were fed by Rivera's adjoining duplex neighbors, a Melbourne code compliance officer determined.
She has complained to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about neighbors feeding forest critters since February 2012, said Karen Parker, agency spokeswoman. Rivera blames her attic rats on this food supply, which she says also attracts raccoons to her home.
Rivera called FWC again after her kitchen ceiling collapsed Dec. 19, and Officer Matthew Land drove to her varmint-damaged duplex, Local 6 News partner Florida Today reported.
"When I arrived at the scene, I noticed a large quantity of peanut shells, cat food and table scraps surrounding the walkway to the entrance of the neighbor's home in the duplex," Land noted in an offense report.
Land issued a warning to Rivera's next-door neighbor, Shirley Hull, for intentionally placing food or garbage in such a manner that it attracts black bears, foxes or raccoons. This offense is a second-degree misdemeanor, per Florida Administrative Code.
Since Dec. 19, Melbourne licensed wildlife trapper James Dean has captured four Norwegian rats in Rivera's attic. He said he has also trapped 17 raccoons, one possum and two squirrels near her 0.1-acre yard.
One of those raccoons captured Monday menacingly growled and lunged inside its metal cage from the flatbed of Dean's truck.
"See the green eyes? That's a sign of distemper. That's an airborne disease that'll kill dogs," Dean said.
Shirley Hull and her husband, John, said they stopped feeding wildlife immediately after receiving the FWC warning.
"I don't like people that blame other people for their problems when they don't do anything about their own problems. That's about all I have to say," Shirley Hull said when asked for comment.
Michael Godard is founder and owner of God' A Grip, a Melbourne firearms hand-grip firm. His mother lives next door to Rivera, and he called the Hulls "a retired couple that's some of the nicest people you'll meet."
Godard said he removed three rats from the Hulls' attic in recent weeks, and he repaired rodent-chewed waterline damages — a damp portion of the Hulls' bathroom ceiling fell in.
Godard and Dean both said they walked the duplex roof and discovered small mouse-sized openings, but saw no evidence of raccoons or large critters entering either attic.
Parker said feeding wildlife is "just a bad idea."
"The problem is, you see a raccoon and you say, ‘Aww, isn't it cute! Let's give it some food.' Well, No. 1, it's against the law. No 2, you could turn around and have 27 raccoons waiting for you," Parker said.
"If it can attract a raccoon or cats and dogs, it can probably attract even larger critters like coyotes," she said.
Rivera was forced to cancel a Christmas family gathering and flee to the Residence Inn Marriott, where she remains with fellow yuletide refugees Bianca Searcy, her 18-year-old daughter, and Sofia, her 4-month-old granddaughter.
Rivera purchased her home two years ago for $108,000, property appraiser's records show. Her insurance company pegged her gross losses at more than $42,899, and on Tuesday she was offered a net claim of $32,784.
"This is the first time I've ever owned a house. Since April 28, 2011, I've been living here. And it's a rude awakening to find out what's in your policy — rodent damage is not. So the roofer is not covered. The pipes are not covered," she said.
A Melbourne code compliance officer was scheduled to inspect the duplex for structural deficiencies that could let critters scurry inside, said Cheryl Mall, city spokeswoman.