updated 9/28/2004 4:59:58 PM ET 2004-09-28T20:59:58

Health authorities in the northern state of Chihuahua said Tuesday they are recruiting hundreds of cats to fight hundreds of thousands of rats.

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Chihuahua state officials say they hope to collect as many as 700 felines and send them to Atascaderos, an isolated farm village in the rugged Tarahumara mountains, a region where officials estimate there are about 500,000 rats.

The cats are being collected in Chihuahua city, the state capital, where they will be vaccinated and checked for rabies and then shipped by truck to Atascaderos, about 300 miles to the south, said Roberto Gallegos, a health official who is overseeing the recruitment of the cats.

“So far we don’t have any cats, but an animal control agency already promised to donate 50,” Gallegos said. “Our goal is to stop the rats from reproducing and that’s how we hope the cats can help.”

Deployment this weekend
Ads asking for cat donations started circulating in Chihuahua newspapers Monday, and officials hope some 200 will be ready to travel to Atascaderos this weekend.

Villagers in Atascaderos, a town of 3,000 people, started noticing the rodent problem a year ago when rats appeared in barns and warehouses where they stored their produce.

Farmers started setting traps and poison, but the effort backfired: Cats and other animals that prey on rats started dying instead.

200 rats per home
“Now they have no cats left, and the rats just keep reproducing,” Gallegos said.

Eustaquio Marin, a spokesman for the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, where Atascaderos is located, said about 800 households are infested with the rats. He said there was an average of 200 rats per home.

With the rats able to produce 800 offspring per year, authorities fear they could soon start spreading to neighboring villages.

“It’s like the problem in ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ tale, but unfortunately that flutist doesn’t exist and what we have here is an imminent health problem,” Gallegos said.

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