By Brooks Hays
Setting dozens of traps in the middle of forest isn't exactly practical, so instead, forest service officials have recruited owls to hunt disease-spreading rats.
A deadly and highly contagious strain of hantavirus is carried by long-tailed pygmy rice rats in Chile. As forests in the South American country have disappeared due to logging and seasonal forest fires, the rats have moved into more urban environments and begun spreading the disease to humans.
There have been 36 confirmed infections of the hantavirus and 15 fatalities since September of last year.
That's why the forest service wants to up the population of Chilean white owl and lesser horned owls, a predator of the native rice rats.
Officials have been maintaining shelters for the owl populations in some of Chile's national forests since 2002, but now they want to expand the operation.
Forest managers are also making a stronger public outreach efforts to promote the biological benefits of the nocturnal predator -- with the hope that locals might help build and care for shelters too.
Some Chileans are still superstitious about the presence of owls.
"If an owl hooted near a house, it used to mean that someone would die in that house. But in reality it is the opposite -- the owls are actually protecting homes," Aldo Valdivia Ahumada told Santiago Times.