Once upon a time, the tiny woodrat was everywhere in New York. But today, the friendly species of pack rat is endangered, and humans are (in a roundabout way) to blame.

You see, human settlement in New York state created a safe haven for raccoons, who love to pick through our garbage and have adapted very well to living near people. More raccoons meant more raccoon droppings, which the woodrats for some reason felt compelled to pick up and collect.

But raccoons carry a parasite that, while it doesn't effect them, remains present in their scat and is deadly to the woodrat. And so the woodrat population in New York has died off in dramatic numbers, and in the last 30 years has almost disappeared.

There are more than 20 different woodrat species across the U.S. and Canada, and some are better positions than others. Scientists are trying to help the New York population, but woodrats re-introduced to the area have also died off.

Will anyone miss the woodrat? It's a cute and cuddly creature, but it's also nocturnal, so most people don't even know that they exist. And even though woodrats aren't exactly rats, that word "rat" in its name will probably get in the way of its eventual conservation.

Want to help? You might consider raccoon-proofing your garbage cans. Hey, every little bit helps.

Story by John Platt. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

How we killed off the woodrat
Thanks to humans, the once-rampant species is now endangered.