A Capital Crusade Against Rats

Deborah Thomas, an environmental consultant, lives with rats. Sometimes she catches a swift brown Norway scurrying across her kitchen table. She hears them in the walls and sees them in the alley behind her apartment building on W Street NW. Her worst experience with them was last summer, when the bathroom ceiling caved in, dumping a female and her brood of pinkies into the tub with Thomas' daughter, 13. Thomas moved, but the new apartment has rats, too. In this city, it's impossible to escape them completely.

"You buy a lot of poison. You mix it in peanut butter. You put it around the toilet and things," Thomas says with supreme patience. Her low-rise apartment building shares the street with row houses and shops. She has made it her business to teach her neighbors how to keep the alley clean and the trash contained. It's a big job.

Washington, D.C., is famous for its beautiful open spaces. The national Mall and monuments set in parks are a big part of its identity. After years of economic decay, it's celebrating a renewal. Construction cranes clutter the city; people are moving back from the suburbs.

PEOPLE PROBLEM. But all the things that make Washington attractive also create an ideal breeding ground for rats. Historic buildings, narrow alleys, and brick sewers provide rat havens. Low-lying yew and juniper bushes offer cover during the day; underground, their roots intertwine, giving structure to burrows. Flowering trees supply fruit and seeds for food. New construction opens big holes in the asphalt, giving rats a place to forage and breed. And the city's growing population brings with it tons of trash.

So the rats are enjoying a heyday. They saunter around in broad daylight and travel in packs at night. They chase dogs out of parks, torment business owners, and give tourists Big City horror stories to tell back home. Last spring, the city was featured in a documentary Rats. Its message: Human "garbage culture"--society's love of disposable goods coupled with the waste that comes from prosperity--not rats, is to blame for the city's predicament. "It's a call for personal responsibility," says producer James M. Felter.

That message hit home with Mayor Anthony C. Williams. In his inaugural speech in January, 1999, Williams promised to make rat eradication a top priority. "Sorry, rats," he said. A year into his Rid-A-Rat program, visible progress is slow, and many city residents are skeptical. But experts hail Williams' multi-agency rat offensive as a progressive and long-term approach to a public- health problem. Williams wants to change human behavior to control the rats' food supply. It's a strategy that relies on public cooperation and tightly lidded garbage cans.

Rat experts say Williams' plan is a model approach. Poison may kill the occasional rat, but rats breed faster than they can be killed. To stop them from breeding, you have to cut off their food supply, which means containing the city's garbage. So Williams spent $800,000 last year to distribute 50,000 trash cans with stay-tight lids. It's a low-tech approach, but one that's never been taken on such a massive scale. He's also planting rat-unfriendly landscaping and instructing property owners how to rat-proof their buildings. In March, the city kicked off a blitz of meetings and community outreach programs.

It's not just the rats, Williams says, it's what they symbolize. "It's the community's sense of self," he says. "If there are rats bounding and running wild, what kind of community are we?"

"SMART CRITTERS." The District is not alone. Rats have become a public-health and economic blight on nearly all the nation's cities. From 1968 to 1980, the federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control, funded municipal rat-control programs. "The reactionary approach is: `Let's lay down poison, and we'll declare victory,"' says Bruce A. Colvin, a public-health expert who advised Williams on Rid-A-Rat. That approach "is expensive, and the rats will win."

Instead, Williams is creating a bureau of community hygiene to teach city residents how to keep rats at bay by controlling garbage disposal. The city's 26 food inspectors have been trained to spot rat burrows and food sources. Restaurants will be fined for careless garbage and trash disposal and could be shut down. By next year, city health officials hope to be a part of the permitting process for new buildings so they can ensure the sites don't have rat-friendly landscaping.

"They're smart critters," Williams says, "a worthy adversary." He'd like half of the population gone by 2002, the end of his term. This fall, Williams will ask the city council to double his rat-control budget, to about $5 million, mostly for staff and educational materials. In comparison, New York City, with a population 13 times that of Washington's, spends $8 million a year on rat eradication, with no apparent reduction in the rat population.

It will take about three years for residents to see results from Rid-A-Rat, but those results should last, Colvin says. Other cities--and suburbs--will be taking notes. As urban sprawl engulfs the inner 'burbs, it is giving rats new room to populate as they follow the trail of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores out of town. "When the economy is booming, more people go out to eat at restaurants. More restaurants, more grease, more critters," Colvin says. "A strong economy can potentially mean more resources for rats."

Boom times also bring new construction, which creates ideal rat breeding grounds. New dirt, coupled with litter from construction crews, can foster a massive rat colony within weeks. ("Rats are very good at a number of things, and sex is No. 1," Colvin says.) In Washington's Chinatown, which is witnessing a building boom, hundreds of rats can be heard scurrying around in construction pits at night. As the buildings--and the workers' lunch residue--go up, the rats go with them. "People say: `How, in my brand new building, do we have something as horrible as rats?"' says John "Chip" Akridge, president of John Akridge Cos., which manages nearly 4 million square feet of Washington office space. Controlling the rats "is a process, not an event," he says.

Williams understands that. Albert D. Greene, the General Services Administration's top pest-management official--in other words, the federal rat czar--gives Williams credit for taking a holistic, long-term approach: "He's taking the time and effort to assemble the expertise he needs to solve the problem rather than shooting from the hip."

A Capital Crusade against Rats (int'l edition)

No one can put a national number on the health-related and other economic costs of rats, but there are some telling indicators. In the $5 billion pest-control industry, rats outrank cockroaches when it comes to demand for exterminators. About 20% of the nation's grain is destroyed by rats annually. With teeth that can grow four inches a year, rats have a constant need to gnaw; in 1990, a rat gnawed its way into a House office building and ate through a $100,000 copier, destroying it. And there are the health costs. In addition to spreading salmonella, hantavirus, rabies, and other killer diseases, rats are responsible for some 47,000 bites reported each year, most of them to small children.

Then there are the costs that simply can't be calculated. Martha Hall, a software consultant living in Washington's Meridian Hill neighborhood, says she's tired of rats chasing her out of the park where she and her husband walk Henry, their five-month-old standard poodle. "They start running at you, and you have to move out of their way," Hall says. "Once we were on the sidewalk, and a herd just surrounded us." She's afraid Henry will bring home disease. "The rats and litter are making us reconsider whether we want to live in Washington."

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