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Bobby Corrigan knows how to think like a rat. That’s because he’s had plenty of time to get to know them.
“One of the things I like to do is to stay up all night in infested buildings,” says the veteran rodent-catcher. “Once, I stayed up all night in a warehouse in rural Indiana where there were hundreds of rats. I actually slept on the floor with them. I had rats jumping on me, running across my back, but I’ll tell you—never did they attack me or bite me or do anything to me. There was plenty of food for them; that’s why they were there.”
Corrigan is telling this story before an audience of some 50 city employees: exterminators, inspectors, administrators—all attendees of the District’s second-ever Rodent and Vector Control Academy. The goal of the three-day seminar is to encourage workers on every level of city government to be smarter rodent killers.
As he speaks, Corrigan shows a slide of a soda machine on a Chinatown street.
“I’m walking by this machine the other day,” he says, “and I come up and shine a little light down in there.” The slide changes to a view of the crack between the machine and the wall behind it. Corrigan’s laser pointer indicates some refuse. “Feathers,” he says. A murmur runs through the audience. “Pigeon feathers.”
Corrigan goes on to describe how the catch tray below the machine’s condenser makes for a perfect little rat habitat—it’s enclosed; it’s safe; it’s warm; it’s wet. As for the rat’s food source, Corrigan says—speaking, as he frequently does, as a rat—that “one of our favorite dishes is, when we can do it and the pigeon’s not watching, we jump on the pigeon, grab it by the neck, and we drag it into our burrow. We kill it and we eat it.”
James Burton, a second-time academy attendee and the maintenance director for the Community for Creative Nonviolence homeless shelter, recognizes that vending machine. From the back of the room, he declares that he “will not drink out of that machine ever again.”
When the laughter dies down, Corrigan continues. “The more you know,” he says, emphasizing the point, “the more you see.” He will repeat this phrase every hour or so for the next three days. “It’s an ancient philosophy that goes all the way back to Confucius, OK? If you sit here for a couple of hours and learn something, you’ll leave this room with a different vision than when you came in.”
Corrigan flips to yet another slide, this time a picture of Judiciary Square, right outside the conference. His laser pointer indicates one of the bushes that line the square-shaped planters; then the laser moves up and over a bit and lands on a garbage can: shelter and a food source.
“There is a world beyond this world,” he says.
More than once in District history city officials have raised the banners of a rat crusade. The anti-rodent rhetoric culminated in 1999 with Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ first “Rat Summit,” and, following that, the establishment of a Bureau of Community Hygiene with the power to clean up badly infested properties.
The situation does seem to be getting better. Since 2000, rat complaints are down from about 4,400 a year to 3,500—a drop of more than 20 percent—according to Gerard Brown, program manager for the city health department’s rodent-control division. The city team has launched an anti-rat campaign, which includes Brown himself going wherever he can to give PowerPoint presentations on what residents can do about rats. “A lot of people in the District don’t know that there’s somebody they can call about this problem,” he says.
Another thing the city did, at Brown’s suggestion, was to hire Corrigan. Brown saw Corrigan speak at a similar conference in New York a year ago. “When I first saw him,” Brown admits, “I thought, This is going to be a long three days.” Instead, Brown, who has worked in pest control for 25 years, was blown away. “When he got into it, his whole personality changed….I felt that if we had an opportunity to have him here, that our people would get a lot more out of it than just reading his book or whatever.” With the help of another health-department honcho, Brown brought Corrigan to the District last spring.
Brown says that hiring Corrigan—he’s been paid $17,000 for running the two academies and working with city rat catchers—is about more than just benefiting from his expertise—it’s about changing the city’s approach to rodents. “In the past, [exterminators] would just go and put some poison in the alley,” says Brown. “Pest control has evolved; it’s a science.”
Corrigan, 55, is smallish and bespectacled. His voice is high-pitched, verging on shrill when he really gets going.
“There are no super-rats, OK?” he says, addressing a few rat myths. “There are no rats as big as a cat.” Then Corrigan becomes the rat again. “I don’t want to get too big,” he says. “If I get too big, I can’t fit into a small hole; I don’t want a dog to get into my burrow.”
“If you bring me a rat that weighs even close to two pounds,” Corrigan declares, himself again, “I’ll write you a check for a hundred bucks—but first I’ll cut it open and make sure you didn’t feed stones to it.”
There are a few rat facts that might be more comforting if they were fiction. Rats can, for example, come out of the toilet; as a young exterminator, Corrigan says, he once tried to battle a rat back down the pipe. He finally had to bash it unconscious with his sprayer to remove it from the toilet bowl. And, when hungry, they do attack and feed on humans. “They will attack children,” Corrigan says gravely. “They will bite holes in their faces. And the homeless are constantly being fed upon by rats.”
There are mice on planes, a fact that worries Corrigan: What if they chew through the wires? At this piece of information, a woman in the audience raises her hand and testifies that she’s never flown but is about to for the first time. “And I just saw this movie about snakes, on a plane—”
“That’s Hollywood,” Corrigan says. “But mice on a plane is real-life.”
In the world of rodent control, Corrigan is the closest thing to a superstar. He is invited to give presentations and training sessions throughout the country. When it comes to rodent control, Corrigan wrote the book—Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals—that has become an industry standard. But it’s not just his vast store of knowledge that impresses Corrigan’s colleagues, it’s how he earned it: All in the name of science, the man has performed feats daring enough to command the respect of even the most grizzled exterminator.
He got his chops as a 24-year-old working in the New York sewers, where he baited traps for a private extermination company from 1974 until 1976. He was good at his job and was promoted to cockroaches and bedbugs—above-ground work. But he missed the rats. And he had realized something that shook him: As much as they are feared and hated, nobody seems to know much about how rats behave. So he got a degree in urban and industrial pest control at Purdue University. He spent entire nights watching a single rat test a trap; he lurked in infested grocery stores, toured plagued bodegas. In 1995, he earned a doctorate in animal and pest management, also from Purdue.
Corrigan preaches the gospel of “Integrated Pest Management,” which holds that the traditional gassing and spraying isn’t the best way to control rodents. In fact, Corrigan doesn’t like poison. He’ll use it, but he doesn’t like it. For one thing, he says, children have a habit of eating it. Besides, over time, rodents develop resistance to poison. Instead, Corrigan preaches a combination of trapping, fixing decayed structures, and plain old sanitation. (“If you clean up,” he says, “you kill rats.”) He shows slides of poor extermination practices—overusing toxic “tracking powder,” which sticks to rodents’ fur, for instance, or carelessly tossing poison packets into exposed spaces that rats would never visit.
Corrigan’s message to exterminators is clear: Think.
“We are Homo sapiens, right? What does sapiens mean?” Corrigan asks the audience before answering the question himself. “It means thinking, conscious—Homo sapiens, smart mammals that we’re supposed to be, we are the only control over where the rats are and where they aren’t. We’re not in control of a lot of things—we’re not in control of migrating birds; we’re not in control of the ladybeetle explosion that passed through the city. But rats…we’re in total control.”
On the third and final day of the academy, Corrigan divides the audience into teams and sends them out “into the field” to look for signs of rodents at a few nearby sites. The streets are suddenly crawling with city workers eager to train their new vision on the District streets. In an alley near 6th and I Streets NW, UDC employee David Jefferson calls the group over to an old rat trap that he’s opened.
“There’s bird bones in there,” he declares. The group stands in a semicircle around him, staring at the small bones that litter the trap—evidence of that favorite meal Corrigan had mentioned earlier. “They own this alley.”
The academy emphasizes interagency cooperation, and the groups are intentionally mixed—suited Lance Holt from the city administrator’s office peers along with coveralled James Carter of the Department of Public Works into the filth-strewn space between two buildings. Katherine Seikel of the EPA—one of the few feds at the event—gamely ascends a fire escape, despite heels and a suit, to note a roof that has been abandoned to garbage and spent needles. “This is really bad,” she calls down to the group. “There could definitely be rats up here.”
Corrigan, meanwhile, wanders Judiciary Square by himself. He can break down an area, rodentwise, in seconds. He points to a planter outside the conference. “You see how the soil’s caved in over here?” he asks. “Rats.” A second later, he asks, “You see those trees?” while pointing at a row of sickly plants by the curb. “That tree’s doomed, that tree’s doomed, that tree’s doomed.” The rats, he says, have chewed through the root system.
The groups reconvene, and as the academy draws to a close, the audience gives a slightly blushing Corrigan a sustained, standing ovation. Brown, who commands a staff of 16 inspectors and pest controllers, says he had his staff spend as much time as possible with Corrigan, sending them to pick him up, drop him off, and accompany him on the “pre-inspections” he did for the seminar.
“There’s some people who have been here 25, 30 years,” Brown says. “When you have people that got their jobs 30 years ago, some got them because they were unemployed. I think Bobby makes the people feel a little bit more professional about what they do on a daily basis. We tell them now, ‘You’re not just an unemployable person who throws poison in an alley.’ It’s more than that.”
Corrigan, too, defines his relationship with Rattus norvegicus in terms more complex than hunter-and-prey. He says his mission isn’t to kill rats—not to kill all of them, anyway—but to bring their populations to a level where they can coexist safely with humans. “I do love them—I do. The word that comes to mind is respect,” he says. “I respect their ability to get it done; they face a lot of adversity, and yet they get it done.”CP