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It’s a Sunday evening in May, and the detritus from an indulgent weekend lies scattered in the streets of D.C. After numerous trips to the keg, a red plastic cup rolls around in a gutter. A Styrofoam container spills some takeout fried rice onto the sidewalk. In a Corona box alongside a trash can, globs of potato salad from a backyard barbecue sit on some squashed hot-dog buns. On the eve of another workweek, everyone’s preparing to get a good night of sleep.
Everyone, that is, except the rats. For the District’s rodent population, the party is just getting started. In an alley off Mount Pleasant Street NW, the day’s last rays of sun are accompanied by a gentle rustling—the sound of paws on plastic. The juveniles, which are the first ones to scamper out of their underground burrows, look like little brown mice. Despite their age and size, the adolescents have big appetites. And they follow their twitching noses right to the mother lode. Soon they are ripping through plastic, poking through Styrofoam, and gnawing through the cardboard that separates them from their bounty.
In less than an hour, their parents arrive on the scene. Compared with the youngsters, the adult rats look fat and ragged. Their tails are long, pale, and crooked. Their brown coats are scruffy with age. And whereas the younger generation has gotten a head start on the Sunday supper, the older rats seem unhurried—after all, there’s plenty to go around.
A car turns into the alley, and the rats scatter. A young fellow skedaddles up a tree. While others run for cover beneath the porch of a nearby house, an adult nimbly climbs a chain-link fence, its fleshy tail curling around the wires like a fifth paw. But in a moment, the car is gone, and the rats return, seemingly worry-free.
It’s springtime in rat land, and life is good.
Nobody knows exactly how many rats live in the District. But according to experts, rat populations are on the rise in cities all over the East Coast.
“D.C. has such a vast rat problem that it’s difficult not to throw up your hands,” says Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. “But we need to keep focused on the issue. Otherwise, the problem will get worse.”
In his office at One Judiciary Square, Graham stands behind his desk and gestures at a bird’s-eye photograph of his ward. He runs his finger down 18th Street and across on U. Restaurants line the corridor that Graham has just mapped out. Where there are restaurants, there tend to be leftover scraps of food—and rats to relish them.
“I wouldn’t say we are necessarily putting a big dent in their population,” continues Graham, who has been an ardent supporter of increasing funding for rodent control in the District. “But I think we’re holding our ground. We’re certainly locked in a struggle. And the city’s efforts are genuine and determined.”
The Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) is the sole species living in the District. Rats are nocturnal creatures, regular participants in the District’s nightlife. Although their life cycle depends heavily on the habits of humans—they feed off our garbage—it is also affected by the whims of nature. Each year, the winter succeeds (where many of our nastiest poisons fail) in killing off a sizable portion of the city’s rat population. “But we’re coming off of a mild winter,” says Graham. “And that could be trouble.”
In a relatively moist climate like the District’s, where water is readily available, rats have only two limiting factors: food and shelter. Give them a patch of soft ground and rats will burrow. Give them a crack in a wall and rats will make themselves at home. They live in our houses, our schools, and in our underground labyrinth of utilities and sewers. In the District, there’s no housing crunch for rodents.
Rat control, therefore, tends to focus on one variable: food. If there is no food, there are no rats. It’s a simple problem, but one that’s difficult to solve, in part because rats will eat anything, from dog feces to their own offspring.
Aside from being repulsive to most people, rats have been known to carry more than 20 diseases—from typhus to leptospirosis. In the 14th century, rats helped spread the bubonic plague through Europe, killing nearly half the continent’s population. An old adage states that rats have killed more people throughout history than all wars combined.
Rats also are what biologists call an indicator species. Their presence points to problems with a community’s cleanliness—typically, abandoned cars, boarded-up buildings, overgrown lots, and overflowing dumpsters. To get rid of the rats, you have to first improve a neighborhood’s hygiene.
“Rats are very finely attuned to living with humans, and they have been for thousands of years,” says Dale Kaukeinen, one of America’s most prolific authors of academic papers on pest control. “They’re not afraid of people, and they like the same kinds of food as we do. As long as we’re not protecting our garbage, we provide quite a nice home and environment for these creatures.”
“People think rats are the problem,” says Jim Felter, a District filmmaker, who spent two years of his life chronicling D.C.’s rodent culture in a feature-length documentary, Rats. “But they’re not. Rats are just a symptom of the real problem, which is our culture’s excessive wastefulness. Rats are one of the major predicaments that result from our consumer-driven, waste-intensive society.”
In D.C., swarms of rats are also viewed as an indicator of something else—the ineptitude of city administrators. As far back as the ’30s, the District has been a big city with a big rat problem. And D.C. residents have long railed against government officials in response to the presence of ubiquitous vermin. An editorial in the Washington Post from 1943 exemplifies this brand of rhetoric: “What must be the reaction of Washingtonians who watch pestilence-spreading rats race through their homes and offices when they hear the President proclaim freedom from fear and want—everywhere in the world? These vermin are a symbol of neglect and misgovernment right here at the national headquarters.”
Aside from the reference to Franklin Roosevelt, that editorial might have been written today. Newcomers to the District never cease to be appalled at the infestation of rats here that longtime residents have come to regard as somehow normal. The singular experience of having rats scamper over your feet as you dine al fresco at a swank restaurant is not listed in the tourist guides, but it could be.
Perhaps that’s not too surprising when you consider that other major cities, such as New York and Chicago, spend far more per capita on rat-abatement efforts than does the District. In the District, it seems, we prefer to fight our rat problem with hot air.
Since taking office, Mayor Anthony A. Williams has taken aim at the rat problem with his own fiery rhetoric. In his inauguration speech, on Jan. 2, 1999, the mayor said, “We have to go back to the basics. We need to fill the potholes. We need to sweep the streets. We need to exterminate the rats….”
Shortly thereafter, in April 1999, Williams positioned the District in the avant garde of America’s anti-rat movement by setting up a “Rat Summit”—a first-of-its-kind brainstorming conference between biologists, policymakers, and city administrators. (The following year, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani hosted a copycat rat conference in New York City.)
Even before he delivered the keynote speech at the Rat Summit, in which he urged a proactive approach to rodent control, everybody in the American rat community knew Bruce Colvin. Colvin, who has a Ph.D. in biology from Bowling Green State University, then the premier center for rat studies in this country, earned his reputation in rat circles by completing a nearly decadelong tour of duty on the ongoing Central Artery project in Boston. Known as the “Big Dig,” the project is often referred to as the largest public works venture in our nation’s history. The undertaking disrupted the city’s vast network of subterranean rat nests, threatening to inundate it under a tsunami of wandering vermin. Colvin staved off the rodent onslaught through a multifaceted campaign of public outreach and applied biology, which included a yearlong public-information effort and an extensive sewer-baiting program.
At the summit, Williams liked Colvin’s message—fewer rats through better municipal management. In Colvin, who is apt to use the words “holistic” and “management” in the same sentence, the mayor had found a like-minded partner.
Following the summit, Williams hired Colvin as a consultant. For the next four months, Colvin was given open access to all of the city’s departments. His mission: find out what the District government was doing about the rat problem—then tell the mayor how to fix it.
In September 1999, Colvin delivered his findings to Williams in a paper called A Strategic and Comprehensive Plan for Rodent Control. The report weighs in at more than 100 pages and is peppered with interesting tidbits of District trivia—from the vertical leaping ability of D.C. rats (3 feet) to the number of abandoned properties in the District (between 2,000 and 3,000).
Colvin’s recommendations to the mayor were sundry and specific: Crack down on rat-friendly behavior. Revise the regulations. Modernize equipment. Collect fines more efficiently. Add a night rat-control shift. Improve public outreach. Hire Spanish-speaking staff. Improve interdepartmental communication. Survey the sewers. Change the rat task force’s name. Consolidate responsibilities.
“What I saw in the District,” says Colvin, “was a decadelong decline in services related to rodent control and environmental management. There was clearly a need for some reorganization. For the past 20 years, rat control had become more progressively splintered between multiple agencies. My immediate recommendation was to centralize the efforts and establish clear accountability in one department.”
Colvin recommended that the mayor shift rodent control from the Department of Public Works to the Department of Health. “Rats are a public health issue,” says Colvin. “Public health is about prevention, whereas public works is about going out and taking care of immediate issues. If a rodent-control program is to be effective, it has to be a preventative program.”
Following Colvin’s recommendations, last June, the D.C. Council passed the Rodent Control Act of 2000, which established a Bureau of Rodent Control within the Department of Health. By last January, the transition was well under way, and Williams was ready to kick off the upcoming rat season with a festive press conference at the Tryst coffeehouse, on 18th Street NW.
In front of a full house of journalists, Williams took to the podium surrounded by a crew of city workers, whom he introduced as the Rat Abatement Team. Against a backdrop of newly designed Department of Health posters asking, “Are You a Rat’s Best Friend?” the mayor pitched his new approach toward rodent control, which emphasized community involvement.
“Grease is like a narcotic for rats,” mused Williams while explaining the city’s new system of stiffer fines against commercial properties that exhibit rat-friendly behavior, such as leaving out uncovered buckets of cooking grease. The mayor also vowed to distribute 75,000 Supercans to District residents. The 96-gallon Supercan has to be emptied only once a week. Since its introduction to the District, in the early ’80s, the Supercan has remained a fixture on the ever-changing scene of rat-control technology in the District. “Let’s go out there and kill some rats!” Williams concluded.
Although Colvin wasn’t on hand for the event, he informally follows the city’s progress from his home base in Boston. “My assessment of the rat problem in Washington, D.C., was the most comprehensive that’s ever been done in the United States,” he says. “This promises to be a unique approach towards controlling a rat problem on a citywide scale.”
But students of District history might greet Colvin’s optimism with a skeptical sneer. After all, this isn’t the first time that a survey of the District’s rats has been conducted. Nor is it the first time the government has launched a crusade to vanquish District vermin. Will it really be the last?
Anyone seeking answers to the unsolved mystery of the District’s rat problem would be well advised to consult the “Rat Files.” On the third floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, amid the bric-a-brac of the Washingtoniana collection, a century’s worth of newspaper articles and educational brochures about rats rests in a series of accordion-style folders.
Open the files and the legends of local rat-killing lore leap to life. You can practically hear the last meow of Willoughby the cat before he was torn to pieces by a horde of rats in the District streets in the ’40s.
Willoughby lives on as the District’s most notable martyr in the Hundred Years’ War against vermin. But the rats have their martyrs, too. Perusing the Rat Files, you can almost smell the sizzling flesh of the intrepid rodent who in 1967 infiltrated a PEPCO substation and sabotaged the city’s electricity supply by chewing through a critical live wire. For 45 minutes, a third of Washington lost power, providing the rats with a temporary cloak of darkness to revel in unfettered feasting.
The Rat Files also offer a fine collection of stories on the legendary characters in the District’s rat-catching hall of fame. W.G. Gentry was perhaps the city’s first inductee. In 1931, an article in the Times-Herald declared, “The rats are to be exterminated, if ever, by W.G. Gentry, who comes from Wyoming, where men are men and rats are prairie dogs. It is said that Mr. Gentry is the most celebrated of all prairie-dog catchers in those parts.” However, Gentry’s cavalier approach toward rodent control, forged on the frontier, floundered in the District. Gentry’s initial plan—to pump rat burrows full of poison gas—apparently upset his boss, so Gentry was forced to attack the rats with conventional traps.
Gentry was soon followed by James Young, who, according to a 1943 article in the Washington Daily News, “rose from the janitorial ranks to sensational success as the director of Capitol Hill rat-catching.” Young, who walked Capitol Hill brandishing an iron bar with a knob at the end, enticed vermin into his traps with a salmon-based sauce. “Like Alexander with no more worlds to conquer,” the Daily News reported, “Jim Young has run out of rats. With diligence rare in public servants, he trapped himself out of a job.”
Less than a year later, in 1944, the Times-Herald wrote an extensive profile of George Hosmer, a District resident who trained ferrets to hunt rats down in their burrows and dogs to hunt rats aboveground. “Like his father, who rid the White House of rats during Benjamin Harrison’s administration,” the Times-Herald wrote, “he disdains small private assignments, confining his activities to places where from 500 to 1000 rats congregate. Hosmer receives phone calls from all over the country. If the job is big enough—and pays well enough—he’ll go anywhere.”
And in 1968, rising political phenom Marion S. Barry Jr. bragged to Washington Post reporters about his inner-city, self-help group Pride Inc., saying, “We kill about 10,000 rats a month.” Barry neglected to disclose the methodology behind this prodigious rat thrashing.
Aside from preserving the stories of D.C.’s heroic rat-catchers, the Rat Files also reveal the cyclical nature of rodent-control efforts in the District. Every decade or so, for the past 70 years, District officials have launched a new attack against vermin. In the ’30s, as part of the New Deal, the Transient Relief Agency launched an anti-rat campaign, hiring 200 unemployed men and training them to kill vermin. In the ’40s, the District was declared a demonstration city in a national program to promote rodent control in urban areas. And in the ’60s, the federal government helped launch the District’s “War on Rats” campaign, guided by Mayor Walter E. Washington, with a $1.1 million grant.
Along the way, citizens and newspaper editors helped spin the cycle—the citizens by complaining and the editors by holding the city responsible.
In a recent bout of rodent alarmism, Hilda Gore, an Adams Morgan resident, wrote in the “My Town” column of the Washington Post on April 5, 2001, “I’m afraid to go out at night.” According to Gore, “The plague of rats is threatening to wear us down as nothing else has. They are silent, most of the time, yet deadly. They are hazardous to our health and repulsive.”
After 70 years of vacillating between vigilance and neglect, rat-control efforts are once again in vogue among District public servants. But anyone who hails Williams’ new campaign as a novel approach suffers from a case of historical amnesia. Although the minutiae of the District’s anti-rat programs have differed slightly from decade to decade, the overarching principles have remained the same: Involve the community. Educate the public. Punish the offenders. Clean up the trash.
Each of the previous rat-control programs started with noble intentions and ended in neglect. As Colvin acknowledged in his report to the mayor, “Municipalities commonly focus on short-term (political quick-fix) efforts without looking forward, and thus remain in a cyclic pattern of intense efforts followed by inattention.”
All of which raises the question: How do we break out of the cycle?
The Bureau of Rodent Control doesn’t throw funerals for the rats it kills. But on a Wednesday in May, Mark Greenleaf, the acting bureau chief, is dressed in black anyway. At well over 6 feet, Greenleaf, sporting black cowboy boots, black jeans, a black shirt, and a black sports coat, looks like an imposing figure—particularly to anything scurrying around at boot level.
Greenleaf, who holds a B.S. in biology from Cornell University, for the past 20 years worked in various departments of the D.C. government, primarily as a regulatory inspector overseeing the application of pesticides. He was given his present job in October 2000.
“It’s happened a bunch of times in other cities,” says Greenleaf, “where a mayor does something initially for rat control but then they don’t really support the effort with enough resources over the years. So eventually, the programs just fizzle. But I think our mayor understands the long-term, sustainable aspects that are needed for a program like this.”
Despite Greenleaf’s optimism, the District’s rat-control budget remains undersized compared with those of other major cities. For fiscal year 2001, the District spent just $11,500 on rodent control for every 10,000 residents, compared with $16,920 in Chicago (in 2001) and $16,233 in New York (in 2000). Looked at another way, the District spent only $10,714 on rat control per square mile, vs. $21,566 in Chicago and $42,085 in New York City.
The most significant difference—cynics would say the only difference—between the Bureau of Rodent Control and the Vector Control Division, which it replaced, is that the members of Greenleaf’s rat-abatement team now have the power to write tickets for commercial properties.
The Rodent Control Act of 2000 made rodent harborage a crime in the District punishable by up to a $10,000 fine or 90 days’ imprisonment. By loosely defining “harborage” as anything from actual infestation to simply “providing food or nesting area for rodents,” the act gave Greenleaf and his team a broad mandate to clean up the city.
What its budget lacks in initial resources, the Bureau of Rodent Control is expected to make up by issuing tickets. For the next two years, all of the revenue generated from code enforcement will augment the rat-control budget. Department of Health administrators have predicted that $1 million will be generated from code enforcement this year alone. The tickets start at $1,000, meaning that Greenleaf and his staff would have to issue at least 1,000 tickets to meet their fiscal expectations this year.
But as of mid-May, they had issued only 13 tickets. The slow start, according to Greenleaf, simply reflects the first phase of code enforcement. “If we walk into a situation that’s just horrific,” says Greenleaf, “we can ticket the business right off the bat. Or we can issue an abatement notice.” In the latter situation, the business has 14 days to clean up any signs of rodent harborage. Greenleaf says that of the 25 abatement orders that have been written so far this year, all but one or two have resulted in major cleanups.
“Abatement orders were just a first phase,” says Greenleaf. “We’re out of that phase now. From here on out, we’re going to be focusing on writing tickets.”
Currently, homeowners are exempted from the fines. But soon, that might change. “The residential component is not something we can ignore,” says Greenleaf. “We’re awaiting approval to write tickets for residential infractions.” Greenleaf says the residential tickets will start off at around $75 for each violation.
For the most part, Greenleaf has little control over the attention and funding that rodent control receives from politicians further up the administrative ladder. And, although politicians will forever be yoked to the whims of their supporters, Greenleaf hopes to distance his department from the chronic hysteria of District residents. To Greenleaf, that means taking a less reactive approach toward rodent control.
“Most cities operate on a complaint basis,” says Kaukeinen. “They go for the squeaky wheel. Politicians want their constituents taken care of. And if there’s a rat bite, then that gets addressed immediately. They may be putting out fires, but they aren’t dealing with the underlying ignition. Most politicians don’t want to deal with rats unless they have to, because rats exist on the seamy side of life, down in the garbage, the sewers, and the filthy places.”
“The difference between our approach in D.C. and the approach in other cities,” says Greenleaf, “is that we’re going a step beyond simply responding to complaints.”
One form of complaint—perhaps the most alarming—that Greenleaf and his staff must periodically respond to is the report of a rat bite. Newspaper articles often cite the number of rat bites per year as a measure of a rodent-control program’s success.
“The number of rat bites is a good, dramatic statistic when you’re trying to get more funding,” says Kaukeinen. “But otherwise, they are useless. Most rat bites go unreported.” This is because rats typically bite three kinds of people: babies who go to sleep with food on their face, drunks who pass out in their own vomit, and homeless people who sleep alongside burrows. Public-outreach campaigns might actually increase the number of rat bites reported, by raising awareness among parents. For these reasons, Greenleaf and his staff have jettisoned the use of rat-bite statistics in the District.
By assigning each member of the rat-abatement team to a specific ward, Greenleaf hopes, he has enabled his staff to recognize outbreaks—and treat them—long before the complaints materialize.
But despite a clear mission and a strong mandate, the Bureau of Rodent Control remains grossly understaffed, casting into doubt the city’s ability to achieve its ambitious goals for rodent control. The 2001 budget provides resources for 15 full-time positions, several of which Greenleaf is still trying to fill. But even with a full staff, the District would be providing only 2.6 employees dedicated to rat control per 100,000 residents, compared with 3.7 in Chicago (in 2001) and 5.0 in New York City (in 2000).
And the Bureau of Rodent Control’s progress, like that of all anti-vermin operations, remains difficult to gauge. In 1943, a mathematician named John T. Emlen developed a method for rapidly estimating the size of a rat population—for a city block. To expand the technique to an entire city would require a legion of research scientists, and it has never been done.
“It is not uncommon for the news media to report the number of rats in a city or to equate numbers of people to rodents,” writes Colvin. “These are interesting stories, but not based in fact. There are no specific [rat] population estimates for any city in the U.S. today.”
“It’s pure speculation,” says Kaukeinen of reported estimates of rat populations.
But if no one knows how many rats there are to begin with, how can anyone tell if citywide efforts to reduce rat populations are working? In response to this dilemma, rodent-control programs offer various numbers to document their progress. A typical measure of a program’s success is the number of rodent-related complaints received annually. However, these numbers are notoriously inaccurate. Other yardsticks include the amount of poison distributed and the number of inspections made.
Each month, the Bureau of Rodent Control produces a complex progress report, which includes 13 different statistics, from the number of outreach materials distributed to the ratio of bated vs. abated premises. The current parameters of progress differ from those used by the predecessor Vector Control Division, making comparisons difficult—some would say conveniently so.
“None of these changes happen overnight,” says Greenleaf. “We’re working on a three- to five-year time period.”
With the heave of a pickax and a slight grunt, Bub Ellis pops the cover off a manhole at the corner of 38th and Fessenden Streets NW. A puff of dust and pollen billows into the air, followed by the sound of rushing sewage, and then the smell. Ignoring the traffic that whirs by, Ellis lies flat on his stomach and dangles his head into the exposed sewer shaft. Less than 24 hours ago, an underground explosion propelled a manhole cover in Georgetown several feet into the air. But if Ellis is at all worried, he doesn’t show it.
Ellis spots what he’s looking for and begins pulling on a shiny steel wire. Like a fisherman reeling in his line, Ellis wants to check his bait.
“Looks like the rats have had a little nibble on this one,” Ellis declares as he inspects the rat bait. Sure enough, the electric-blue rectangular block—which is part food, part poison, and has the consistency of a Nerf football—is slightly frayed along one edge. Ellis picks up his clipboard and dutifully records the bites on a diagram.
“We like to hang the bait about 3 inches above the sewer floor,” explains Ellis. “That way, it won’t get washed away in a storm, but a rat can still reach it.”
“Rats are kind of lazy,” continues Ellis. “They’d like to be lying down while they eat. But rats are also opportunists. As long as they can still reach the bait, they’ll sit up on their haunches and eat it. But the population has to be under stress. You stress ’em by taking away their food. If they have the choice between lobster and this stuff, they’re not going to take the bait.”
Ellis, 61, got his start in pest control nearly 42 years ago with the Army. After a long stint as an exterminator at St. Elizabeths Hospital, Ellis entered the private sector in October 1996, joining American Pest Management Inc. of Takoma Park, Md.
During his four decades on rodent patrol, Ellis has become a sage observer of rat behavior. “Mice are all free-acting and happy-go-lucky,” says Ellis. “But rats are real suspicious. If you put a new trap down in their territory, they’re going to be careful around it. So when you first put down the trap, you shouldn’t spring it. Let them get some food. Let them get comfortable. Then, once they let their guard down, bam! You can really knock them back.”
“And I’ll tell you what,” says Ellis. “A rat really loves a good bit of jerky. Man, are they suckers for Slim Jim.”
Over the years, Ellis has developed his own homespun method for sizing up a rat population. “Seeing one or two rats doesn’t necessarily indicate a major infestation of 50 to 100 individuals,” says Ellis. “But if you see more than 10 active burrows in one place, or if you smell a real strong scent of rat odor, or if you see so many rat droppings that you’d have to use a shovel to pick them up, then you probably have a major infestation.”
Ellis says that indoor structural damage, such as gnawed doors, can also tip him off to the presence of a sizable population. “But for a person with a phobia for rats,” he adds, “one rat may as well be 10,000.”
For the past several months, Ellis has been working on a program to survey and eradicate the rats living in the District’s sewer system. The District government awarded the sewer-baiting contract to American Pest Management last winter. Richard Kramer, who is the technical director of the company and Ellis’ usual field partner, is absent on this particular mission. But as of mid-May, Ellis and Kramer had together surveyed approximately 175 different sites within the D.C. sewer system.
The precise relationship between aboveground and subterranean rat populations in the District remains unclear. “We’re still trying to figure that out,” says Kramer. “This is kind of like the blind following the blind. Nobody’s done this before.”
Rat experts agree that the degree to which rats inhabit a sewer system depends on the material out of which it is made. Modern sewer systems are constructed of concrete or PVC and are less likely to harbor rat colonies than the older systems made of brick or clay. According to Colvin’s 1999 report, of the approximately 6.7 million linear feet of combined waste sewers in D.C., about 5.2 million feet, or roughly 78 percent, are made of vitrified clay. Consequently, the District sewers provide a vast amount of vacancy for rats seeking shelter—and food. And what are they eating?
“Don’t go there,” says Kramer, laughing. “It’s better if we just don’t go there.”
The sewer-baiting program makes Greenleaf proud. It’s the best ongoing example of the District’s proactive approach to rodent control, which both Colvin and Greenleaf champion. Nobody complains about rats in the sewer, because nobody sees them—except on the grim occasions when rats find an uncapped sewer line and swim into a home, arriving to everybody’s horror at the bottom of the toilet bowl.
The program to survey and bait the District sewer system is the first of its kind. “We’re hoping this causes a destructive, ripple effect in the aboveground populations,” says Greenleaf.
After thoroughly perusing the Rat Files, you might conclude that rodent control in the District is a Sisyphean task.
“Leading citywide rodent-control efforts tend to be extremely frustrating bureaucratic jobs,” says Kaukeinen. “If you don’t have enough funding and you don’t have enough staff, how can you run an effective program?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of depressing sometimes,” admits Greenleaf. “Will the rats be gone next year? No. And we know that. But we’re working to improve neighborhoods and community hygiene over the long term. There are two words I can’t stress enough: ‘patience’ and ‘participation.’”
Some District residents, like Ed T. Barron of Ward 3, think the city should take a new approach. In the April 18, 1999, issue of the online magazine DCWatch, Barron wrote, “The city should set up a few rat collection places and citizens should get five bucks for each dead rat they bring in. This could be a great summer employment opportunity for adventuresome kids.”
“Bounties are a bad idea,” retorts Colvin when informed of this proposal. “It’s been tried in Asia. It just turns into a business, where people start growing them.”
The prospect of developing a panacea for our rat problems seems particularly dim in light of the recent crisis in the higher education of rodent control. “There used to be one university in the United States that focused on rodent-control research,” says Colvin, referring to Bowling Green, where Kaukeinen, like him, studied. “But in the ’80s, federal funding for rodent-control research dried up, and Bowling Green killed their program. Now you have to go to Europe or Australia to find something similar. It’s a real tragedy.”
“We need to get the younger generation of zoology students in college excited about studying rats as wildlife,” says Kaukeinen. “It’s been years since that species has had its due consideration. Still, it will take some good salesmanship to get them interested.”
And without funding for new research, rat-killing techniques don’t seem likely to improve. “The technology of killing rats is pretty much the same as it was in the Middle Ages,” says Kaukeinen. “And I’m probably the last person who wants to admit it, because I make my living designing new kinds of poison.”
Rats are like rabbits in at least one respect—they procreate prolifically. According to one estimate, under ideal conditions, a single pair of rats could produce more than 15,000 descendants in one year and 359 million in three. Researchers have been searching for an effective means of rodent birth control. So far, the search has been fruitless.
Ultrasonic generators, when placed in an open space—such as a warehouse loading dock—can discourage rats from walking there. But Kaukeinen dismisses their utility. “They’re hard to use, they’re expensive, and they give people headaches. And besides, the ultrasonic waves don’t penetrate most materials. And rats are always going to be hiding behind things.”
Kaukeinen even dismisses the prospect of a better mousetrap. “Rat traps are ineffective, too,” he says. “You have to set them, and you have to maintain them. And people tend to vandalize and steal them.”
Genetic engineers in other countries have attempted to develop diseases that target rats. “The problem with developing a virus for rats is twofold,” says Kaukeinen. “First, the rats will probably develop an immunity to it. And secondly, the virus might mutate and become lethal to other animals—or even to humans.” And, Kaukeinen says, the World Health Organization currently prohibits the use of disease agents for controlling pests.
“To tell you the truth,” says Kaukeinen, “it’s unlikely that anytime soon we’ll have a magic bullet where we can just wave our wands and make them disappear. Still, I don’t think rats have to be an inevitable part of the urban landscape.
“The best cities I’ve seen, as far as rodent suppression goes, are definitely in Europe,” continues Kaukeinen. “Of course, they had the benefit of being almost totally destroyed in World War II. When cities in Germany, Austria, and Belgium were rebuilt, they replaced the aging infrastructure with newer materials such as masonry and metal that rats have trouble getting into. A lot of those cities have been declared rat-free. And they remain so.”
Aside from the differences in infrastructure, Kaukeinen also suggests that different mentalities between Europeans and Americans might help explain the extent of the rat problem here. “In Europe, they buy a lot of fresh food. They go to the store almost daily. In the United States, we’re one of the best-fed nations in the world, and we also throw away the most food. Even the least-advantaged people here tend to throw away a lot of stuff. If we’re not burying the rats in our food, then we’re burying them in the packaging.
“Cities are like big organisms, composed of the people, the infrastructure, the services, and the communication,” says Kaukeinen. “On the East Coast of the United States, our cities are old and sick. They need some care. People have to figure out what they want their cities to be. If they want them to be rat-free, then they have to take the responsibility for doing it. There will be rats around as long as there are conditions to support them.”
When irate citizen Gore is asked whether she believes she bears any share of personal responsibility for the rat problem she chronicled for the Post, she puts the burden on the D.C. government: “I don’t think they’re doing enough. It seems like they want citizens to do their work for them.”
About two years before writing her rat column, Gore says, she picked up the phone and called the D.C. government to register a complaint. “They sent an inspector to my house. But they told me that the rat burrows were on my neighbors’ properties.”
Before D.C. employees can do any abatement work on private property, they need permission of the owner; they don’t want to accidentally poison someone’s pet. (In 1971, the members of the city’s rat-abatement crew fatally poisoned a dog belonging to a high-ranking worker at the Justice Department, resulting in a lawsuit. The city eventually paid $175 in damages.)
So the inspector gave Gore a petition. Once she obtained her neighbors’ signatures, the inspector said, city workers would come around and get rid of the rats. But Gore never acquired any signatures. “I was too busy with my work and with raising my children,” she says.
After the publication of Gore’s rat column, the Bureau of Rodent Control sent another inspector to her house, resulting in the same outcome: Several months later, with the second petition in hand, Gore has yet to get signatures from her neighbors. Nor has she called a private exterminator. Nor has she fixed the broken lid on her garbage can, which ensures that any neighborhood rat will have plenty to snack on. “Well, I guess I’m not helping the problem much either,” she concedes.
Gore, like many Washingtonians, seems convinced that a conspiracy within the D.C. government is at the root of the rat problem. As evidence, Gore recounts an anonymous phone call she received from a would-be whistle-blower inside the D.C. government. According to Gore, she was in a hurry when the phone rang and told the informant to call back later. Gore’s still waiting for the call.
“It’s easy to scapegoat the D.C. government,” says filmmaker Felter. “But the rat problem goes so far beyond the scope of the government. People are in total denial about the rat problem. They have rats climbing into their homes, and they still want to point their finger at someone else. They don’t want to take responsibility.”
Much of Felter’s documentary was shot in the alleys of Adams Morgan. “During the film, I talked with a bunch of residents who own these beautiful, million-dollar homes—but they won’t lift one finger to help clean up the alley. And yet they wonder why there’s still a problem.”
“There’s a real attitude issue with some of the residents in this city’s elite neighborhoods,” says Greenleaf. “They have the attitude that it’s the city’s responsibility to clean up. They don’t want to do it themselves. But really, the biggest problem in the city is that people don’t put their garbage away. It’s that simple.” CP