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The District’s budget crisis promises to exact a mean toll on city residents, but it’s shaping up as a king-size party for rats. In fact, the Kelly administration’s proposed cuts for the Department of Public Works (DPW) read like a virtual welfare program for D.C. vermin, ushering in a new golden age for the city’s already thriving rat population.
First up on the chopping block: DPW’s rat assault force, the eight-member Vector Control Division, which is likely to cease operations by Dec. 31. In an average week, the rat squad drops about 750 packets of tantalizing poison pellets into bustling burrows, according to division head Frankie Cox. Precisely how many casualties the force accounts for is hard to say. “But we make a difference,” says Cox, “because the ratholes do stop being active.”
Disbanding Vector Control will leave Washington as the only major East Coast city without a squad of municipal rat-busters. Inasmuch as the District squad concentrated exclusively on public areas such as alleys, parks, and tree boxes, it’s unlikely that private residents or businesses will pick up the slack.
Public housing may be a perennial problem for two-legged types in the District, but rats can look forward to an abundance of cushy living spaces when DPW discontinues its routine collection of bulk trash items. Old couches, mattresses, appliances, and other large household detritus make ideal urban nests.
DPW plans to cut from two to one the number of weekly trash pickups in inner-city neighborhoods—precisely the areas where the rat infestation problem is most acute. If residents keep their garbage in the house, that won’t be a problem. But with fish heads and chicken entrails fermenting in city alleys, all of D.C. will become an enormous buffet for the voracious Rattus Norvegicus.
A potential explosion in the rat population is no joke in the District, where rats boldly scuttle along alleys and cruise overflowing trash cans in broad daylight. The rule of thumb is that there is one rat for every human in most urban areas. In D.C., however, estimates of the rat population run anywhere from 1 to 3 million, or 2 to 5 rats per person.
And rats breed at an alarming rate. A healthy female rat can produce a litter every month of up to 10 newborn pups, which in turn are ready to breed three months later. At that rate, one rat couple can beget 6,000 descendents per year.
“If they want to encourage rats, they seem to have found the formula,” says Gregory Gurri Glass, a public-hygiene expert at Johns Hopkins University, in reference to the planned budget cuts. “If you’re going to allow food to accumulate, and reduce baiting, and provide shelter in the form of bulk trash, you’re going to end up with a lot more rats.”
Complaints about rats—sightings and bite reports—peaked in the District in 1993, the result of consecutive mild winters that set the stage for particularly fertile spring breeding periods. This past winter, brutally cold temperatures put a serious dent in the local rat population. Alas, the Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts above-average temperatures for the mid-Atlantic region this winter.
Certainly the greatest danger posed by rats is their capacity for transmitting disease. According to Glass, an estimated 15 to 30 percent of the residents of Baltimore and Detroit have been infected by leptospira interrogans, a nasty bacteria that rats spread through their urine, “[The victims] may not even know they have it,” says Glass. “They just feel awful and are unable to work or go to school for extended periods of time.”
Epidemiologists note that, over the centuries, outbreaks of bubonic plague have nearly always coincided with a breakdown of urban social order and subsequent collapse of trash collection services. The plague is transmitted to humans from dead rats, who get it from fleas that picked it up from wild rodents.
A far-fetched analogy for today’s world? Maybe. But just last week the Washington Post reported that wild rodents in Shenandoah National Park had somehow transmitted the potentially fatal North American hantavirus to a hiker touring the Appalachian Trail. In 1993, hantavirus killed 40 people in the Southwest.
Short of organizing rat vigilante groups, what is the District government to do? The only thing it does with any degree of efficiency: levy fines. To that end, the D.C. Council has legislation pending that would increase the fines for sanitation violations by both residents and businesses. But that legislation has been sitting idle for a year; moreover, it holds no promise for a new rat offensive.
Until there is one, look for the populations to be moving in two distinctly different directions—humans toward Virginia and Maryland, and the rats toward the food and harborage left behind.