Scur­ry­ing. Squeal­ing. Gnaw­ing. Mul­ti­ply­ing.

More peo­ple in D.C. means more rats, to res­i­dents’ dis­may

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RACHEL CHA­SON

Nate Brown got mar­ried in a small town in Spain on July 1. When he re­turned home to the Dis­trict, ahead of his wife, Ana, he re­al­ized he had a prob­lem as soon as he en­tered his house in the Park View neigh­bor­hood.

“It ate through all our food,” he said. “Lit­er­ally, all of it.” The cul­prit, Brown knew, was a rat. Like many north­east­ern cities, the Dis­trict has long strug­gled with ro­dents. But the prob­lem has reached record lev­els in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, driven by a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors. The city’s boom­ing hu­man pop­u­la­tion, along with hun­dreds of new restau­rants and bars, means more trash. Re­cent mild win­ters mean fewer rats die from frigid weather. And con­struc­tion across the Dis­trict has dis­rupted sub­ter­ranean bur­rows, send­ing the crea­tures scur­ry­ing onto side­walks, into res­i­den­tial yards and, as Brown knows, into homes.

Com­plaints to the city’s 311 phone line con­cern­ing rats are at a four-year high. There have been 3,286 calls this fis­cal year, up 64 per­cent from fis­cal 2015, ac­cord­ing to data from the Health Depart­ment.

“Even one rat is one rat too many,” said Ger­ard Brown, pro­gram man­ager for the D.C. Depart­ment of Health’s ro­dent con­trol di­vi­sion and no re­la­tion to Nate Brown.

Ger­ard Brown, who has been killing rats in the Dis­trict for 30 years, said the re­cent uptick is no­tice­able.

Ro­dents cause prop­erty dam­age, chew on elec­tri­cal wires that can start fires and can spread dis­ease, although that is ex­tremely rare in cities, he said.

The more trash, the more rats, he added. That’s why trash con­trol has be­come a pri­or­ity in the Dis­trict, where the num­ber of restau­rants and bars jumped about 30 per­cent from 1,729 in 2006 to 2,267 in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the Bu­reau of La­bor Statis­tics.

The city has taken sev­eral steps aimed at de­creas­ing the ro­dent pop­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing the in­stal­la­tion of state-of-the-art so­lar trash cans in “rat hot spots” at an an­nual cost of $85,000 and of­fer­ing grants to busi­nesses that want to lease a com­mer­cial trash com­pactor.

The 25 so­lar-pow­ered cans com­pact trash so it does not over­flow and spill onto side­walks, pro­vid­ing a buf­fet of rot­ting treats for rats. The 32-gal­lon cans, in­stalled in the Bar­racks Row and East­ern Mar­ket neigh­bor­hoods, can com­press con­tent up to eight times their size, a spokesman for the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works said.

The city also launched a pi­lot pro­gram that dis­persed 400 trash cans with lids and sen­sors that alert the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Works when the cans need to be emp­tied.

Mean­while, dozens have turned to the nat­u­ral en­emy of rats: cats. In Jan­uary, the Hu­mane Res­cue Al­liance launched Blue Col­lar Cats, which pairs feral cats that would oth­er­wise prob­a­bly be eu­th­a­nized with busi­nesses and res­i­dents strug­gling with The “em­ploy­ers” agree to pro­vide the feral cats with food, wa­ter and out­door shel­ter in ex­change for their ro­dent con­trol ser­vices.

The pro­gram, which has placed 40 cats and has a wait list, has been a suc­cess so far, said Erin Robin­son, com­mu­nity cat pro­gram man­ager at the Hu­mane Res­cue Al­liance.

Solv­ing the city’s rat prob­lem, D.C. of­fi­cials and na­tional ex­perts agree, re­quires pre­vent­ing the spread of ro­dents, es­pe­cially through trash con­trol, rather than con­cen­trat­ing strictly on ex­ter­mi­na­tion.

It’s too soon to tell whether the city’s ef­forts are work­ing, Ger­ard Brown said. But he’s con­fi­dent they’ll make a dent.

A long­time prob­lem

The Dis­trict’s rat woes are not new.

When he was mayor, An­thony Wil­liams con­vened a “Rat Sum­rats. mit” in 1999 — re­port­edly the first in the coun­try — in which na­tional ex­perts gave lo­cal lead­ers ad­vice on stem­ming the tide of rat-re­lated com­plaints.

“I don’t think we have a han­dle on this prob­lem,” then-D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Jim Gra­ham said at the time. “It’s some­thing on a lot of peo­ple’s minds. It’s caus­ing a lot of fear.”

Nearly two decades later, rats are still very much on peo­ple’s minds.

“I don’t know where to be­gin,” said Kent C. Boese, who lives in Park View and is the chair­man of Ad­vi­sory Neigh­bor­hood Com­mis­sion 1A. “There have been many more rats this year. Oh yes, many more.”

He said he reg­u­larly sees rats dur­ing the day, es­pe­cially in lo­cal parks. In his area, which in­cludes Park View and Columbia Heights, some busi­nesses re­spon­si­bly dis­pose of their trash, while oth­ers “re­ally need to im­prove,” he said. The key is re­port­ing ev­ery rat sight­ing to 311, which then dis­patches Brown’s team to kill the rats us­ing traps and poi­son, he said.

That team in­cludes nine pest con­trollers across the city and five code-en­force­ment of­fi­cers who iden­tify build­ings with un­san­i­tary con­di­tions that might lead to in­fes­ta­tion.

Jason For­man, an ad­vi­sory neigh­bor­hood com­mis­sioner who rep­re­sents Lo­gan Cir­cle and parts of Shaw, said the most com­plaints he gets — by far — are rat-re­lated. “It’s been ter­ri­ble all sum­mer,” he said.

The rat prob­lem was es­pe­cially bad in the 23 parks con­trolled by the Na­tional Park Ser­vice be­fore it reached an agree­ment with the city last fall that en­abled the D.C. Health Depart­ment to in­spect and treat the fed­er­ally con­trolled parks.

At Dupont Cir­cle, for ex­am­ple, where the park is re­ally a grassy traf­fic cir­cle punc­tu­ated by a mar­ble statue, there were 150 rat bur­rows — each con­tain­ing six to nine rats — when the city took con­trol of ro­dent in­spec­tion there last fall, Brown said. That’s as many as 1,350 rats. “I’ve never seen any­thing like it in my life,” he said, adding that the park now has about six bur­rows.

De­spite pa­trols of ex­ter­mi­na­tors and le­gions of home­own­ers who see rats as the en­emy, the ro­dents are not uni­ver­sally loathed.

“They’re bi­o­log­i­cally pro­grammed to do what they’re do­ing ... [they] should not be blamed,” said Bruce Colvin, a na­tional con­sul­tant on ro­dent con­trol. “It’s peo­ple who need to mod­ify their ac­tions.”

The Dis­trict’s rat prob­lem is com­pa­ra­ble to that of most ma­jor cities in the United States, he said. As ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture ages, that rat prob­lem gets worse, with cracks in sewer sys­tems and side­walks pro­vid­ing the rats more places to live and more path­ways in which to travel, he said.

‘A bub­ble of rat-free bliss’

The so­lu­tion to Mark Win­stead’s rat prob­lem was cats.

Win­stead, who has worked at City Bikes in Adams Morgan since 1989, said rats were a con­stant prob­lem in the shop. They ate the food. They nib­bled at shoes. They scared the cus­tomers.

Then in 2013, the busi­ness adopted two cats, Tamale and Melora, who “pretty much rule the shop” and solved the prob­lem.

“I’m liv­ing in a bub­ble of rat­free bliss here,” Win­stead said.

Nate Brown, 40, said he might have con­sid­ered en­list­ing a cat to kill his rat be­fore his wife re­turned from Spain, but he is al­ler­gic.

He tried “ev­ery kind of trap you can imag­ine,” said Brown, who al­ways se­cures his trash in a lid­ded can and keeps a metic­u­lously clean kitchen. His neigh­bor even brought over an elec­tric rat-zap­per trap.

Noth­ing worked. He needed backup.

His ex­ter­mi­na­tor de­cided to try rat poi­son be­cause the traps weren’t work­ing.

Ini­tially, that was also to no avail.

“It would just run across the room as though it had lit­tle fear I was present,” said Brown, who added that the in­vad­ing rat was far from the only one he has dealt with. On a re­cent sum­mer night, he was driv­ing in the al­ley be­hind a neigh­bor’s house when he turned on his head­lights and saw “a sea of rats” part be­fore him.

Much to his cha­grin, the rat was still alive when Ana re­turned.

“You hear them,” Brown said. “There’s this sound they make. A squeal.”

But days af­ter she got back, he said, they smelled a de­com­pos­ing rat out­side the house. They haven’t seen or heard from the rat since.

“I don’t think we have a han­dle on this prob­lem. It’s some­thing on a lot of peo­ple’s minds. It’s caus­ing a lot of fear.” Then-D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Jim Gra­ham, talk­ing about the Dis­trict’s rat in­fes­ta­tion, in 1999

SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A rat looks for food in a trash can in the Dis­trict’s Park View neigh­bor­hood. As more restau­rants and bars open in the city, the din­ing op­tions for ro­dents are ex­pand­ing.

PHOTOS BY SALWAN GE­ORGES/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

A cat looks for a rat that ran inside a hole in a back al­ley in the Dis­trict’s Park View neigh­bor­hood. Com­plaints to the city’s 311 phone line con­cern­ing rats are at a four-year high.

A rat peeks out from a hole inside a con­struc­tion site at Otis Place NW and Ge­or­gia Av­enue NW in Park View.

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