A na­tion­wide

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY KARIN BRUL­LIARD karin.brul­[email protected]­post.com

rat pop­u­la­tion boom could be bad news for your car, where the ro­dents can chew through wires.

The engine died im­me­di­ately af­ter Tess Klin­gen­stein turned the key in her Honda Fit on a mild Jan­uary day. When she tried again, she said, “ev­ery sin­gle alert light” flashed. The car was fairly new, so she was sur­prised. The me­chanic who looked un­der the hood a few days later was not.

“‘You’ve had rats,’ ” Klin­gen­stein, a speech-lan­guage pathol­o­gist in Wash­ing­ton, said he told her. The ro­dents had chewed wiring and defe­cated in air fil­ters, caus­ing $300 in da­m­age. “He said I had got­ten off lucky.”

Very lucky. Rats, bet­ter known for in­hab­it­ing sew­ers and dump­sters, also love to set­tle in the in­nards of ve­hi­cles in cooler months. The warmth and shel­ter at­tract them, but it’s the wires and hoses that en­ter­tain them: Rats’ teeth grow con­stantly, and they gnaw on things to keep their teeth trim. In­side an engine bay, they can blow fuses, start fires and even to­tal cars.

No one tracks rat da­m­age to cars, but there are signs it is a grow­ing prob­lem amid a na­tion­wide rat pop­u­la­tion boom that ex­perts say may be fu­eled by a warm­ing cli­mate. In the fall, rats caused a sedan fire in Man­hat­tan. They’ve mu­ti­lated the cars of col­lege stu­dents in Florida. In re­cent years, a half-dozen class-ac­tion law­suits have been filed against auto man­u­fac­tur­ers on claims that to­day’s eco-friend­lier wiring is ir­re­sistible to ro­dents. AAA warns that mod­ern cars offer a “smor­gas­bord of treats” for rats.

“You take your car 20 to 30 years ago, they didn’t have that many wires,” said Bruce Jenk­ins, a ser­vice fleet man­ager for AAA’S Mid-at­lantic Re­gion. “Now you have wiring for ev­ery­thing. There’s so many dif­fer­ent sen­sors and com­put­ers and mod­ules.”

In the ab­sence of of­fi­cial statis­tics, the best barom­e­ter for the scope of this is­sue may be San Diego res­i­dent David Al­bin, who calls him­self “Rat King Dave.” Three years ago, he was a reg­u­lar guy who worked in fi­nan­cial ser­vices and owned a house in a res­i­den­tial area. Then rats in­vaded the fam­ily cars — in­flict­ing $2,500 in da­m­age to his Honda Civic, $9,300 to his wife’s Hyundai Sonata — and Al­bin be­came ob­sessed with rat de­ter­rence. He has since out­lined his strat­egy on­line and in an e-book (“Let’s Get Them Rats!”).

“It seems like ev­ery year, more and more people have this prob­lem,” Al­bin said. “And the rats keep mul­ti­ply­ing.”

Rats are not the only an­i­mals ca­pa­ble of dis­mem­ber­ing cars. Mar­mots are known to wreak havoc on the cars of vis­i­tors to Kings Canyon and Se­quoia Na­tional Parks in Cal­i­for­nia, and weasels have forced au­tomak­ers in Ger­many to fund de­fense re­search. Vul­tures strip rub­ber from ve­hi­cles, and a class-ac­tion suit against Honda de­scribed a rab­bit “still chew­ing the wiring while the car was at the deal­er­ship” for re­pairs.

Rats, how­ever, are the ma­jor per­pe­tra­tors in cities such as the District. Com­plaints to the city about rats have soared in re­cent years — nowhere more than in Klin­gen­stein’s Park View neigh­bor­hood — and of­fi­cials have waged war us­ing so­lar-pow­ered trash cans and dry ice.

The rats ap­pear to be win­ning. They evicted Erica Spencer, 35, from the Dupont Cir­cle base­ment apart­ment where she paid ex­tra for an al­ley parking space near food-filled dump­sters. Af­ter de­tect­ing a burn­ing odor while driv­ing her 2003 Ford Ex­plorer, she dis­cov­ered a rat nest un­der the hood, made of “a panty liner and just gross, gross stuff.” Poi­son did not help, nor did re­pel­lent pack­ets that smelled of mint, which the cul­prits sim­ply used to pad the next nest. Af­ter rats chewed more than $3,000 worth of da­m­age, Spencer sur­ren­dered.

“I had a mo­ment of self-dis­cov­ery that I shouldn’t be liv­ing in a place with so many rats. I could af­ford a bet­ter qual­ity of life for my­self,” said Spencer, an at­tor­ney. She moved to a condo build­ing with garage parking, but she kept the Ex­plorer. “We call it the rat-mo­bile. It ba­si­cally has no fac­tory parts left in the engine.”

A rat died un­der the hood of Mor­gan Finkel­stein’s car, and oth­ers de­stroyed her boyfriend’s ve­hi­cle. The boyfriend — who de­clined to be in­ter­viewed be­cause he works in pol­i­tics and did not want his Google search re­sults to be about rats — al­ready knew his Ford Fo­cus had rat da­m­age when he parked it be­hind their apart­ment for months dur­ing an out-of­s­tate elec­tion in 2018. When he re­turned, it wouldn’t start. The car’s “car­cass” sat there for more than a year, Finkel­stein said, be­cause tow trucks could not get around a tight cor­ner to haul it away.

“I don’t think we were aware of the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion,” said Finkel­stein, 29, who works at a think tank. “It was like a rat palace in the car. They had com­pletely taken it over. They were the kings now.”

Blame is of­ten cast on the soy­based wiring in­su­la­tion that many auto man­u­fac­tur­ers now use, which is con­sid­ered eco­log­i­cally sounder than the pe­tro­leum-de­rived in­su­la­tion it re­placed. Law­suits have ar­gued that it is also tastier to ro­dents and there­fore de­fec­tive, and that car war­ranties should cover ro­dent da­m­age. De­fen­dants have coun­tered that war­ranties do not cover da­m­age from “en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions” and, as Toy­ota wrote in one court fil­ing, that “ro­dents chew on things, whether soy-fla­vored or not.” Judges have sided with the com­pa­nies.

Com­pre­hen­sive auto in­surance typ­i­cally cov­ers such da­m­age af­ter de­ductibles are met. To help driv­ers avoid reach­ing that point, sev­eral prod­ucts claim to de­ter rats. There is the Rat­mat, an elec­tri­fied tile sys­tem that can be placed un­der a car. An un­der­hood con­trap­tion with “ul­tra­sonic” waves and LED flash­lights gets solid re­views on Ama­zon. Pep­per­mint oils, sup­pos­edly of­fen­sive to rats, abound. Honda even of­fers “ro­dent tape” treated with hot pep­per ex­tract to wrap around wires for pro­tec­tion — a prod­uct the law­suits de­picted as an ad­mis­sion of guilt.

Al­bin said that af­ter rats laid siege to his fam­ily cars, he be­gan “try­ing to fig­ure out how rats think” and check­ing his traps in the mid­dle of the night. Af­ter trial and er­ror, he found a mul­ti­pronged method that he says works.

Among other mea­sures, Al­bin leaves his car hoods up ev­ery night dur­ing win­ter. He pa­trols daily for rat drop­pings, and at first sign, he places peanut but­ter-baited snap traps at the bases and some­times tops of his tires. He spritzes the engine com­part­ment with pep­per­mint spray. In des­per­ate times, he places a spot­light un­der his car, be­cause rats pre­fer darkness. The “cherry on top,” he says, is po­si­tion­ing an owl de­coy nearby, but he warns that rats quickly get wise.

“Ev­ery rat is dif­fer­ent,” he said. “And they mul­ti­ply so quickly that you’re get­ting new fam­i­lies in.”

Andre — a cam­paign staffer who spoke on the con­di­tion that only his first name be used be­cause his em­ployer did not want him to speak pub­licly about this topic — be­lieves he ran into a rat that was in the process of mul­ti­ply­ing in­side his Honda Civic hy­brid. It was late 2016, and Andre said he woke up early and put on his “happy war­rior face,” be­cause he planned to spend the day mov­ing out of his apart­ment in the District’s Columbia Heights neigh­bor­hood.

But his car wouldn’t start, so he popped the hood. “And there on my engine block is, I mean, the largest rat I have ever seen in my life. It’s big, it looks preg­nant, it makes a kind of rat hiss noise,” he said.

The car was “dig­i­tally to­taled,” the me­chanic at the deal­er­ship told him later — re­pairs would cost $7,000. Andre said he talked his in­surance com­pany into cov­er­ing it as an “act of God.”

The maybe-preg­nant rat story is one of Andre’s ice­break­ers at par­ties. He says he’s just glad he found no rat ba­bies.

“That would have been both more dis­gust­ing and much sad­der,” he said, be­cause then he would have ousted a whole rat fam­ily. “Look, we’re the ones who built this city in this stupid place and then filled it with food garbage. The rat didn’t choose for me to park there.”


ABOVE: A rat looks for food in a trash can in the Park View neigh­bor­hood of North­west Wash­ing­ton, where com­plaints to the city about the ro­dents have soared in re­cent years. Of­fi­cials have waged war us­ing so­lar-pow­ered trash cans and dry ice, but the rats ap­pear to be win­ning. BE­LOW: Rat da­m­age in­side a Honda Civic owned by David Al­bin, a San Diego res­i­dent who be­came ob­sessed with rat de­ter­rence, launch­ing a web­site and writ­ing an e-book, af­ter the ro­dents caused thou­sands of dol­lars in da­m­age to his fam­ily’s ve­hi­cles.


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