Get That Rat, Toby

This Terrier's a Terror to the Rodents


The Washington Post
April 03, 1995
By Page Evans Schwartz


It's 9:30 on a cold, clear night. Roger Pardo-Maurer is standing in the center of Lafayette Square. In his arms is Toby, his Jack Russell terrier. The White House windows glow on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, raising images of the first family settling in for a long night. Sirens howl mournfully in the distance. It's a perfect night for urban hunting.

A gray shadow scrambles from under a nearby bush. Toby's brown ears perk up and his white-haired body starts to shake. His stubby tail wags furiously.

"Rats! Rats, Toby. Rats!" Pardo-Maurer whispers in a deep voice tinged with disgust. He lets the dog go. Panting, the 15-pound terrier leaps to the ground and dashes toward the rat. The rodent, its raw, dirty-pink tail dragging behind, zigzags across a brick walkway into another maze of bushes, Toby in hot pursuit. "Over here, Toby! In here. Get him! Get him!" A faint squeak is heard along with some rustling. Toby emerges from the bushes, sans rat. "It went down the hole," Pardo-Maurer sighs, pointing to one of many, each about the circumference of a tennis ball. He is disappointed but hopeful. After all, the duo have been here for just five minutes and this is the seventh rat they've seen.

Ratting. It's a sport Pardo-Maurer and his pet take very seriously. "When you're killing varmint, you're doing a good thing," he says. That's particularly true in a city where rats outnumber residents. That's right. The ratio of rats to humans is 2-to-1 in Washington, according to the Department of Public Works. That means with a population of 578,000 people, there are more than a million rats scurrying about in the alleys, parks, gutters, creeks, sewers, junkyards and back yards of our nation's capital.

To make matters worse, rats, especially the Norwegian variety that roams Washington, procreate prolifically. On average, a female rat can have eight litters a year, with anywhere from three to 14 pups per litter. The gestation period for a rat is only three weeks. Within three months the survivors of a litter can start their own families. One study estimates that, in theory, a single rat could have "as many as 20 million descendants in a span of three years."

"They are all over," says Pardo-Maurer, gesturing toward the ground around the statue of Andrew Jackson astride a rearing horse. "It's like the moon." An area the size of a walk-in closet is cratered with at least 50 rat holes. Pardo-Maurer hoists Toby onto his right shoulder and tiptoes across the park toward the sidewalk bordering Pennsylvania Avenue. "Let's try the trash can." Educated at Yale and Cambridge, the 31-year-old Pardo-Maurer is a native of Costa Rica. (His father is Costa Rican; his mother is from Indiana.) By day, he publishes business books on Latin America. Tonight he is bedecked in urban hunting attire: jeans, red and black flannel shirt, gray sweater, navy down vest and tan bucks. He's considerably more clean-cut than the other inhabitants of Lafayette Square this night, most of whom are taking cover under large garbage bags or sheets of clear plastic that flap in the wind.

A homeless man who calls himself Mike watches from a bench while Toby circles the trash can in a frenzy; Pardo-Maurer tilts it to the side, uncovering a huge hole. "There must be an army of them down there," he comments.

Mike agrees: "Hey, there's 100,000 rats" in the park, he says. "They're vicious. [They'll] eat somebody up."

Pardo-Maurer introduces his dog. "This is Toby here. He's killed about 20 rats right here."

"Really?" Mike looks impressed.

"Right here, yeah. He killed one under that bench once while there was a man sleeping on it. Just right underneath him. Right there."

As Pardo-Maurer and Toby make their way back to the center of the park, Mike encouragingly shouts, "Go get 'em. Get 'em all!"

While some may think he gets a sort of sadistic pleasure from watching his dog shake a rat to its quick death, Pardo-Maurer says that's not what urban hunting is about. "First of all, it's a public favor," he maintains. "I'm saving the city money." He may have a point. The rodent control division of the Department of Public Works requested just over $ 5 million in fiscal 1995.

Aside from civic duty, what motivates Pardo-Maurer is the "pleasure of the hunt" and spending time with his dog. "The best part is helping him do what he's supposed to do," says Pardo-Maurer like a proud parent. "Just like a Labrador retrieves and a pointer points, well, a terrier goes to ground." He adds, "There can be no more atrocious game than a rat and yet it's the act of hunting that is so much fun."

Pardo-Maurer first noticed his dog's passion for vermin when he rented a basement apartment near the Washington National Cathedral a few years ago.

"The apartment came with mice -- lots of mice," he recalls. "That's when Toby came in handy because he caught nine mice that winter. He had a habit of putting them on my pillow, which wasn't very good."

The scrappy terrier quickly moved on to bigger animals. "At first, I was doing it as kind of a service for friends who had rats in their basement," Pardo-Maurer says. But now, in addition to Lafayette Square, he and Toby take their ratting skills to Dupont Circle and the area surrounding Thompson boathouse in Georgetown.

Clearly, Toby is a natural-born urban hunter. "The breed was developed for that purpose; they are considered ratters," says Beth Smith, a veterinarian with MacArthur Animal Hospital, of the quick and agile Jack Russell. "We don't see them getting bitten a lot. There's an innate instinct in them to do this."

Toby's teeth are about as large as a German shepherd's, which explains how the diminutive dog can kill a rat by simply grabbing and shaking it. Some may wonder if it's safe for a dog to go up against a critter that thrives in sewers and heaps of garbage, conjuring thoughts of the bubonic plague. Pardo-Maurer is quick to note that Toby has had all his shots and never actually eats his prey. Eating a rat that has digested poison set out by city or private exterminators could be lethal. "A rat that has eaten a lot of poison could have enough poison in it to kill a very large dog," says Smith. But she adds, "If the Jack Russell just bites the rat, then there's no problem."

In addition to poison, there are other rat-related health risks. Rat-bite fever is a rare ailment that can be life-threatening in people if it's not treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, headache, chills and a rash, according to Smith.

Rats can also harbor trichinosis and leptospirosis. Trichinosis, which is the same thing humans can get from eating raw pork, is a parasite in the rat's muscle tissue. If a dog eats a rat, there's always a slight possibility it could become infected, Smith says. Leptospirosis, which can cause kidney problems in dogs or cats, can be contracted by pets that drink water or eat food contaminated by rat excrement or urine. But Smith seldom sees any of these problems in her practice. "It's not something to get people alarmed about," she says.

Rats, by the way, are fair game in the District since there are no laws against hunting them. "I'm all for it," says Barry Robinson, owner of AAA Pest Pros Inc., a local pest control business. "But I'd hate to think that our services would be eliminated because of rat-catching dogs." Robinson need not worry -- at least not on this night. It's pushing 10 p.m. and Toby has yet to nab a rat. (He's been more successful in other outings.)

The last chase of the evening comes just as Pardo-Maurer is getting ready to call it a night. "I hate to leave without killing a rat," he says. "It's bad for morale." With that, the 12th and final rat spotted on this expedition pokes its twitching nose from behind a tree on the Madison Street side of the square. Pardo-Maurer grabs Toby, runs toward the lump of gray and brown fur, and hurls the terrier onto the grass. The dog, with his long snout to the ground, scurries around in circles. "No, no, Toby. Wrong way." Toby looks up just as his prey scampers across the grass. "Get 'im, Toby, get 'im. Run! Run! Run!" Toby is about four strides behind when the rat slips through a metal grate. The Jack Russell stands over it, drooling. n

Rat hunting at the White House is not new!
The "Patron Saint" of all rat dogs is Teddy Roosevelt who created the American Rat Terrier and kept rats at the White House for his terriers to work. Lafayette Park (see story above) is located right in front of the White House.