The Washington Post
April 17, 1999, Saturday, Final Edition

LENGTH: 3107 words

BY: Eric Lipton, Washington Post Staff Writer

District Battles Legions Of Rats; 

Rising Population Blamed on

Weak Control Efforts

AS DUSK DRIFTS into darkness on Euclid Street NW, the end-of-day rituals

have begun. Children are tucked into bed, the trash is put out back, living

rooms are illuminated by televisions and reading lights.

	And in the narrow alley behind the beige stucco row houses, the nightly

feeding frenzy is underway. From basement lairs, underground tunnels and

countless other hideouts, a hundred rats, maybe more, emerge -- clawing

their way up stairwells and fences, dashing across damp pavement, jumping

wildly into the air in their nervous battle for nourishment. High-pitched

squeals and the patter of tiny feet echo through the alley.

	"When night falls, they own the alley," said Noam Brown, whose kitchen

window overlooks the feeding grounds. "You open the door and step out and

hiss at them [and] the rats will turn and glare at you, sort of like, 'Yes,

is there something I can help you with?' "

	The nightly scene in Adams-Morgan is far from an anomaly in the District.

From Georgia Avenue to Georgetown, from Congress Heights to Cleveland Park,

thousands upon thousands of Norway rats take over alleys and yards each

night, a testament to a feeble D.C. rodent-control program that city

officials acknowledge is so dysfunctional it has created a potential threat

to public health.

	"Rats as big as cats, rats as big as cats -- I hear that phrase repeated

over and over again," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "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."

	It's not the presence of rats that is surprising: Rodents are a fact of

life in almost every urban area. It's the extent of the infestation in the

District that has caught the attention of a growing number of residents and

the new mayor, Anthony A. Williams.

	Unlike cities such as Boston and Chicago, which have moved aggressively in

recent years to curtail rodent populations, the District has seen a 20

percent jump in rat-related complaints since 1995, including 1,050 filed

since January, according to city records.

	The increasing problems with rat infestation mean more than a jarring

welcome for residents who might venture into alleys and yards at night.

Rats carry as many as 35 diseases, including ratbite fever, salmonella food

poisoning and leptospirosis, a flu-like illness. During the past 1,000

years, disease specialists say, the rapidly reproducing rodents have caused

more deaths than all the wars and revolutions combined.

	As for the District's escalating rat problem, there's lots of blame to go


	Homeowners leave trash outside for days, in thin plastic bags or barrels

that have holes or no tops. Restaurants -- accustomed to years of lax city

enforcement -- allow dumpsters to overflow or leave containers of kitchen

grease exposed in back alleys.

	The rat-control division in the D.C. Department of Public Works -- which

still logs rat complaints with pen and paper -- is so short of staff and

poorly managed that workers acknowledge that cases are sometimes lost,

falsely reported as abated or never followed up. Other city agencies that

have launched rat-control efforts have seen little impact, largely because

of poor organization.

	Williams has announced several initiatives aimed at the city's rat problem,

including a "Rat Summit" today at the Washington Court Hotel that will

feature nationally known rat experts who will offer advice to D.C.

officials, business owners and residents.

	Williams's well-publicized "Rid-a-Rat" program targets eight small areas

across the city for rat extermination -- a drop in the bucket, analysts

say, toward a solution that probably will take several years and cost

millions of dollars, plus the assistance of residents and businesses.

	"No one should think that this can happen overnight," said Bruce A. Colvin,

a Boston ecologist who oversaw the rat-control program during that city's

massive, decade-long central artery tunnel project. "It takes perseverance

-- a sustained program -- before you will have a success."

Rat-Friendly Environments

	The dim, flickering light from porch lamps along the Euclid Street alley

shows why the place is so inviting to rats.

	On a recent Sunday evening -- two days before the city's trash pickup --

many residents already had filled garbage containers with trash. Several of

the pails had no tops, or they had holes in their sides, chewed there by

rats. Plastic bags filled with garbage were on the pavement, an easy-access

feast for the ever-hungry rodents.

	Outside nearby apartment buildings, several dumpsters were overflowing, and

one was wide open. One of the buildings has a tiny hole along its rear

basement wall, and as one rat after another popped his head in and out of

the hole, it became obvious that hundreds of rats have taken over the

basement. Each time they slid in and out, they added to the greasy smear

that surrounds the hole.

	For residents who live in the area, rats are impossible to ignore.

	Five-year-old Jessica Palencia sees them nearly every night when she enters

her apartment building with her father, marveling as the rodents fight and

scamper about. She examines the dead ones up close after they have been

flattened by passing cars.

	Other neighbors are afraid to let their cats out into the alley, fearing

they will be outnumbered by aggressive rats. And Susan Pietrzyk stopped

using her back stairwell after she stepped on the wood stairs one night and

a horde of rats emerged, several of them running over her feet as they


	"You hear them scurry, and then all of sudden they are at your feet. It is

just startling, creepy; it's not at all a nice way to end your day," said

Pietrzyk, 33, an international development consultant who has lived on

Euclid Street for seven years. She added that the infestation has gotten

"significantly worse" in the last year.

	None of the neighbors interviewed said they had been bitten by a rat, and

they said they weren't aware of any illnesses that had been caused by the

rodents. But several had stories of rat-related damage. The lights on Jose

Palencia's car have been knocked out several times, after rats apparently

gnawed on the wiring to wear down their teeth, which grow up to five inches

a year.

	"It is like a zoo out here," said Matthew McKeever, 33, a neighbor who

still needs to replace the compressor belt on his car's air-conditioner

after two rats took a fatal trip to the car's engine. "But it is not funny

anymore. Now it is costing me money."

Trouble on Every Block

	The city's rat infestation is particularly intense in areas such as

Adams-Morgan, where apartment buildings, houses, restaurants and stores are

close together. At the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to Georgetown, rat

burrows can be found along nearly every block.

	The small, triangular park in front of the Four Seasons Hotel, the dirt

path along the C&O Canal, the side yards of the upscale town houses along

28th Street NW, the dumpsters and grease barrels of M Street and Wisconsin

Avenue restaurants -- all are food sources or hiding places for rats.

	"It flips me out each time I see them," said Isabella Fair, manager at

Dream Dresser, a Georgetown clothing store, who frequently spots rats

running in the alley behind Wisconsin Avenue. "I run inside and get a

broom. I got to get 'em. I got to kill them. The last thing I want is for

them to get inside my store."

	But the District's rat problem extends well beyond major restaurant


	The Department of Public Works' rat-complaint log reads like a map of the

United States: Since January, rats have been sighted on Alabama, Arkansas,

Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana,

Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina,

Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and

Vermont avenues, among dozens of other city streets.

	Meryle Secrest, who moved in January to a neighborhood of $ 500,000 homes

on Arizona Terrace in the Palisades section of upper Northwest Washington,

was looking out her rear window one recent morning when she noticed an

animal "about the size of a small cat" at a backyard bird feeder.

	"I got out my binoculars, and only then did I realize I was looking at a

rat," said Secrest, author of seven biographies in the fields of art,

architecture and music. "I was absolutely horrified. I had not realized I

was moving into an area where rats visit bird feeders in broad daylight."

	On Brandywine Street NW, one couple has watched in horror as rats floated

up into their toilet bowl three times in recent months, an occurrence city

officials acknowledge is possible where rats have infiltrated the sewer


	And on Capitol Hill, Marie-Claire Lispcome said her block of 10th Street NE

has become a rat playground of sorts, with rodents commuting between a

nearby restaurant that has open grease containers outside and a boarded-up

city recreation center where the rats roost.

	"They march up and down the street," she said, "like rat parties."

Rat War's Shifting Fortunes

	The District has battled rat infestation for decades, with the most intense

effort starting in 1968, when officials estimated that half of the city's

blocks had a rat problem. At its peak, nearly 140 city workers were

assigned to the "War on Rats" program, most of it paid for with federal


	But by the late 1980s, the rat squad had been cut to 22. During the city's

fiscal crisis of the mid-1990s, cutbacks were made in other city agencies

that helped control the rodent problem.

	Fewer restaurant inspectors and solid waste enforcement officers, for

example, meant that restaurants could allow trash to accumulate in alleys

with little risk of being fined or threatened with closure.

	Rat infestation in the District doesn't appear to be as bad as it was in

the late 1960s, but city records suggest the problem has worsened in the

last four years. In 1995, there were 3,846 rat-related complaints. By last

year, that number had climbed to 4,643.

	Residents can buy small rat-poison devices or traps on their own, but

large-scale infestations are left to the District's Vector Control Division

or private exterminators. Mission control for D.C. rat-extermination

efforts is a drab, one-room office on the foul-smelling campus of the

city's massive Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Southwest. Scuffed-up

walls are decorated with posters of oversized rats and insects, advising

the staff to "Know Your Enemy."

	Vector Control Chief William T. Page, 63, has Polaroids posted on his

bulletin board of notable rat captures he has made in the last 19 years,

and he keeps a freeze-dried rat in a nearby freezer. Page is known for his

stern manner, dry humor and endless list of obscure rat facts. He oversees

a squad of 12 pest controllers, who are dispatched daily across the city to

stuff rat burrows with poison.

	"We look for where they are hiding, the paths they take, the signs that

show where they live, the places where they reproduce and the food they

feed on," said Page, a 34-year city employee.

	Despite Page's experience, several members of his staff say his management

style is outdated and hinders rat-control efforts.

	Pest-control workers said that they repeatedly tell Page that the office

needs to computerize its records, since the paper-based complaint system

now used means rat reports are at times lost or not followed up. If a

resident calls and does not remember a case number -- a frequent occurrence

-- staff members often must flip through hundreds of records by hand to

locate the details.

	"There is just a lot of confusion in the office," said pest controller

Willie Hannon, a 17-year veteran of the division. "It seems like we are

still stuck in the 1950s."

	Workers in Page's office use equipment that in some cases is so old that it

frequently breaks or works improperly. Several pest-control workers have

used tape or glue to hold together the plastic poison applicators they

carry to send a deadly powder into rat burrows. Meanwhile, the office is

open only until 3:30 p.m. each day, and there is no answering machine to

take complaints after hours or on weekends, noted vector-control workers

Doreen Broomfield and Khalaf Johnson.

	"At every meeting, we talk about the need for computers and a better

telephone system," said Broomfield, a vector-control employee since 1993.

"But it never gets done."

	The trouble extends beyond Page, workers said.

	Broomfield and Johnson said some of their co-workers often report

properties as having been treated with rat poison, when they actually never

visited the area. And despite a law that rat exterminators be certified --

a law the city is charged with enforcing for private-sector firms -- one of

the city's 12 vector-control staff members has repeatedly failed the test

but remains on the job.

	Page said that vector control has a computer but that the staff has fallen

behind in maintaining records, in part because the computer frequently

breaks down.

	"It is difficult to keep up with everything," Page said, acknowledging that

the paper complaints sometimes are misplaced.

	He said that he is behind in ordering supplies -- from flashlights to

batteries and poison applicators -- but that he plans to place orders soon.

	"I just have not had time to do it," he said.

	As for the suggestion that vector controllers sometimes turn in false

reports saying they have treated a location, Page said, "I hope it does not

happen. It is hard to tell."

	D.C. records indicate that, despite repeated complaints by residents, some

rat problems have continued for several years. In the 1600 block of R

Street NW, for example, resident Joseph Auslander has repeatedly reported

an infestation to city officials since 1996. The rats are still there.

A Chicago Model

	Williams has proposed few changes in the vector-control office.

	His Rid-a-Rat program is modeled in part on a successful Chicago

initiative. Instead of merely spending more money to expand the

rat-extermination squad, Chicago created a team of city workers to attack

conditions that allow rats to flourish.

	Inspectors with authority over restaurants, trash disposal, public space

and housing have gone to neighborhoods with intense rat problems and

eliminated food sources and hiding places for rats, said Terry Levin, a

spokesman for the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.

	"We go door to door, talk to the people, bring them outside and say, 'Look

at your back yard, it is full of junk, loose trash [and] dog poop; those

are all conditions that allow rats to survive,' " Levin said, adding that

in the last two months alone, 40 city restaurants have been closed because

of rat problems. "If you try to kill rats one by one, at most it is a

holding action. You are merely keeping the population stable."

	The D.C. government is establishing similar squads to focus on rat-infested

pockets in each of the city's eight wards. So far, the effort has begun in

only two areas -- along Georgia Avenue and in Georgetown.

	The city has ordered 50,000 heavy-duty plastic trash containers to be

distributed this summer in neighborhoods with persistent problems.

	Meanwhile, rodent-control experts and residents of neighborhoods plagued by

rats say they hope Williams succeeds in reducing the rat population. The

experts said it will take a cooperative effort by the city and its

residents and businesses.

	"It can be done. It has been done in other cities. It does work," said

Colvin, the Boston rat expert, who toured rat-infested District alleys

yesterday. "But no one can do it alone."