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."
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
"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
"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."