On any given night, you can see the gray, furry, four-legged creatures on the prowl—from Georgetown to Shepherd Park to Capitol Hill to Anacostia.
They skulk about dark alleys, lurk near puddles of dirty water, peep from underneath bushes, scratch their way into trash cans to feed on rubbish.
“They travel 150 feet for food, so you could see them in your yard, but they could actually live about four or five houses down,” said Gerard Brown, program manager for the D.C. Department of Health’s Rodent Control Division. “They just need three things—food, water and a place to live and they can find that anywhere.”
When the weather warms, rats come out to play.
Rats have been bothersome for centuries. Dating back to the 1300s, rats carried the bubonic plague throughout China, western Asia and Europe, killing millions across those territories. In the District, they were once such a problem in Georgetown that they could be seen crawling by the hundreds in and out of the Potomac River in broad daylight, according to experts. Today, they still carry the bubonic plague along with other diseases such as salmonellosis and trichinosis.
Experts said springs and summers following mild winters tend to see larger rat populations. Without much sustained blistering cold weather, rats were able to mate and increase their population.
In the District, rat complaints are handled by the Department of Health. Complaint calls are received at the 311 call center, where they are categorized by ward. In 2012, the Department of Health received 3,013 complaints about rats; most of the complaints reported rats in alleys or yards. Since Jan. 1, there have been just over 1,200 calls received. The ward with the most calls is Ward 1 with 306 and Ward 5 is the second highest with 230 calls.
Ward 5 resident Marcus Jetter, who lives in the 2200 block of 13th Street NE, said the problem has improved in recent years. He credited the D.C. rat patrol with gaining a firm hand on the problem.
“At the beginning of the summer it was horrible, we couldn’t even sit out on our backyards,” he said.
Jetter, along with his neighbors, organized a petition a few weeks ago for the Department of Health to periodically come through the alley behind their homes to inspect and do any work that is necessary to control—or take steps to markedly reduce—rats in the area.
Rodent controllers use two methods to get control rats. One option is the use of bait to lure the furry creatures, then to kill them with rat poison or rat traps. The other option is to use “tracking powder,” a poisonous substance that is sprayed into the boroughs where the rats live. Once the rats come into contact with the tracking powder it is attached to their fur and the moment they lick or groom themselves, they die, Brown said.
There are some who are opposed to some of the methods, he said.
“Some people want rats killed humanely,” he said. “I have had a few experiences where people didn’t want me to kill a rat a certain way. The problem they had was that the rat suffered. They would rather [that we] use the snap trap so the rat can die quickly.”
Officials in the District are also asking residents to do their part.
“Working for a Rat Free D.C.” is a campaign the Department of Health has created to try to eliminate rats in the city.
“The key for the citizens is sanitation,” said Gabriel Curtis, the supervisory pest controller of the Rodent Control Division. “That means making sure there are lids on the trash cans, making sure the grass is cut and making sure they don’t have a lot of storage in the backyard so that the rodents cannot be harbored there.”
Though rats are a problem, they apparently aren’t as violent as one might think.
It has been more than a decade since the Department of Health received a call concerning a rat bite, officials said. Rats are usually not aggressive and they make their moves at night, when people are less likely to be around. But if they feel trapped in a corner or threatened, they may respond defensively, experts said.
Rats are also a significant problem in other local jurisdictions. The Baltimore Department of Public Works receives anywhere from 7,500 to 8,500 rat-related complaints each year, officials said. They also receive most of their complaints from 311. The rats are handled through the city’s Rat Rubout program.
“Rat Rubout is here to provide the community with assistance, guidance and baiting to deal with rats,” said Kurt Kocher, the spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works.
To reduce rat issues, both cities are handing out citations to residents and commercial buildings that exhibit unsanitary conditions, such as grass not being cut and improper trash disposal.
And, like the District of Columbia, rat bites are not a significant problem, Kocher said.
“We have only had two reports of a rat bite this year,” he said in an email. “One case occurred when a gentleman was working in a warehouse and a rat bit him when he was moving boxes. The second occurred when a woman took her trash out and a rat jumped out of the can and scratched her leg. According to Animal Control, rat bites are very uncommon. Our bite investigator she said she only remembers one or two last year.”