- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2000

The rats of Hillyer Place are unstoppable. They eat through wooden fences, ingest poison without effect and escape traps that could break a man's hand.

David Ridgeway, who lives on the one-block street between Connecticut Avenue NW and 21st Street near Dupont Circle, has done almost everything to keep the furry rodents out of his apartment.

He has had little success, but not for a lack of trying. Mr. Ridgeway set poison pellets and traps the snapping and glue kinds in and around his apartment.

Contractors laid glass shards and poisonous "tracking powder" in the walls, the rats' walkways. City officials put rotten meat laced with poison on his patio and in the alley behind his apartment.

The rat infestation sometimes subsides for a few days at a time, said Mr. Ridgeway, 30, who once found two dead rats that measured six- to eight-inches long, not counting the tail, in the alley behind his place.

But the rodents always come back in force.

The pitter-patter of rat feet on carpet and the scratching inside the walls at night are the telltale signs of their return.

Rat eradication has become a personal crusade for Mr. Ridgeway, a native of Cleveland Park who moved back to the District after several years in New York.

"I'm out to get them," he said. "I'll do anything I can do. I'm fed up with being woken up at four in the morning by scratching."

He sent a letter to neighbors explaining the rat problem and how to fight it, he called in city officials for eradication and inspections and requested help from his landlord.

He even chased a rat in his apartment with a steak knife.

"I couldn't get him. He was too [expletive] fast," Mr. Ridgeway said.

His apartment is immaculate no food sits on counters, dishes are washed immediately, the trash is taken out each night.

But for all his efforts, the problem is the surrounding environment of the neighborhood and the District itself.

A recent late-night tour of the area and its alleyways last week revealed a number of factors that contribute to the rat problem.

Some residents on both sides of Hillyer Place provide the rats easy meals by leaving trash bags many of them already chewed open on the ground in the alleys. Lids on at least four plastic trash cans sporting the motto "A Clean City" were missing or loose.

Half-gnawed gumballs and a rotten apple were lying in the alley doorway of the Cineplex Odeon Janus theater, 1660 Connecticut Ave. NW, that night and when a reporter visited five days later.

The neighborhood also has several restaurants, at least five along Connecticut Avenue and 20th Street. During the tour, their garbage areas reeked of rotten food and grease spots were visible in the alleys.

A reporter and two other persons during the tour saw two rats dart out of a pile of wooden boards and cardboard boxes an ideal rat's nest behind the Embassy of Chad in the 2000 block of R St. NW.

Workers at the embassy later threw the wood into a Dumpster and swept the area after an inquiry from The Washington Times.

Ambassador Ahmat Soubiane Hassaballa told The Times the embassy hired an exterminator and "there is no rat problem" anymore.

He added that food and garbage from the neighbors is attracting the rats.

Mark Greenleaf, program manager for the Department of Health's environmental health administration and rodent control program, and other city officials visited Hillyer Place on Friday.

The restaurants near Hillyer Place are providing the food source that keeps rats in the area, Mr. Greenleaf told The Times after he and other officials examined the area and made violation referrals to the Department of Public Works.

Restaurants generate a disproportionate share of the city's waste and their improperly disposed food is the rats' main attraction around Hillyer Place and the rest of the city, Mr. Greenleaf said.

"That speaks to most of the problem," he said.

Containers of grease left open or spilled by restaurant employees give rats "a high-protein diet" in the area, Mr. Greenleaf said.

City officials also passed out fliers with rat-fighting tips to residents and businesses in the area.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams promised last year at his inauguration and at a "rat summit" to eradicate the vermin.

Since then, the city has sought input from residents and businesses, hired a consultant and, last month, transferred the rodent-control program to the health department from public works.

Mr. Greenleaf said the promise "to have an effective program in place … has been met."

The city's rat-eradication effort is led by the Department of Health and includes the Department of Public Works and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

On a citywide basis, "it's way too early" to judge the progress against rats, Mr. Greenleaf said. "It's just going to take a long time."

But by one measure, at least, the city's rodent problem has gotten worse.

For the first time in at least three years, the District will make the Top 10 list of cities with rodent problems, debuting at 10th-worst.

The upcoming list from Reckitt Benckiser, a rodent-poison manufacturer, uses national data on sales of rodent poison.

The running estimate for the D.C. rat population is 1 million, or about double the human population.

Mr. Greenleaf said getting data to make such an estimate is difficult, and officials usually use indicators like rat droppings and grease markings the rats leave behind.

"For cities with real good and well-funded programs, it takes years, or at least months, to start to get a real change in actual [rat] activity," Mr. Greenleaf said.

The city's rat-fighting effort is still in transition. The Rodent Control Division in the Health Department will move to a yet-to-be-created agency called the "Bureau of Community Hygiene," Mr. Greenleaf said.

The bureau will have more people to fight rats and seek the authority to issue "very high" penalties for rat infestations at residences and businesses, Mr. Greenleaf.

In the meantime, Mr. Ridgeway is still figuring out what to do.

But he's not relying on the city and is skeptical of officials' promises.

"They show up and do some work, and then they're gone and you don't see them again," he said. "They haven't done anything."

When Mr. Ridgeway lived in New York City's East Village near the East River, the only pest problem was mice and cockroaches.

"But no rats, nothing like this," he said.

Mr. Ridgeway moved back to the District for a high-paying Internet job and chose the $1,300 a month apartment because he was finally making enough for "a nice place."

Hillyer Place is known as one of the nicest streets in the District, Mr. Ridgeway said. The Phillips Collection is a block away, and the neighborhood is full of other art galleries and embassies.

When Mr. Ridgeway and his girlfriend, Beth McGarrity, 25, toured the apartment last year, they didn't know the dozen or so holes in the ground in back were rat tunnels.

"We left one rat race for another," Miss McGarrity joked.

Mr. Ridgeway said he doesn't blame the property-management company, which reduced his rent and sent exterminators six or seven times.

Several calls to Chatel Real Estate, the property-management company, were not returned.

Despite all the frustration, Mr. Ridgeway has kept a sense of humor about the problem.

He has planned a "rat-fishing" contest this summer, complete with a barbecue and prizes for whoever catches the largest rat on a meat-laden hook.

But the rodent battle has taken a toll on Mr. Ridgeway and Miss McGarrity.

She shrieked several times at the sight of rats during the late-night tour. Even normal noises at night keep her awake, making her wonder if another rat has made its way into the apartment.

Mr. Ridgeway has gotten so frustrated that he is considering getting an alley cat despite his lease's prohibition on pets or a pellet gun.

"We're definitely getting jumpy," he said.

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