- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

The rats are coming.
An unusually mild winter means the city's burgeoning rat population spent the last four months breeding like mad, instead of killing off one another in the struggle for food that normally occurs during the cold months, according to Dr. Bruce Colvin, a leading rodent ecologist who has served as a consultant to Mayor Anthony A. Williams' "war on rats."
"The number of rodents one might normally expect to see in June, folks might this year be seeing in April," said Dr. Colvin, of Massachusetts. Dr. Colvin earned his reputation helping officials control rat populations in Boston's massive Central Artery Tunnel Project, also known as the Big Dig.
D.C. officials in 1999 established the city's first-ever Bureau of Rodent Control, inviting Dr. Colvin to a "Rat Summit" for advice on how to reclaim the city's parks and streets from scurrying, disease-ridden vermin.
After the summit, Mr. Williams declared war in September 2000, distributing "super cans" sealable 4-foot, heavy-duty trash containers to an estimated 75,000 buildings with three or fewer unit households throughout the District and handing out strict fines to restaurants and residences that attract rats because of poorly stored garbage.
Rodent control chief Mark Greenleaf told The Washington Times yesterday that 337 fines of $1,000 each have been issued since The Times reported in September that only 100 had been levied on food establishments citywide during the first year of the rat-eradication effort.
There are about 5,500 restaurants in the city, and Mr. Greenleaf said that since early October 76 commercial fines have been charged to establishments in Ward 1, home of Adams Morgan and one of the city's highest concentrations of bars and restaurants.
"We have a staff of 22 rodent-control inspectors who have written citations," he said, adding that 31 residential fines also were issued since Oct. 1 to Ward 1 residents who leave plastic trash bags on the sidewalk instead of in sealable containers.
"We're seeing more and more people coming into compliance, and we're not seeing a lot of repeats," he said. "When somebody gets a $1,000 fine, they're realizing the impact of it."
But while the Williams administration claims progress in the battle, the mild winter is likely to set the city back, Dr. Colvin said.
The National Weather Service reported an average temperature of 43.2 degrees in the District between Dec. 1 and Feb. 28. "There were long stretches of above-normal temperatures," said meteorologist Dewey Walston.
Other D.C. residents are skeptical that the city has made any progress in cutting the rat population.
Alan Roth, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan, said he and other residents haven't seen any marked improvement. "I still see them running around in the alley behind my row house," he said. "There are obvious thriving rat holes."
"My belief is that in solving this problem we need education and enforcement," Mr. Roth said. "Education without enforcement is useless, and enforcement without education is unfair. Unfortunately the city's education effort seems limited to periodic mayoral press conferences about the rat war, and enforcement is totally disorganized. I haven't seen any coherent effort to enforce the law."
Others complain that several landlords in Adams Morgan have created a "buffet for rats" by ignoring their tenants' trash problems. Tenants have been known to toss trash on top of open dumpsters behind large apartment buildings.
Mr. Greenleaf said the city, for the first time, has been working overtime at fixing such problems. The budget for rodent control doubled from $600,000 in 2001 to more than $1.2 million for fiscal 2002. "Since October, we've gone to 77 community, business and community association meetings across the city," he said. "We're available to people, giving outreach information and tips for handling things like overflowing dumpsters.
"Fighting rats in this city has a five-year implementation plan, and we're in our third year," he added. "Warmer weather during winter doesn't help the problem. For the past four years, weather conditions, coupled with the drought, helped the rats because they can access food both underground and above ground when there is less water."
Over the decades, the District has struggled with occasional explosions in the rodent population. In the late 1960s, the District had a war on rats that predated the Williams administration effort by 30 years. In the late 1970s, residents in Georgetown and Capitol Hill reported an influx of thousands of rats displaced, according to officials, by underground Metro construction and cleanup efforts downtown.
Dr. Colvin, who refers to rats as "a neat little genetic package" because of their durable style of life, said there is no way to measure exactly how many rats live in the District.
Female rats, some as long as 10 inches, not counting a 6- to 8-inch tail, can produce between eight and 10 pups in a litter every 21 days. If winter weather is warm, each could pump out as many as 50 babies over the course of her 6-month adult life span. "The female begins breeding at two months of age and could become impregnated 48 hours after giving birth," Dr. Colvin said.
"The reason we have rats is because there's food sources and a lack of good, long-term planning in cities in America," he said. "You can't blame the rats. The rat is just doing its thing."
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said, "These things can survive on battery cable. Imagine what happens when you have folks running up and down the street, dropping pizza on the sidewalk and leaving their garbage cans out at night without lids. They're creating a moveable feast for the rats.
"'We've got rats as big as cats.' That's what I hear people saying from one end of my ward to the other," said Mr. Graham, who advocates increasing funding to the bureau of rodent control.
"Right now, officials don't have the resources they need," he said. "They are doing a good job, if you consider the fact that before three years ago, we didn't have new garbage containers for homes, we did not have the fines, and we didn't have the enforcement. Are we solving this problem yet? No. Do we have the things in place that will make a dent in this? Absolutely."

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