- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

Rat enthusiast Robert Corrigan yesterday paced an auditorium stage at the National Zoo, talking excitedly about an animal that most find revolting but he finds fascinating.

“I’m going to take you into the world of this animal in a big way,” Mr. Corrigan said to his rapt audience. “You’re going to know more about rats and mice than the average pest controller on the street.”

The 55-year-old vermin virtuoso — who holds a doctorate in rodent control from Purdue University — was the keynote speaker and main draw at the District’s first Rodent Control Academy, an attempt by city officials to coordinate agency efforts aimed at creating a rat-free D.C.

Rat reports are “the No. 1 source of complaints in the office,” said D.C. Department of Health Director Gregg A. Pane. “If you’re not united, these guys are smart and they know how to outwit us.”

Whether the District has a rodent epidemic is debatable. The number of rat complaints last year decreased by more than 20 percent since 2000, the year after Mayor Anthony A. Williams held a rat-control summit that led him to declare a citywide war on the rodents, according to Department of Health statistics.

Still, evidence of the squealing and squeaking vermin still can be found citywide, as burrows and droppings materialize seemingly overnight in trash piles and along litter-lined alleyways.

The rats that have plagued the District are primarily Norway rats, whose trail of tails stretches back to the Russia-Iran border. They weigh about 12 to 16 ounces, average about 16 inches in length and can carry potentially deadly diseases, Mr. Corrigan said.

Certain areas, such as the neighborhood surrounding Connecticut and Calvert avenues in Northwest, often experience rat problems because of a proliferation of restaurants and improperly stored food.

Sometimes, nearby construction can cause the rodents to emerge into the open, health officials said.

“It could be perceived as when the construction started it created this problem,” said Gerard Brown, program manager for the Department of Health’s Rodent Control Division. “But nine times out of 10, the rats are already there.”

The first day of the three-day academy was attended by more than 100 D.C. and federal employees from such agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service.

It is sponsored by the D.C. Department of Health and is modeled after a similar one that featured Mr. Corrigan last year in New York City.

The seminar’s agenda reads like the syllabus for a college biology course, with Mr. Corrigan acting more as the tenured professor than the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

“Pest management is a science,” said Mr. Corrigan, who once spent months living with and studying the creatures in musty Indiana barns and warehouses.

Sessions like “Rodent Ecology of a Residential Alleyway” and “Norway Rat Burrows and Bait Applications” are punctuated by rat facts that are fun (the rat uses its tail to control body temperature) and fearsome (an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people are bitten by rats each year).

“There are cases of babies being admitted to hospitals with, literally, holes in their faces,” Mr. Corrigan said.

Mr. Corrigan relishes confirming and debunking common rat myths.

For example, rats will climb up toilets, he said, but they do not blatantly attack humans. They are not blind, but can swim for three days straight. When food is scarce, they readily feed on each other. And there are absolutely no rats as big as cats.

“Although when they get frightened, they fluff up their fur,” Mr. Corrigan said.

The ultimate goal of the conference is for the District to adopt the principles of the Integrated Pest Management philosophy, which advocates coordination between pest controllers on both the District and federal levels and between city agencies.

“This is an interagency approach, just getting everybody to realize this is [everyone’s] problem,” Mr. Corrigan said.

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