- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has piqued the ire of sensitive New Yorkers with an ad that shows a menacing-looking rat and asks the following in bold letters: “You gonna eat that?”

The text accompanying the ad attempts to explain Metro’s draconian enforcement of its no-eating and no-drinking policy. It reads: “Unlike some subway systems (which will remain nameless), you don’t see rats the size of house cats roaming the Metro. Why not? Because we are so strict about eating and drinking in the system. So help us keep the critters away. Please don’t eat or drink on the Metro.”

Those New Yorkers who have seen the ad think it targets their rat-infested transit system, which, of course, Metro officials have denied. The ad also could be referring to the subway systems in Boston and Philadelphia, both of which have that musty, dungeonlike quality about them.

It may be true that the District’s subway system is so clean that you can eat off the platform floor at each stop. But it also is true that the rest of the city is inundated with rats, if that assuages the hurt feelings of New Yorkers.

If Metro is claiming victory in the war on rats, it is a victory that hardly inspires the rat-besieged residents of the city.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams declared war on the rats in the late 1990s, and the rats won.

You cannot stop the Norway rat. You cannot even hope to contain it if your cans and Dumpsters are overflowing with trash, if you never scoop up the dog droppings on your yards, if you set out plastic trash bags stuffed with discarded food and if you treat the alleyways as a dumping ground.

As dusk descends on the city, many alleyways become the principal thoroughfares of rats, especially in neighborhoods with abandoned buildings.

This is the hard reality before a city that often works at two speeds — extremely slow and not at all. At least Mr. Williams tried to deal with the ubiquitous rodent. He even held a “rat summit” and targeted specific neighborhoods. It helped. It did not eliminate the problem, because too many human beings are either lazy or dumb and just cannot bring themselves to dispose of trash properly.

Someone dumps a half-eaten muffin on the sidewalk and apparently thinks it will magically go away. It soon goes away all right, often into the tummy of a rat, if a squirrel or pigeon does not find it first.

Rats are resourceful. Give them that. They can chew through nearly everything — wiring, wood and cardboard. And chew they must, for their teeth can grow as much as five inches a year.

And they can swim for hours. The rat swim-a-thon is one of the pastimes of certain downtown restaurants catching a rat and sticking it in a trash can that is filled three-quarters of the way with water. It sometimes takes a couple of hours before the rat tires out and sinks to its death.

That explains how rats, if they have taken a liking to a neighborhood’s sewer system, sometimes appear in the toilet bowls of private residences.

The city expects businesses and residents to be vigilant about rats and will fine those it judges to be in violation of the health code, which is a laugh. Businesses and residents can act with extreme prejudice against rats, but if the city is not inclined to do its part, the rat problem goes on unabated.

And the rat problem seems particularly acute across the city this year, partly because it has been a relatively mild winter and partly because the bureaucracy seemingly has left pest control to squabbling businesses and residents, with each pointing the finger at the other.

Metro can tout its victory against rats. The rest of us are the losers in this battle.

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