Let’s face facts: Rats depend on us. They live where we live and eat what we eat.
So the District’s chief of rodent control was not surprised that complaints about the pests increased by nearly 30% last year compared with 2019, even though the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to close.
“They are desperate and unpredictable,” Gerard Brown told The Washington Times. “Since the restaurants shut down, rats in those areas start migrating into residential areas looking for food. People are home, and they’re using Uber Eats and Grubhub, and there’s more trash in trash cans.”
The majority of the city’s more than 7,800 complaints came from Ward 4, said Tiffani Johnson, advisory neighborhood commissioner.
“That’s been basically due to a lack of individuals not throwing out their trash appropriately … using public trash cans as their personal trash and not bagging their trash appropriately,” she said.
D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George, Ward 4 Democrat, told The Times that garbage overflow at apartment buildings is adding to the problem.
“Many apartment buildings in Ward 4 are not providing enough garbage cans or large enough garbage cans to meet the needs of residents, especially now that people are spending more time at home and creating more waste as a result,” Ms. Lewis George said in an email.
The District appears to be a microcosm of the increased rodent activity reported last year across the country, including in New York City, Boston and New Orleans, pest control expert Jim Fredericks said.
Rodents can cause billions of dollars in damage by gnawing on structures and chewing through wiring that can cause fires, said Mr. Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association.
They are also reportedly among the most prevalent and dangerous public health pests nationwide.
“In addition to destroying human food, mice and rats can transmit 200 pathogens and 35 diseases to humans and can trigger allergy and asthma symptoms,” Mr. Fredericks said in an email.
Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is considered to be low.”
The District has been battling rodents for decades, and Congress even declared a “war on rats” in 1968, when it was estimated that half of the city was infested. More than 150 rat catchers were sent to hunt down the notorious Norway rats, which have furry brown bodies and can grow up to 9½ inches long.
In 2016, the D.C. Small and Local Business Development doled out $350,000 in grant funds for businesses to lease trash compactors. They hoped the receptacles would decrease the ability for rodents to access food waste.
The Lab @ D.C., which designs policies and programs, launched a computer mapping program in 2017 to help predict where rats were likely digging burrows.
Mayor Muriel Bowser gave the rat abatement efforts a more than $1 million boost in the fall of 2018 because of an uptick in complaints.
Mr. Brown and his team of 20 rodent control experts stepped up their efforts with new tools, rat sterilization drugs and community outreach.
Dry ice pellets and a carbon monoxide machine were purchased to exterminate rats from their burrows. Boxes filled with a rodent contraceptive were placed in about 50 alleys, and cameras were set up to track the progress.
Meetings with residents and businesses were conducted on a regular basis to provide information on how to track, prevent and address rodent infestations.
Mr. Brown, however, said the pandemic “kind of stopped that momentum.”
“We can’t go out to community meetings as much as we want to, but we do participate in Zoom meetings with [advisory neighborhood commissions] and communities,” he said.
The video surveillance, which was set up to gauge the effectiveness of the contraceptive boxes by tracking baby rats, did not work as well as he had hoped.
“We knew that they were consuming the [contraceptive],” Mr. Brown said. “But to determine if it was really making a difference, it was hard to tell, so we sort of kind of pulled back on that.”
In regard to the rat burrow tracking program, Mr. Brown said, “at some point in the future, the hope is that we will have to predict. But right now we know where we have to concentrate our resources.”
This year, Mr. Brown and his team plan to focus on “aggressive outreach.” The city has received 30% more rodent complaints compared with the same period in 2020.
“The goal is to try to change people’s behavior and to get people to work with us because we can’t do it alone,” he said.
Next month, they’re planning to host a virtual rat abatement informational meeting for locals.
He sees it as an opportunity to encourage people to use their garbage disposals more often, wash containers before throwing them out and wait until collection day to put garbage into the outdoor trash cans.
“Everybody’s got to work together,” Mr. Brown said.