Rats: It Takes a Village

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A dead rat on N Street. Photo by Patrick G. Ryan.

D.C. rats are back in the news. Last week, the Washington Post reported that in some D.C. neighborhoods (not Georgetown, but close), their numbers — or at least the number of sightings and complaints — appear to be doubling.

The neighborhood with the highest number of complaints in 2017 was Petworth, followed by Columbia Heights, Capitol Hill, Near Northeast, 16th Street Heights, Logan Circle, Park View, U Street and Shaw. Complaints in those neighborhoods represented about 43 percent of the complaints lodged last year, according to city officials. From 2016 to 2017, those neighborhoods saw increases of between 25 and 74 percent in rodent complaints. This year, they are on pace to see a repeat or an increase in those percentages.

The city has not been passive in its response. Mayor Muriel Bowser increased the budget ofthe Department of Health’s rodent control division for the next fiscal year by nearly $1 million — up from $1.36 million. This will enable the division to hire additional staff, provide handheld devices so inspectors can input real-time data and pilot a rat sterilization program.

The District already has beefed up trash disposal regulations and requirements for residents and commercial establishments, especially eateries; increased the number of inspectors; and strengthened enforcement measures, with higher fines for repeat violators. Grants were even provided for businesses to lease commercial trash compactors.

Last year, the city began using dry ice to suffocate rats in their burrows and installed state- of-the-art solar trash cans in “rat hot spots.”

Still, new residents and new construction add to the volume of trash. “If it isn’t storedproperly, that will mean more rats,” said Gerard Brown, who oversees the rodent control division. And the recent mild winters caused fewer rats to die from frigid temperatures.

“The rats are in some ways a byproduct of the success of the city,” said Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans, noting the city’s population passed 700,000 this year. In Georgetown, many new restaurants and cafes are being planned.

It takes a village, a neighborhood, a street to deal with the inevitable growth in rats. “This isnot an individual issue — we can’t address it house by house … and we need to think aboutit on a larger scale,” said Colleen Gallopin of Northeast D.C., who was dealing with a rat problem so bad that, she said, “it got to the point of absurdity.” Finally, it decreased after she and four other neighbors coordinated this summer to hire a private pest control company and worked with their advisory neighborhood commission representative to ensure that nearby restaurants improved trash storage.

That happens in Georgetown, too. At the Sept. 5 meeting of the Georgetown-Burleith Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Arlette Cahen-Coppock, owner of the Fourth Lock Hair Salon on Canal Street, complained about the constant trash and rat problem on the alley behind her business, parallel to 31st Street. But Inspector Sonya Chance was there and ANC Chairman Joe Gibbons saw to their getting together right there to make a plan.

Department of Health spokeswoman Alison Reeves said she expects improvements in all eight wards when the new initiatives are implemented, noting that when restaurants install trash compactors, they have seen a decrease in rodent activity.

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