Tails of the City
Or, of rats and men
If you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
So says The Art of War, the ancient military treatise attributed to a Chinese general named Sun Tzu. Clearly my dogs and I should bone up on Sun Tzu.
For years, our little rescue hound Misha has re-enacted a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon starring chipmunks that live, condo-style, inside a stacked stone wall in our back garden. Scene one: A chipmunk ventures a stroll. Scene two: Misha the hound, baying like a maniac, gives chase. Scene three: The chipmunk escapes into the wall crevices. Scene four: Misha, tail wagging, stares at the wall for hours, waiting for the game to begin again.
The game changed after my husband and I rescued Brody, a big Labrador with the look of an aging prizefighter. Brody taught Misha how to dig out big sections of wall so they could poke their lunkheads in, looking for chipmunks.
I hired a company to install an electric fence to keep the dogs from wrecking themselves and the garden. Misha and Brody were fitted with radio collars that beep a warning when they cross into forbidden territory.
Looking at me like I’d be hearing from their lawyer, the dogs simply refused to go outside. So the man from the electric fence company lured them out by spreading pounds of their favorite kibble across the safe zones of the lawn and patios.
“Won’t that attract rats?” I asked.
He looked at me as if to say: Do you really think rats aren’t already here in suburbia? “I’ve been to $5 million homes with rat boxes around them,” he said.
Sure enough, a rat scurried into our garden the next day from beneath the fence that marks our property line. Its nose twitched, perhaps at the delicious scent of kibble on the lawn.
Startled, I unleashed a war cry and hurled my trusty rose pruners at the rat. I called for reinforcements, but Misha and Brody just stared at me from their side of the electronic fence. Good dogs! They’d learned their new fence line.
If dogs are man’s best friends, rats are the worst. Rats infested with plague-carrying fleas may have wiped out 30 percent of the human population of Europe in the Middle Ages. Rattus norvegicus, the common Norway Rat, likely arrived on our shores on European ships during the American Revolution. Like us, they spread across the land, plundering, depleting resources, moving on. In fact, the charter of rats’ “manifest infestation” is to follow food, water and us, says author Robert Sullivan, who spent a year observing rats near Wall Street.
“If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wildness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat is an indicator of the presence of man,” Sullivan writes in Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants (Bloomsbury USA, 2004).
I shouldn’t be surprised by a rat scouting real estate in my garden. In nearby downtown Bethesda, you can’t walk a block without spotting black plastic rat bait stations by restaurant dumpsters, in green spaces where people eat lunch, and in dim corners of parking garages. Construction downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods disturbs their nests and sends them scurrying for new shelter.
Twenty-two percent of complaints about rats at private residences last fiscal year came from Bethesda, according to the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. And that’s just the tip of the rat tale. Most homeowners who discover rats don’t call the county; they hire a private pest control company. Homeowners who call the county often are ratting on a neighbor they blame for their rodent problem.
Rat sightings in Bethesda and elsewhere fluctuate, depending on all kinds of factors. There’s a rat boomlet now in Montgomery Village, for instance, because “they are following the waterways [streams and sewers],” said Kenny Welch of the health department.
Overall, rat reports in the county are down from peak years such as 2004, when the cicadas’ return caused a rat-breeding boom and the health department had to put all of its inspectors on rat patrol.
Cicadas, it turns out, are a delicious and nutritious treat for rats. I remember walking my dog through gold-plated Edgemoor and encountering a distraught woman. Thanks to the cicadas and the creek that ran through her yard, she had rats openly sunning themselves on her back terrace.
As a veteran county environmental health specialist, Richard Lefebure has plenty of rat tales. He has heard from parents whose hysterical children witnessed a rat mugging a chipmunk in the park, dragging it away, shrieking, to its doom. And he has visited the lovely, old rat-infested home of a woman who swore that rats killed all three of her cats before she called for help.
Rats are tough and well-adapted for survival. The children of Brian Schoonmaker, vice president of Capitol Pest, once kept pet rats that learned to associate dinner with the sound of their cage latch being opened—kind of like Pavlov’s dogs, only creepier. Soon the rats learned to unlatch their cage. “We had to put a lock on it,” Schoonmaker said. “No wonder rats have survived all of human history with us trying to get rid of them. It just isn’t possible.”
In Bethesda, wild rats have an unexpected ally: animal lovers. One woman hired Trey Stillwell of Infestation Control to rid her lovely home of rats that were getting in through a tiny opening beneath the stove.
She didn’t want them killed, just relocated. A rat repaid her kindness by pulling her Christmas stocking off the mantel and dragging it through the house to get it back to its nest. The rat managed to get the stocking halfway under the stove before it got stuck. So the rat ate the candy in the kitchen.
Upscale suburbia with its streams, riverfront views, pools, fountains and bird feeders makes for ideal rat habitat, Lefebure told me.
When I said I have a pool, fountains and a bird feeder, he volunteered to search for signs that rats were treating my garden like Club Med. He looked around, but didn’t find signs that they’d become my newest neighbors.
Maybe the rat I saw had been displaced and was searching for new habitat. If so, I know he won’t be coming back with the troops. The day I saw him, I let Misha and Brody out again, this time without their radio collars. I watched my tough old Lab chase something furry to the back fence and engage. I investigated, hoping he hadn’t finally managed to kill a chipmunk.
No, he’d killed the rat. He bit its nose clean off.
“Good boy,” I told Brody as I patted his lunkhead. “You are a very good boy. But don’t even think about licking my face.”
April Witt is an award-winning journalist who lives in Bethesda. To comment on this column or suggest ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.