‘They’re climbing’: Exterminators say calls for rats in Baltimore homes have doubled during coronavirus pandemic

Baltimore exterminators say the city’s rats have moved from restaurants to homes as the coronavirus pandemic has cut down on food waste from eating establishments.

Frank Simms, the owner of Q Pest Control, said calls about rat infestations in Baltimore City residences have doubled since the beginning of the pandemic, coinciding with Gov. Larry Hogan’s orders closing businesses and restricting social gatherings. Q Pest Control services the city as well as Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Harford counties.


Simms, who has been working in the industry for 29 years, said he’s only seen similar increases when major rainstorms or floods force rats to find shelter and food away from city streets.

“There’s more people indoors and they’re cooking more. There’s more great smells coming out of their kitchens [and it’s] quieter at night,” Simms said.


He also theorized that the governor’s stay-at-home order has led to fewer people throwing their trash on the street.

“Environmentally, it’s great," he said of the lack of litter. "But at the same time, we need to address the rat” issue.

Baltimore has long struggled with rat abatement. While generally viewed as a nuisance, they have become pervasive in Baltimore culture, with the animal adorning bumper stickers, T-shirts and other merchandise that promote the city’s unique personality. Orkin ranked Baltimore No. 9 on its list of American cities with the worst rat problems in 2018.

President Donald Trump used the rodent to disparage the city last year, calling the state’s 7th District, which includes part of the city, “digusting, rat and rodent infested," drawing criticism that the president was using a black majority city to stoke racial and political tensions.

Baltimore is not the only city dealing with a rise in residential rodents, as exterminators in Chicago say they’ve also seen an increase in the number of calls to homes to handle rat infestations.

Curtis Rand, the vice president of operations for Rose Pest Control, which operates throughout northern Illinois and northwest Indiana, said the environment creates “a huge opportunity,” for cities with rat abatement programs to be aggressive in their use of baiting because the rats are hungrier than usual.

“Obviously, the less food source the more attractive the bait,” Rand said.


“When you put a hamburger in front of someone’s face every day, the chances of them walking over and going to get a hot dog are few and far between because they’ve got a hamburger there.”

Kurt Kocher, spokesman for the Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, which handles rodent control, did not say whether the pandemic has changed the way the department has handled rodent control in recent weeks.

In an email, Kocher wrote the city “set up a program to essentially get the rat holes baited following gestation cycles."

John Chalmers, head of the department’s Bureau of Solid Waste, said the city has seen a year-over-year reduction in service requests “primarily due to the success of our proactive rat abatement program.”

Nathaniel Williams Jr., the owner of Relay Pest Control, said he’s also seen calls for homes at Baltimore residences roughly double in recent weeks. The pest control company covers the city as well as parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Prince George’s and Howard counties.


“I guess with more people working from home, it could be people not putting out trash correctly,” Williams said, adding he gets from five to 10 calls a day now for rodent control.

Rats have a “complex social hierarchy within their colonies,” said Jim Fredericks, of the National Pest Management Association. There are “alpha males,” which get to eat first and have first mating opportunities; then there are “beta males” and rats of lesser importance, which may be forced to sleep outside the safety of a nest or burrow.

“As resources become scarce, whether that be food, or harborage, nesting places, that imposes stress upon that rat community, so to speak, and when there’s stress you do see increased aggressive behavior within that rat social system,” he said.

Norway rats, the most common type of rat in Baltimore, don’t usually travel more than 150 feet from burrow to food source.

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Simms said the pandemic has also pushed more people to handle bug infestations by themselves.


Simms said that the number of people who are only getting consultations has increased in recent weeks as homeowners decide they don’t have the money to let a professional handle the issue and try to handle infestations themselves first.

He painted one particularly desperate picture of a rat climbing a three-story Baltimore rowhome complex to sneak into an opening in pursuit of food.

“They’re climbing,” he said. “Typically, they’re coming in through an old dryer vent that’s not well sealed or well covered."

Chicago Tribune staff contributed to this article.