Renard Hawkins, a pest control officer for Baltimore City, talks about the rat inspection and elmination process. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
Officials plan to nearly double the size of Baltimore's rat-fighting crew in the coming weeks, a move they say will cut in half the time it takes exterminators to blanket the city — and give them a chance to keep up with the rapid reproductive cycle of the prolific creatures.
Expanding the "Rat Rubout" program from eight workers to 15 will allow them to visit each of the city's 12,250 alleyways once every 20 days. That's often enough to catch young rodents before they are old enough to reproduce.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake directed the city's Public Works Department to re-evaluate its rat abatement program during budget talks this year. She is expected to announce the expansion on Wednesday.
"I have been in elected office since 1995, and there has never been a time in my experience when the citizens were pleased with rat abatement," she said.
"It just hit me. I was like, 'Wait a minute. We can keep doing what we're doing, but is there a better way?'"
Officials have no estimate for the number of rats currently slinking along Baltimore's streets and tunneling under its yards. But a review of recent complaints shows hot spots on the city's east and west sides, with high activity in Sandtown-Winchester, Edmondson and Broadway East.
The new crew members will start in those neighborhoods before moving to a regular citywide inspection schedule, officials said. Valentina Ukwuoma, head of the city's solid waste division, said the city is shifting its approach from responding to 311 complaints to ongoing, systematic pest control.
The new strategy is expected to increase the number of inspections the crews make from 33,000 per year to 110,000, Ukwuoma said. The regular inspections began last month, she said; the new crew members are expected to join the program by the end of the year.
The new strategy isn't expected to cost any more money, officials said, because the new crew members will be shifted from other jobs in public works.
The city budgeted about $620,000 for rat control this year, down from about $665,000 last year.
Ukwuoma said the city is working with a researcher who is developing a system in Chicago that uses data from complaint calls to guide pest control efforts. She said officials eventually want to hire a staff member to analyze local statistics.
Renard Hawkins, one of the city's exterminators, trudged through Baltimore's Violetville neighborhood Tuesday in search of the telltale signs: chewed-up trash, droppings, and holes in the ground — the entrances to their underground burrows.
He spotted burrows in the backyard of a rowhouse. He went back to his truck, pulled gloves onto his hands and a mask over this nose and mouth, and grabbed a pump filled with the poisonous powder Ditrac.
He coats the outside of the burrows with the poison, so it will catch in the rats' fur as they come and go. The rats then ingest it as they groom themselves. The poison thins their blood, causing them to die within days.
Hawkins placed yellow caution flags outside the burrows to warn neighbors to keep children and pets away from the poison. He left a tag with information about the treatment on the front door of the rowhouse.
During the first months of the new strategy, officials said, the exterminators will be getting help from the rats themselves.
In the winter, when food becomes scarce, the rodents begin to eat each other.
"We love that part," said Tonya Simmons, division chief for property management in the public works bureau of solid waste. "They take each other out for us."
Natasza Bock-Singleton was collecting her trash cans on Haverhill Road when Hawkins arrived to inspect the alley behind her house. She said the new rat control plan sounded great, but warned that if officials don't explain how it works, the effort will be for naught.
"A lot of residents are nervous, particularly the elderly and those on a fixed income," Bock-Singleton said. "They don't understand that the rat abatement program is free to them and they believe a call to 311 will result in a violation."
Bock-Singleton said the city's trash crews could help by making sure all the garbage makes it into their trucks, and isn't left to litter the ground.
"This morning I spent about half an hour out with my big broom, just sweeping," she said. "All it takes is one bag of dog poop, one half empty can of soup in order to provide the rats the nutrients that they need to counteract the bait that's being put out."
Officials said they are renewing their pleas to residents to eliminate food sources for the rodents by using durable trash cans with tight-fitting lids, picking up dog waste and mowing tall grass and weeds.
Not only do dog feces provide a food source for rodents, officials said, but they also contains vitamin K, which counteracts the blood-thinning effect of the rat poison.
"Rats do not survive where there is no food and water," Ukwuoma said. "To eliminate rats means you eliminate their food source. The advice to citizens is, just don't feed rats. They will move away."
Ukwuoma said officials studied rat control programs in several cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston and Orlando.
One of the biggest take-aways, she said, was the need to match inspections to the reproductive cycle of the rats. The rodents can reproduce after only five weeks. Each litter adds eight to 12 offspring to the population.
"We found that comprehensive, routine inspections are the best way to manage rat infestations," Ukwuoma said.
City officials have been in communication with Daniel B. Neill, the director of the Event and Pattern Detection Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Neill is working with officials in Chicago to develop software that uses several city databases to track and respond to health and safety concerns.
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