xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

311 calls for rat abatement in Baltimore up in 2021. Experts, exterminators point to same solutions to control rodents.

Wearing a neon Department of Public Works coat on a December morning, exterminator Terry Stringfield opened a gate in Northeast Baltimore and walked the fence line looking for evidence of Baltimore’s most infamous pest: the rat.

The yard looked tidy, free of debris. Lids were secured to the trash and recycling bins. Nothing scurried away as he approached. Still, Stringfield scanned for holes where the vermin burrow, places he could drop 4-ounce pellets of poison and leave yellow warning flags.

Advertisement

He was responding Dec. 16 to a request made through the city’s 311 system for rat abatement. By then, city exterminators had already completed 153,000 requests for proactive rodent control or present problems with the vermin — more requests than each of the previous two years with half a month to go, according to an analysis of 311 data.

Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspections in East Baltimore as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign. Here, he holds an applicator, which he would use to place rat poison in a rat hole.
Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspections in East Baltimore as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign. Here, he holds an applicator, which he would use to place rat poison in a rat hole. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Officials, exterminators and experts aren’t exactly sure why there was an uptick. However, they say some of the underlying drivers of Baltimore’s rat population, such as dilapidated housing, illegal dumping and trash collection issues, may have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Orkin ranked Charm City sixth on its 2021 list of America’s “rattiest” cities, up from eighth in 2020 and placing it in the company of some of America’s most sprawling metropolises. Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and San Francisco were the only cities where Orkin performed more new rodent treatments from September 2020 to September 2021.

Baltimore dealt with roughly 26,000 more requests for rat abatement, including proactive calls, through Dec. 13 than all of 2020, when there were about 128,000 requests, The Baltimore Sun’s analysis of 311 data showed. There were approximately 147,000 of those calls in 2019, almost 172,000 the year before and about 132,000 in 2017.

A Norway rat forages in a Baltimore backyard garden.
A Norway rat forages in a Baltimore backyard garden. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The rat issue has plagued Baltimore for over a century. Recently, the vermin received more attention when then-President Donald Trump in 2019 described Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess.” In 2018, a PBS documentary aimed to shed light on the issue. And many Baltimore novelty shops sell items emblazoned with the rat outline highlighting the letters “BALT.”

Critical though Stringfield’s and other exterminators’ work is, experts maintain that controlling a city’s rat population means addressing systemic problems like poverty and the effects of discriminatory housing policies — both of which persist in Baltimore.

Advertisement

“One of the things that happens in housing that is substandard, which is what so many people who are low-income or who have experienced housing discrimination experience, is that it’s even more open than other housing to animals like rats and mice and cockroaches and bedbugs,” said Dawn Biehler, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who researched the intersection of public health, housing and pests from about 2003 to 2017.

Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspections in East Baltimore as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign. A big part of the city's rat problem, he said, are overflowing trash cans like the one on left.
Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspections in East Baltimore as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign. A big part of the city's rat problem, he said, are overflowing trash cans like the one on left. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

She recalled during her research in West Baltimore encountering residents who derided the city for not addressing blocks full of abandoned properties, which are often subject to illegal dumping, leaving behind piles of waste. These conditions create the perfect habitat for rodents.

Neglected neighborhoods can often be traced back to segregation and redlining, when banks and insurance companies rejected investment and lending in nonwhite communities, Biehler said. The latter, she added, would have made it nearly impossible for residents to get a loan to buy or keep up a home in one of the neighborhoods affected by the racist policy.

Through Dec. 13, Baltimore’s 311 system recorded 13,404 reports of illegal dumping, according to The Sun’s analysis. That’s about 2,000 more reports than 2020, 2,500 more than 2019, and more than 2018 and 2017 combined.

Over the last five years, reports of vacant buildings were highest in 2019, with 8,280. But there were a few more reports of vacant properties through Dec. 13 than all of 2020, the analysis showed.

These conditions impact the work of exterminators like Frank Simms, Owner of Q Pest Control.

Frank Simms, owner of Q Pest Control, looks for evidence of rat activity in the basement of a building in East Baltimore.
Frank Simms, owner of Q Pest Control, looks for evidence of rat activity in the basement of a building in East Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Simms and his customers are often frustrated by surrounding conditions. If an adjacent property has been abandoned, the home is usually not well sealed and rodents can scurry in. Whatever he can do prevent rats from coming into his customer’s home, they’ve already established a territory next door. And it’s usually challenging to track down the owner of a vacant property, he said.

Then there’s the furniture and construction waste he sees illegally dumped in alleys and yards, which provide places for rats to evade his poison.

“It’s not a one-person problem; it’s the whole block,” Simms said.

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted trash and recycling collection in Baltimore and a host of city services. COVID-19 suspended public works’ “rat rubout” program for three months in 2020. Lockdowns changed rats’ behavior, exterminators said, as they turned to residences for food waste rather than restaurants when they were shut down, possibly increasing the chance of human-rat encounters.

Back to work since June 2020, Stringfield and company are as busy as ever trying to mitigate an unwelcome critter that’s plagued humanity for centuries.

Cities across the U.S. have rolled out all kinds of programs to quell their rodents. Hartford, Connecticut, this year became one of the most recent states to pilot a rat birth control program, something Chicago and New York City already tried. In 2017, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced a rat abatement plan that involved stuffing dry ice into rodent burrows. Both cities have also used poison pellets.

Baltimore’s struggle with rats goes back more than a century, with reports in The Sun about rodent control dating to 1883.

In 1934, a researcher told The Sun rats likely outnumbered people in Baltimore and other port cities. About 20 years later, debate over rat control permeated the mayor’s race. Over the years, leaders brought new approaches to rat abatement: from distributing pounds of bait to hundreds of city blocks deemed “rat harbors” in 1955 to arming inmates of the city jail with sticks to eradicate rodents in 1973.

Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspection in an East Baltimore yard as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign.
Terry Stringfield, a pest control worker for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, does rat inspection in an East Baltimore yard as part of the city’s rat rubout campaign. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore’s director of the rat rubout program in the Department of Public Works reported being overwhelmed by demand for its services in 1998. The program was placed under the purview of the health department in 2004 with Mayor Martin O’Malley and Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson citing the public health implications of living around the rodents.

Today, it’s back under public works, though the health concerns associated with having rodents around the home persist — particularly in Baltimore, which has a very high asthma rate, especially in minority communities.

Much of it is allergic asthma, meaning the breathing condition flares up when a person is exposed to an allergen, said Dr. Meghan Frost Davis, a veterinarian and associate professor in Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Advertisement

“One of the biggest allergens of concern in Baltimore City is the mouse allergen,” Davis said. Mice tend to live indoors while rats tend to burrow outdoors, though the latter have been known to infest abandoned buildings. “The other issue that we have is that a lot of people who are sensitized to mouse allergens can also be cross-sensitized to rat allergens,” Davis said.

Advertisement

Toya Y. Sykes-Coates, who oversees public works’ rat rubout program from her role as chief of property management in the Bureau of Solid Waste, cited vacant buildings as one of the biggest hurdles to controlling the city’s rats. Illegal dumping, improper disposal of household trash, and leaving trash out on non-collection days also pose challenges for exterminators, as those are sources of rat shelter and food.

Back in East Baltimore, Stringfield thought about how the property he inspected that morning fit into the larger scope of his work.

“In Baltimore City, we have a rat problem,” Stringfield said. “But the rat problem persists because we have a people problem.”

He gestured toward a neighboring yard: If the residents could just close their trash bin and not let it overflow, the rats wouldn’t have anything to eat; they’d go somewhere else, he said.

“We have to clean up behind ourselves,” Stringfield said. “Help us help you.”

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement