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Despite the spate of viral rat videos, Baltimore likely doesn't have more vermin

Northeast Market closed Tuesday after a video surfaced showing a pair of rats scampering through one of its aisles.

When rats recently scampered through two public markets and a convenience store like shoppers browsing for green beans, it confirmed that no part of Baltimore is immune from rodents.

But the rats-capades caught on video and viewed more than 500,000 times on social media come amid a declining number of complaints about vermin lodged across the city since 2016.

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Since nearly everyone nowadays carries a smart phone with built-in video camera, the resulting viral videos bring more eyes to the rodent wars that Baltimore and other cities have waged for decades, officials said. Residents and visitors, they said, shouldn’t fear that rodents have overrun restaurants, markets and stores.

“Cameras are everywhere,” Department of Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said. “This is nothing new. People can send in complaints with the videos. It makes it easier on everybody.”

A video recorded last week from outside a 7-Eleven store on Washington Boulevard and West Patapsco Avenue showed a rat skipping across Pepsi, Mountain Dew and Sunkist bottles before it tried climbing up a wall.

Earlier this month, shoppers recorded rodents scurrying over cookie trays in the case of a bakery stall at Lexington Market and through an aisle at the Northeast Market. City leaders closed the markets to try to eradicate the rodents.

Mona Rock, a Health Department spokeswoman, said there has not been an uptick in rat-infestation violations at city restaurants.

City records show rodent complaints have dropped since fiscal year 2016.

The complaints fell from 8,933 in the 12 months prior to June 30, 2016, to 5,296 in the year before June 30, 2018. At the same time, proactive inspections rose from 105,931 to 171,715 in those same periods, records show.

For the inspections, city workers look under trash, debris and branch piles and near buildings where rats could burrow inside and later nest. Once locations are identified, workers leave rat poison and place yellow flags to alert residents. Workers then re-check the location to make sure rats have been exterminated.

Kocher stressed that city workers inspect only external spots, not inside buildings. That responsibility falls to the owners, he added.

“Don’t put food scraps outside,” he said. “Don’t feed the birds bread scraps. If you see a rat, call us.”

Imtiaz Minhas, the owner of the 7-Eleven location where the rat video was taken, called it an “unfortunate incident." Within hours of the video going online, the Health Department and an exterminator inspected the 5-year old building and found no signs of vermin infestation, he said.

A Sun review of the city and private reports confirm both inspectors found no infestation or signs of rat entries. Minhas speculated that the rat likely slipped in through a door left open by a delivery driver or customer.

"We are doing everything we can to show it's not a bad place," he stressed. "We run an exceptional facility. We are not going to let this one isolated incident destroy years of hard work and our reputation."

Rats are as much a part of Charm City as crabs doused in Old Bay seasoning and spread across picnic tables in July. Consider a Dec. 14, 1975, Baltimore Sun headline, “The war on rats: No light at the end of the tunnel.”

The city’s decades-long battle against rats has been captured in the 2016 documentary “Rat Film.” Recent mayors have waged battles against the vermin, which have become a kind of unofficial, if grimy mascot for the city.

In November, Mayor Catherine Pugh announced an initiative to eradicate the rodents from public housing complexes across the city. Flyers distributed to tenants warned that rats, mice and cockroaches carry diseases and can make asthma and other illnesses worse.

Pugh’s predecessor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, also undertook efforts to drive back the rodents. She spent taxpayer money in 2015 on 170,000 large, durable trash cans to keep rats from feasting on people’s garbage and boosted the size of the city’s anti-rat crews. The effort paid off.

Councilman Brandon Scott said mobile phones have helped bring more of an awareness to rat issues in the city, especially where food is sold. Overall, Scott said, he has not heard of an uptick in complaints.

But he frequently gets alerted on social media after residents film rats in food establishments and demand that such sites be shuttered, he added.

“They’re surprised the rats have been able to get inside food places,” Scott said. “This is stuff that people care about. People don’t want them on their food.”

Meanwhile, Baltimore’s rats haven’t won as much acclaim as their brethren in New York City.

In 2015 and 2018, two were dubbed “Pizza Rat” after passers-by recorded them dragging pizza slices down train tracks and a staircase. Those videos were viewed millions of times.

Baltimore Sun reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed to this article.

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