Rats. The very word evokes terror. They are a major headache for anybody who tries to keep the home and the neighborhood an appealing place in which to live. They are dirty, cunning and often are carriers of disease.
The rats plaguing some Harford County neighborhoods are nothing new, but try telling that to residents who have seen them.
Alison Driscoll, who lives in Majors Choice in Bel Air, said she burst into tears when a neighbor called her at work to say rodents had been sighted in her block.
"It was just horrible," she said. "I cried and cried. Every penny I make goes into that house and I am just so upset -- all my neighbors are upset."
Ms. Driscoll said she was so distraught one evening -- after rats were seen near her house -- that she took her dog and spent the night at a friend's house.
Residents of other neighborhoods, including Edgewater Village and Park Manor behind the Bel Air Town Center, have complained about rats this year, said John T. Lamb, director of environmental health for the Harford County Health Department.
Rats are not any worse this year but they have migrated to different neighborhoods, Mr. Lamb said. Last year, rats were found mostly in new subdivisions.
"What's happening is not unusual. It is just one of those things. We don't want to give any neighborhood a black eye." Rats are migrating throughout the county, looking for a cozy spot to spend the winter, Mr. Lamb said.
"Rats are all over the place. The trick is to make your property unattractive to the ones passing by," he added.
The county does not have a rat eradication program, but it does offer information on how to make a property unappealing to the rodents. That information is usually spread through community newsletters.
Rats will stay in areas where there is ample shelter, food and water. Backyards with decks, sheds and wood piles are ideal habitats for them.
Food is usually no problem for them. They find it in pet food dishes, bird feeders, garbage, fruit trees, animal droppings and vegetable gardens. Add a source of water and your house or neighborhood could be at the top of the rats' desirable home sites listing.
Mr. Lamb said the rat problem in Majors Choice is under control. He praised the community, a large subdivision of town houses and single family homes, for acting quickly to stem the rodent invasion. "We are very happy with Majors Choice . . . everyone there has pitched in to help solve the problem," he said.
The Majors Choice Homeowners' Association has paid Orkin Exterminating Co. Inc. to bait community areas where there have been rat sightings.
Donald Digby, branch manager of Orkin's Baltimore office, said the company also is exterminating for seven to nine customers in TTC Majors Choice. "There is no reason to panic," he said. "So far, the problem has been confined to one area."
But a few residents are panicked, and some have started pointing fingers at each other.
Maureen Green said she was the first person to alert the health department and some of her neighbors about the rodent problem. But, she said, she is not sure she would do it again.
"The problem now is not the rats; it is some of the neighbors," she said. A few have blamed her because she first reported seeing the rodents.
Mrs. Green said she was also upset at first, but decided to learn as much about rats as she could. She asked the health department for information and has read everything on rodents she can find, she said.
She has taken some costly steps -- spending about $350 -- to control the rat population near her house. The Greens, who have lived in the community about 4 1/2 years, spent $89 to install a heavy wire screen around the perimeter of their deck and shed.
The family paid $150 to an exterminator for an initial treatment and $37 a month for follow-up work. They bought a $71 rat poison antidote for their dog Piper, in case he ate some poison or a dead rat.