Suburban rats


What's that, rats in Columbia?

Certainly these little vermin, normally associated with urban squalor, could not have infested the pristine surrounds of Howard County's model planned city. Certainly Columbia's well-manicured lawns and impeccably managed commercial centers would not be attractive places for these hideous rodents.

Problem is, no one told the rats.

According to county officials, complaints about rats in Columbia reached an all-time high this year. So far, there have been 27 cases reported, exactly half the number of complaints lodged countywide.

"They're everywhere," said Housing Code Administrator Jim Rawle. "Especially any built-up area where there are food sources. Columbia is certainly not an exception."

The situation isn't hopeless. There is much that residents can do to keep rats from finding refuge near their homes. It is important to eliminate potential sources of food, including open cans of dog or cat food, garbage that is not kept in a metal container with a lid, and animal manure. Even bird seed left on the ground for feathered friends can attract rodents.

The Health Department also advises eliminating potential nesting places for rats, including any holes around the home, lumber that isn't stacked at least 18 inches above ground and tall grass or weeds that need mowing.

If it is already too late, by all means call the health department, which can bait shelters and underground burrows with poison. Officials say the rodent problem was curtailed during the summer, but a resurgence is possible if residents become lackadaisical.

To be sure, 27 reported cases do not a crisis make. Frank Skinner, county environmental health director, classified the situation as a nuisance, not a health threat. The problem surfaces in other suburbs, too: Montgomery County's rat complaints are way up this year, and Harford County wrestled with rats last year before getting the infestation under control.

However, don't bother trying to pacify Columbia residents such as Alice Lewis, who didn't believe her children when they told her they saw rats outside. "We wouldn't have a problem like that," she scoffed, until one day she saw some scurrying about, in broad daylight no less. It was a wake-up call all suburban areas should heed.

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