As gas fumes force it out of its underground home, it scurries -- disoriented -- through overgrown grass. But before it can make a break for freedom, the shovel comes down and WHAM!
Baltimore's growing rat population is minus one renegade rodent.
But it is a mere dent in what seems to Stephanie A. Brooks an infinite number of pests. Brooks directs the city's Rat Rubout Program. She says the 50 to 100 rat complaints that come in each day -- many from previously rat-free neighborhoods -- and reports from the field indicate the rat population has swelled this summer.
The rise in the number of rats -- along with freak storms, droughts, floods and various social ills -- has been blamed on El Nino, which brought Baltimore a mild winter. Rats are normally thinned out by freezing temperatures.
No one is sure how many rats are running loose in the city.
But the increase has overwhelmed the Rubout program. It now takes about a month for a Rubout truck and two pest-control workers to respond to a complaint. Worse, to be effective, workers say they need to revisit an area at least three times to keep rats away. The exterminators are falling behind.
Donald E. Brooks, one of 12 exterminators in the city's 25-year-old program, has been killing rodents for 18 years, and says, "They're getting a lot bolder than they used to be."
Stephanie Brooks, no relation, says callers report rats running in their yards, chewing wires in their cars, eating their neighbor's birdseed, stealing dog food, gnawing doors.
Even in the cleanest, wealthiest neighborhoods, the director says, plastic trash bags at the corner or spilled birdseed in the back yard will bring rats.
Who is responsible?
But who is responsible for keeping the critters at bay? Some callers to Rat Rubout say rats "belong to the city," but a city ordinance says pests are the responsibility of citizens.
The city provides Rat Rubout as a courtesy, Stephanie Brooks says. No matter how many rats munch on poison pellets, they will flourish if people don't clean up their yards and use metal garbage containers -- because one man's trash is 1,000 rats' chow.
"This is a people problem," Stephanie Brooks says, pointing to a pile of lumber behind a rowhouse. "The rats didn't pick this up and bring it here."
A recent visit to East Baltimore with Rat Rubout reveals a smorgasbord of rat delicacies -- crumbs in discarded bags of potato chips, soda bottles, rotting apples, an open can of yams, cheese curls and other leftovers -- flowing out of open trash cans and spread across yards and alleys.
Rat droppings near their tunnels and the cracks in pavement and concrete home foundations show where the rodents have been. Piles of lumber, abandoned vehicles and vacant buildings give the animals refuge.
Donald Brooks and Vernon T. Scipio, 15 months into pest-control duty, survey the alley behind a row of houses in the 1500 block of N. Milton Ave. While workers can exterminate rats in public areas, they need permission to go onto private property. Right-of-entry forms are left at the door when no one is home. They can be mailed, and workers can bait private yards when they return.
Scipio pokes at an "active" rathole -- kept clean of debris -- behind Lillie M. Kearney's house on Milton Avenue. Kearney has wedged a rock into the hole, she says, hoping to keep rats out. She holds her hands about a foot apart to show how big the rats were.
'I'm scared to come out'
"It's hard to sit out in your back yard," she says. "I'm scared to come out."
Unless cornered, Stephanie Brooks says, the usually nocturnal creatures are not likely to attack, but their feces and urine can pose a health risk. Aaron E. Morton, a pest-control worker for 19 years, says rats can carry typhoid and other diseases, along with fleas and lice in their fur.
"They're durable," Morton says. "They can't be sick because they've been with man so long."
But Morton doesn't favor that companionship.
"The only time we should have rats is in a lab somewhere doing experiments," he says. "That way we could leave the rabbits, parakeets and hamsters alone."
Morton is happy to explain the poisons used by Rat Rubout.
Two come in pellet form: Contract, which causes internal bleeding, and Vengeance, which sterilizes the rat and causes it to starve. Workers also use Ditrac, a poisonous powder that sticks to fur. Rats lick themselves, ingest the powder and bleed to death.
For ratholes 20 feet from a house, workers can use a phosphate gas called Fumitoxin, which can be dangerous to people if inhaled. Scipio and Donald Brooks put Fumitoxin tablets into holes in a back yard in the 2500 block of E. Oliver St. and pour water over the tablets to activate the gas. After about 15 minutes, big rats and baby rats dart to the surface, where Scipio waits, shovel in hand.
Before leaving, workers put a sign in the neighborhood saying the area has been inspected for rats. The sign also tells people how cleaning up their property can keep rats away.
Lack of resources
The site should be revisited in a few weeks, but Donald Brooks says the city doesn't have enough trucks and pest-control workers to follow up. Stephanie Brooks says the program has an annual budget of about $600,000, which is why the emphasis is on education, not extermination.
That is good news to Stephanie L. Boyles, wildlife caseworker for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., who says rats can suffer a painful death from the gas and poison pellets -- which also can kill songbirds protected by the Migrating Bird Treaty.
Even though no law prevents people from trapping and poisoning rats, she says, it's not a long-term solution.
"Solve the bottom line," she says. "Get rid of the trash."
For more information about the Rat Rubout program, call 410-396-6523 or -6524.
Rats on the rise
Baltimore's rat population is up this summer because of the warm winter. The Norway rat is the most common rat found in Baltimore's yards.
Size: Body is 7 to 10 inches, tail measures 6 to 8 inches.
Weight: 7 to 18 ounces.
Average life span: One year.
Habitat: Norway rats typically burrow underground near a food source.
Food sources: Rats eat the same food a humans but can survive on birdseed, wild berries and pet food or feces. Adult rats require 1 ounce of food and 1 ounce of water per day. If nothing else is available they will become cannibalistic.
Mobility: Rats are good climbers and can jump 3 feet vertically, 4 feet horizontally. They can swim through floor drains and toilet bowl traps.
Reproduction: At 45 days old, rats can begin reproducing. In 21 days, they can have litters of 10 to 12. Under ideal conditions, on rat can produce 85 offspring in a year.
SOURCES: "The Biology and Habits of Rats," Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, SUN STAFF
Pub Date: 6/28/98