Oh, rats. There’s one aspect of Baltimore she can’t get used to

June 19, 2013

(Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

Seven years ago, my husband landed a job teaching theater at a university on the outskirts of Baltimore. Though I didn’t want to leave my beloved Brooklyn, I put on my rose-colored glasses — I’m an optimist; I really am — and we moved south.

The glasses fogged over.

I suppose it is partly because I remain a relative newcomer — in New York City, everyone is from elsewhere, while in Baltimore everyone was born and raised here or was dragged here kicking and screaming by spouses with dreams of tenure twinkling in their eyes — but there’s one aspect of Charm City I still can’t get used to:

The rat corpses strewn about. And the relative apathy surrounding them.

A month after I moved here, a giant rat met his death by some indeterminate method. He died in the middle of the sidewalk on the corner of my street at the height of summer.

No one disposed of him.

Days went by and I watched, a kind of experiment in neighborliness, hygiene, activism, civics. Would anyone deal with this dead rat lying in the very center of the sidewalk, where all of us had to pass each day several times? Or would we avert our gaze — as I did, myself, a coward cloaked in moral indignation — as we walked past it on the way to the bodega or the mailbox or the dry cleaner?

We averted our eyes.

And the rat, visited by flies and then ants and finally maggots, grew more grotesque. And suddenly one day it was gone.

Joy!

A neighbor had shown some initiative, some civic responsibility, some consideration, some acknowledgement that we’ve got a problem here — and at great personal cost. “Well done,” I thought. “What a grand city Baltimore is.”

Moments later, as I stepped onto the roadbehind my parallel-parked car to put something in the trunk, I nearly stepped on that same dead, decomposing rat’s head.

Someone had merely knocked it into the gutter with a stick. Or their foot.

The better to forget all about it.

Consider this: They found a dead man on my son’s school playground. Police came and collected the corpse — but for a long time I kept asking folks: “So, who was that guy? Any word on what happened to him? How’d he die?” All I got in response to my questions was a shrug. Here in the nation’s fifth deadliest city — 217 murders last year — folks take these things with troubling equanimity.


(Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

Imagine a city of rowhouses built for 1 million people, a Rust Belt town whose boom and bust pattern followed the expected trajectories for steel mills and shipbuilders during the two World Wars. Then, riots on the heels of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death led to white flight in the ’60s and ’70s, leaving a population of 621,342 rattling around in a town built for a million. Now visualize vast swaths of the city where thousands of rowhouses are vacant, boarded up and ready for rodent habitation. Recent foreclosures mean our mortgage crisis is the rats’ boon.

Every once in a while, the city musters up some indignation. As far as I can tell, glancing at media accounts, scientific studies and government reports, this happens every eight years. I attribute this to a population bulge — rat, not human. Here is my theory: Rat colonies get crowded, and territorial squabbles break out as one rat nation-state covets its neighbor’s turf, until there is a world war. Fast-forward a few months, and the rat warriors come limping home to procreate like mad. Enter the boomer rats. Where did all these unruly rats come from and what should be done about them, city officials suddenly demand — approximately every eight years.

The reported rat rate increased from fewer than 10 rats per 1,000 residents in 2002 to 60 per 1,000 in 2009, according to Baltimore CitiStat. A Baltimore City Health Department report that year noted that “the rodent infestation rate in Baltimore is six times the national average.” More recently, 19,869 residents called the city’s 311 number to complain about rats between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 4, 2013, with a slight bump from 7,579 in 2011 to 8,436 in 2012. (This compares to the District’s 311 calls regarding rodents, which rose from 2,820 in 2011 to 3,010 in 2012.) Personally, I’ve called Baltimore’s 311 number for rodent control once when my chubby, not-the-brightest-bulb dog started catching and killing the brazen creatures in my yard one summer; since then, dozens and dozens of rats have darted by, and I haven’t bothered calling.

Baltimore gives the rats free housing, free food, free rein. “Have at!” we tell them, putting our overflowing garbage cans in the dark back alleys.

Baltimore is a place where the rats — and I’m not being metaphorical here, referring to the ones at City Hall who mismanage local affairs or the ex-mayor, convicted a few years back for taking gift cards donated for the poor and giving them to her own children — truly have their run of the city. Baltimore gives the rats free housing, free food, free rein. “Have at!” we tell them, putting our overflowing garbage cans in the dark back alleys unlike say, in New York City, where trash cans are typically placed for pickup on the sidewalks, subject to the streetlights, pedestrians and regular sanitation inspectors that keep rodents in check.

Moving to Baltimore seven years ago sparked an ongoing argument with my husband wherein I regularly insist that the rat infestation here is far worse than anything I had ever seen in Brooklyn, and he regularly insists I am grousing because I never wanted to leave NYC in the first place. But I like Baltimore … except for the racial segregation. And the failing schools. And the homicide rate. And the rats.

This is not about being a tag-along spouse, I argued. This about a rodent-infested city. This is about apathy.

I spent the next several years documenting evidence to prove my point.

I am a very competitive person.

First, I told my husband, I was going to count the number of times I saw rats on my routine strolls through the neighborhood. I was teaching a night class then at nearby Johns Hopkins University and decided to call him every time I saw a rat on my 10-block walk home.

There was only one night all semester that I didn’t call him.

There were some nights I called him twice.

I also gathered photographic proof, an agit-prop art project.

Restricting myself to a two-block radius of my home, for one month I snapped photographs of all the dead rats I saw.

My son, 11 when we moved to Baltimore, assisted me. “Mom, I saw one over by the alley on St. Paul and 27th,” he would say. “It’s a good one. You should see how long his teeth are!”

And he was unusually helpful, enjoying this mother-son bonding project almost as much as when I would take him fishing. “Here,” he said one afternoon, taking the camera from my hands. “I’ll take the pictures while you hold up traffic.” We were trying to get the perfect shot of a rat, hit in the road in broad daylight, dead but not yet smashed by passing cars. I stood in the street to direct the slow-moving traffic around the spot while he crouched close.

“Hurry up!” I urged. “Do you want me to get it or not?” he said. He had the zoom on. “I think these are his intestines,” he marveled.

At the end of the month, I shared my exhibit with my husband.

He was unimpressed with my carnage art. “Keep your day job,” he said.


(Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

Because work was slow, and because there is not one aspect of city residents’ personal or public health that has not been studied by the faculty of Johns Hopkins — we are a city of lab rats — and because teaching a writing class at Hopkins comes with a library card, I was well positioned to plow through the stacks to assess the university’s rodent research.

Part of me thought that if I could face the rat issue head-on, I could eliminate the mystery and thus the fear. Another part knew that rats are The Devil and wanted to prove it. A third part worried that if I became numb to the problems of Baltimore, in order to live peacefully without fear, then the extraordinary problems of this city would become ordinary — and how could that be?

I spent hours — okay, days — burrowing into the netherworld of rodent research. Because the card catalogue flags Joseph Mitchell’s seminal 1944 New Yorker essay “The Rats on the Waterfront” several times, I began there. I learned that the “rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits.” I assumed Mitchell means urban rats as opposed to rural rats, and this was no slight to the rats of Baltimore.

I learned about their breeding habits and brains: Rats are almost as fecund as germs. In New York, under fair conditions, they bear three to five times a year, in litters of five to 22.The period of gestation is between 21 and 25 days. They grow rapidly and are able to breed when four months old.

Mitchell interviews a Manhattan exterminator who explains that rats surviving to age 4 grow exponentially wiser. “A trap means nothing to them, no matter how skillfully set,” the exterminator says. “They just kick it around until it snaps; then they eat the bait. And they can detect poisoned bait a yard off. I believe some of them can read.”

Chances are, Mitchell was basing some of his observations about rats on the work of Johns Hopkins scientist Curt Richter, whose 50-plus years of work with area rodents earned him the title “Pied Piper of Baltimore.” Born in 1894, he developed a rat poison called ANTU during World War II, not just to eradicate vermin, but to protect the country “in case the Axis powers started rat-borne germ warfare,” he wrote later.

Still, Richter claimed all his life that rats were much maligned creatures. Yes, yes, he conceded, the rat is “undoubtedly hated and feared by more people and in more countries in the world than is any other animal,” but those who take the time to truly get to know the rat discover “that the rat’s virtues far outweigh its evil doings.” Indeed, he felt that we ought to pay homage to the creature: “There can be little doubt but that few people living in the world today have not profited in one way or another, or actually have been kept alive, by what has been learned from studies on the rat.”

For scientists, rats were a dream come true. They are very stable and reliable, he wrote. They are highly resistant to infection, which makes them perfect for surgical experiments. Their dietary needs echo man’s, making them invaluable in the study of nutrition. Their short, three-year lifespan makes it easy to study growth, development and aging. “Finally, and not least of all, contrary to popular belief, it is a very clean animal,” Richter wrote. “Given opportunity it will keep itself perfectly clean. It is only when the wild rat is crowded in filthy human surroundings that it gets unclean and covered with vermin. Brought into the laboratory it frees itself of vermin in a very short time.”


(Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

I tried to keep that in mind — clean space equals clean rodent — when we returned from a three-week vacation one summer to discover rats had invaded the house.

“Welcome home,” one said, waddling out of 20-pound bag of dog food in the basement. We heard a pattering of less-brazen little feet, scattering, caught a glimpse of a disappearing tail. But over in the corner, a bloated cat-size rat lay decomposing.

I immediately got on the phone, calling the Brody Brothers because their ad for extermination services caught my attention: “Nice Jewish Boys Licensed to Kill.” Four stocky brothers who inherited their father, Yaakov’s, business — Yudy, Levi, Talis and Don — in identical hunter-green uniforms and identical full beards made a series of appearances at our house, pouring hardening foam into every crack in our basement walls, setting traps and offering a crash course on rat psychology. “They are smart, very smart,” Talis told me, shining his flashlight into the rafters of our basement. He pointed out holes where the rats had built their superhighway between rowhouses, full
of civic pride
: “Don’t underestimate them; these Baltimore rats went to Harvard.

“See this hole the size of a nickel? Ten-inch rat can squeeze right through it.” He made a popping sound with his mouth so that I could visualize a chubby rat wrenched through a hole by his comrades — Winnie-the-Pooh loosed from Rabbit’s door . “You’ve got to move these traps around because they’re too clever to fall for the same thing twice. It’s not that you have to think like a rat; it’s that rats think like a human. You go through an intersection and get whomped by a speed camera, you slow down next time. There’s no learning curve here. These rats went to Yale.”

Every once in a while the cityof Baltimore is spurred to action — or rhetoric, anyway — regarding its myriad problems. Like a lumbering water buffalo waking to discover a flock of oxpeckers settled comfortably on its flesh, it gives a shiver to dislodge them, sending the birds up to hover till the creature’s apathy returns and they alight again.

I would like to tell you that this cyclical indignation is sparked by a major incident that provokes horror in the public, such as, say, a baby rushed to the emergency room after her face had been bitten by a rat. But usually the uproar arises as bureaucrats try to coax new, out-of-town corporations to relocate in Baltimore City. For example, in the fall of 2008, the City Council held a hearing and put forward a resolution. Rats “are unwelcome and unsightly hosts to visitors and tourists,” it observed. Further: “If we are to continue to grow as a City, attract new residents, and encourage citizens to invest where they live, it is imperative that we maintain our vigilance in controlling the rat population.”

As a kind of afterthought, the City Council was also willing to concede that rats weren’t great for our health, either. In addition to “playing hosts to parasites such as lice, fleas, and ticks,” rats are linked to the spread of a number of infectious diseases, including “leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, skin disorders, and more familiar diseases such as rabies, salmonella, and bubonic and pneumonic plagues.”

The City Council resolved to address the problem: “Baltimoreans have waged a long, intractable war against rodents. In the interest of winning that war, it is essential that the Council receive regular battlefield status reports from the VC agents on the front lines.” (VC stands for the Soviet-sounding Bureau of Vector Control.) There also would be ad campaigns and “strike teams to engage in neighborhood sweeps.”

(At present, we’ve got the Rat Rubout initiative, a program budgeted for $767,189 in 2013 but composed of only six employees and a supervisor. In my own neighborhood of Charles Village, we pay an extra tax; some goes toward additional sanitation crews, and $18,000 of it went toward rat abatement last year.)

This was a War on Rats.

It is like the War on Poverty.

Or the War on Cancer.

Or the War on Drugs.

Or the War on Terrorism.

So, I ranted, indignant. Then, a couple years later, I stopped ranting.

On a warm summer night, I sat on the metal porch swing of my rowhouse with a beer. My friend and next-door-neighbor Yury sat on the adjacent front porch of his rowhouse with a cigarette. I had lived in Baltimore for four years, then; Yury, who emigrated from Russia, had a year under his belt.

He sat in a green plastic Adirondack chair and chain-smoked, the smell of hand-rolled tobacco drifting out into the dusk air to mingle with the heavy perfume of nearby magnolias. The sound of crickets and cicadas was punctuated by the sound of my son’s skateboard, which banged a-rhythmically as he ollied, wheels hitting hard concrete. A few porches down, some Hopkins students played a game of foosball, the clack of a plastic ball hitting a plastic foot forming the evening’s backbeat — and these sounds in the foreground almost drowned out the distant noise of a police siren and ambulance ripping down the street.

A balmy breeze blew the scent of roses this way, from the yard of an elderly neighbor — and I could see how Baltimore might get under your skin. It is peaceful, friendly, if you can train your eyes right.

A man passed on the sidewalk, walking his dog and called out to Yury. “Hot enough for ya?”

Yury scowled. “Certainly,” he said, a hint of accent in his formally clipped words. “It is too hot.”

The man chuckled and shook his head back and forth slowly. “Just the beginning, man,” he said. “It’s only June.”

Yury nodded, exhaled a cloud of smoke that hung in the air a moment, blurring the man’s figure, and when the air cleared, the man was gone.

I teased Yury that his landlord’s recent no-smoking edict had given him a new look at the city of Baltimore. Smoking for 10 minutes every half-hour meant he spent a good chunk of his life on the porch. He had gotten to know all the neighbors.

He smiled and nodded his head in the direction of his tiny front yard. “Look,” he said, gesturing toward a plump rat that had balanced herself on the edge of a cupped lawn light to drink from the puddle of water. “We call her Olga.”

“Oh, God!” I said, instinctively drawing my feet up under me lest Olga stray in my direction. But for a moment, I envied that Russian — or is it American? Baltimorean? — fatalism that sees some things as inevitable. Like the scent of magnolias and the sounds of cicadas and the communal porches, it is this city’s most dangerous seductive quality.

Karen Houppert is a writer living in Baltimore. To comment on this story,
e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com.

For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit WP Magazine.

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