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