D.C. rat summit: Another day in the sun for city’s rodents

February 8, 2012

The infamous D.C. rat population appears to have gained some newfound political clout. Not only did rats prompt, in part, the weekend raid on the Occupy D.C. camps, but the rodents now will be getting their own summit.

Rats most recently made the news when city officials expressed concern about unsanitary conditions at the Occupy D.C. camps at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. When U.S. Park Police raided the McPherson encampment Saturday, a biohazard check turned up dead rats among the detritus.

Now, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) says his office will help coordinate a meeting of regional governments to address the rat problem. And in true D.C. fashion, the Washington Examiner and other media have dubbed it a “rat summit.”

At the summit — the date and place have not yet been set — Cuccinelli also plans to discuss his criticism of D.C.’s animal control law. Called the Wildlife Protection Act, the measure was approved in 2010 but has not yet been fully implemented.

Cuccinelli claims that the law would force D.C. pest-control workers to cross the border and dump their rats and other wild animals into the unsuspecting Maryland and Virginia suburbs, potentially exposing suburbanites to Lyme disease, rabies and other animal-borne ailments.

“Like others, I want to ensure the humane treatment of animals, but when it comes to rodents and other animals that often carry diseases, human health must come first,” Cuccinelli wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post.

The law actually would allow “commensal rodents” — types of mice and rats that live in close contact with humans — to be destroyed. But critics of the law have argued that some other rodents are on the “protected” list, including the deer mouse and rice rat — two species whose stomping grounds include the D.C. area. That would make it difficult for pest-control workers to use lethal traps for rats, since those devices obviously couldn’t differentiate between the exempted and protected species.

Officials in D.C.’s Department of the Environment, which will enforce the law, said they plan to consider all rodents exempt from the law’s protective provisions. Even if rats and mice weren’t exempt, it is unlikely that pest-control workers would release live rodents from their traps into the D.C. suburbs, said Bruce Colvin, a national consultant on rodent control issues who helped draft the District’s rodent control plan 12 years ago.

“That just doesn’t happen,” he said. “Pest-control personnel usually end up handling dead rats, not live ones.”

The controversy also has prompted Maryland Del. Patrick McDonough (R) to announce plans for an “anti-rat trafficking” bill that would make it illegal to transport vermin from the District into Maryland territory. Aides from McDonough’s Annapolis office said Tuesday that he still plans to go forward with the bill, but the state House of Delegates has not scheduled its introduction or assigned it to relevant committees.

In the meantime, the Wildlife Protection Act awaits full implementation by the city. While restrictions on the handling of animals are in effect, the city has not identified funding to enforce a pest-control licensing regime included in the law. The environment department is in the process of drafting regulations setting prices and procedures for securing those licenses.

Few concrete details of the upcoming rat summit have been set, according to Cuccinelli spokesman Brian J. Gottstein.

There’s a historic precedent, however: D.C. previously hosted a rat summit in 1999, when then-Mayor Anthony Williams decided to declare war on the city’s rodent population. That summit eventually led to the plan Colvin helped craft, which remains the basis for D.C.’s current rodent control measures. That plan deals as much with making sure people follow regulations that would keep rats at bay — such as not littering — as it does with rooting out the rats themselves.

“It’s not just about the critter,” Colvin said. “It’s also about factors that would attract the critter in the first place.”

Staff writer Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.

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