Discovering a Rats' Nest of Trouble

By Karen Tanner Allen
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 13, 2006

Perhaps the last urban nuisance that people expect to confront in neighborhoods where home values are hovering near $1 million is the one that can bring the most grimaces of disgust: rats.

But owners of all kinds of houses, all around the Beltway, are having more close -- and gross -- encounters with the common rat than they care to contemplate.

Stephan Paddack, an engineer who lives in the District's Chevy Chase neighborhood, discovered he had a problem when he reached into an upper kitchen storage cabinet while he was cooking and rice started spilling down. For Carol Guensburg of Arlington, the first sign was missing Halloween candy from the basement pantry -- and it was not because of her preteen sons. Later she noticed a package of dry ramen noodles had been dragged to another basement room and sheared open.

"That's when I ran upstairs and thumbed through the yellow pages and found the 'Rat King of Northern Virginia,' " Guensburg said. "This was only in the basement and still -- that was not pleasant at all."

The war on rats is being waged not only along city streets but also in the suburbs. The animals do not discriminate between sewers and the walls of recreation rooms, kitchens and basements.

"I've been doing this for 40 years, and we've had many more problems in residential areas than in the past," said Jay Sherlock, of Sherlock's Termite and Pest Control, which serves Northern Virginia. Calls have risen about 20 to 25 percent in the past five years, he said. "It's good for us."

Calls about rats come daily to Adcock's Trapping Service, where they now make up 10 to 15 percent of its business, according to John Adcock Jr., president of the 45-year-old family-owned company. The calls often verge on panic, along the lines of: "I'm living in a hotel and I'm not coming back until we're 100 percent certain they're gone," he said.

Amy Schear spent many sleepless nights once her family figured out what was skittering behind the bedroom walls of their Colonial near a tributary of Rock Creek Park in upper Northwest Washington. "We discovered they had been hanging out here for months, without us even realizing it," said Schear, whose house was once featured in Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Then a cake disappeared from a kitchen counter. Finally, her teenage son Sam spotted the animal in the kitchen when both, it seemed, were in search of a late-night snack.

A pair of rats had tunneled their way through a front bay window and nested between the basement and kitchen floor. "They were hoarding the dog's food, and I didn't even know it," Schear said.

If the notion of rats in perfectly nice houses comes as news, then it's perhaps because the problem is one that few care to discuss -- or to revisit once they think the problem is solved.

Neighbors broach it tentatively, in low tones, at the local coffee shop, on the street or the community e-mail list. Maybe we're used to them near open dumpsters and in downtown alleys. But our homes?

"A lot of people associate it [a rat] with the stigma that they're not living right," said Adcock, who would have allowed a reporter to accompany him on a rat-outing mission and was surprised at how many clients balked at going public with their complaints. "We see rat problems all the time in multimillion-dollar homes and it just amazes us how capable the rats are."

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