Now All the City Needs Is a Pied Piper

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008

It is, undeniably, the Year of the Rat.

The Chinese calendar says so. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, having awarded an Oscar to "Ratatouille," an animated feature about a rat, says so.

And the residents of Washington, who have swatted one from under a baby stroller, shooed them from homes and seen them meandering through city parks in daylight, say so.

Reports of rat sightings in the District have unexpectedly increased. Last year, rat reports increased 8 percent over 2006. The D.C. Department of Health said warmer winters and better reporting are behind the spike.

"Winter generally acts as a natural exterminator," said Sybil Bowick, spokeswoman for the department.

But many D.C. residents say the city's building boom, which involves the demolition of decaying, rat-infested buildings, is a huge factor.

"Whenever the cranes and the steam shovels get in there and disturb the ground, that's when we get calls on our hotlines," said Jim McGrath, president of the D.C. Tenants' Advocacy Coalition and a part-time rat fighter.

Whether it's condos going up downtown, an old shopping mall going down in Southwest or the reconstruction of a tony apartment building in Northwest, neighbors immediately see an influx of rats when the jackhammers start.

"As the demolition went through on the waterfront mall, we started to see the rats," said Jay Nickerson, manager of Gangplank Marina, along the Potomac River between the Maine Avenue fish market and the former mall. "They'll come to the docks. . . . The dumpster was like, yech, rat city," Nickerson said.

Last year, the city received 3,417 reports of rats. In 2006, the number was 3,138; in 2005, it was 3,184; and in 2004, there were 3,501 rat reports, according to the Health Department.

The marina invasion began about two months ago, just as the nearby demolition was beginning, Nickerson said. He estimated that the rat population in the dumpster area had ballooned between 800 and 1,000.

The marina tripled its rat-fighting budget. It collapsed burrows, cut bushes and put out dozens of traps, resulting in a huge decline in the population this month, Nickerson said.

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