District officials have declared victory in their war on rats, but the rodents are still fighting a rearguard action in some neighborhoods.
Adams-Morgan, Shaw and Anacostia remain battle zones, but city officials and residents agree that the rodent population has been decimated since 1968, when the city launched its War on Rats program.
When the city sent its first troops into the downtown area that extended from Shaw to H Street NE, 48 out of every 100 blocks had rats, said James Murphy, the chief of the Office of Public Space, which oversees the program. In Anacostia in 1975, 69 out of every 100 blocks were infested.
Now Murphy estimates that only four out of 100 blocks in those areas are problem areas.
"It's nothing like what it was," said Charles Richardson, former chairman of the federally funded Model Cities Program, which helped wage the War on Rats. "You'd usually see them at night, scurrying across the streets and alleys. We had a big Persian cat, so they didn't come in the house."
In 1968, medical personnel reported treating 30 rat bites; most of the victims were children. In 1983 there were only three reported bite cases.
But mopping up operations continue. This summer, the Adams-Morgan Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) urged residents to petition the Department of Public Works to permit workers to set out rat bait in their yards. Seventy-two households responded.
The ANC also has organized a campaign to urge residents to pick up their garbage and clean up dog feces and other attractions for the rats.
"I have been around rats in my life, but never rats like these," said Mary McCray, who has been leading a cleanup effort in her block, 2300 block of 17th Street in Adams Morgan. "It's so bad in these houses, if you leave food on the table or on the stove and go upstairs, they'll eat it before you can get downstairs."
The rats are so bold at Peoples Hardware Store near the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road in Adams-Morgan, the staff is afraid to go back into the rear storage area where flammable liquids are sold, said manager Nundio Rocco.
"They're big rats, like rabbits," Rocco said.
The rat problem in the area is exacerbated by garbage left in vacant buildings, residents say.
"There is one house next door that has been closed for 10 years. The rats live in there," said Semay Dibekulu, manager of Axum Ethiopian Restaurant on 18th Street. "If you were in the area at the back of our restaurant, you could see lots of dirty things, old cars, garbage. I have been sick of the rats."
The Office Of Public Space regularly baits eight "target areas" that still suffer from some infestation. A target area is defined as one with six out of 25 blocks crawling with the yellow-toothed critters. The areas include Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights and LeDroit Park, Anacostia-Congress Heights, Brookland and Shaw.
Ernest Darling, an ANC commissioner from Anacostia, said that his neighborhood has a rat problem because vacant buildings have become dumping grounds.
"There're big boys, too," Darling said of the rats. "Not little bitty fellows. I saw one about five or six weeks ago that was the size of a squirrel. He had a tail about 16 inches long."
Stanley Mayes, chairman of the LeDroit Park ANC concurred.
"If the problem has gotten worse, it's because of displacement in housing," Mayes said. "All these houses are being made empty, and the people are renovating them and throwing out the debris. Alley cleaning is not what is used to be when the neighborhood was more stable."
Despite these recent complaints, the War on Rats staff is back on a peacetime footing. Its one-time staff of 139, that had included trash collectors, housing inspectors and health education aides, has dwindled to 22. And where its 1968 budget was $1.2 million, its current budget is $475,000.