The rats came to Madeline Lunberg's house in Chevy Chase a few months ago. At night she would see them in the kitchen, eating from the dog's dish. They climbed on the counters and ate food from the cupboards. They gnawed into a box of metal scouring pads under the sink and scattered the remains across the kitchen floor.
In the adjoining village of Martin's Additions, village manager Jean Sperling left a bowl of about 75 small candy bars on top of her front hall radiator on Halloween. There was not a trace of them the next morning.
"I thought it was a very good Halloween story," she said. "The doors were locked. The candy was gone."
Rattus norvegicus. Norway rats. Brown rats. Call them what you will, but a Montgomery County health inspector reckoned that a horde of the rodents had lined up like firefighters passing buckets and spirited the candy down to the basement.
Lunberg and Sperling are not alone in their distress. The population of the suburbs is growing, and experts say the rats don't want to be left behind. What's more, the rats aren't turning up in just any neighborhoods, but they are prancing into such affluent communities as Chevy Chase, Potomac and Bethesda.
County inspectors say that bird feeders and landscaped lawns provide the best food and coziest shelters rats could desire. And the Red Line is not just for humans: Subway construction in Bethesda may have shaken rats out into residential neighborhoods, according to W. Glenn Bransford, a senior health inspector, while some rats may have sought suburban life styles by running out the subway tunnels.
Rat flight hasn't exactly eradicated the District's rodent population. D.C. officials -- 14 of whom are assigned to fighting rats -- say that rats remain a problem in the city, especially in run-down areas where garbage and abandoned cars provide ideal homes for them.
But William Page, head of the city's rat control division, and other rat experts say that the city's rat population has decreased significantly since the late 1960s, when an eradication program was begun with the help of federal funds.
"Just a handful" of people are bitten by rats each year, in the District, Page said.
The suburban rat population may exceed that of the city, according to Eugene Wood, a University of Maryland entomolgist and rodent expert. And as winter arrives, he said, suburban residents are caught in a double-pincer attack of migrating city rats and country rats seeking shelter from the cold.
Wood said there are no accurate rat population studies, but that rats turn up where there is food. With more people living in the suburbs, there is more pet food, bird food and garbage for rats to eat.
"People in the suburbs don't think they are going to have rats," he said. "They think the rats are only in the slums. They tend to relax, and they are a little more cavalier about their garbage disposal, and so on."
"Its dreadful," said Navarre Purcell, who lives in Chevy Chase Village. "They are bold, brazen, and all of us are really quite concerned. Nobody's going to feed the birds this year. They the rats get into everything . . . Nothing is sacred. It's just awful."
Sperling says rats have been a gnawing problem in Martin's Additions for years, but the number of rodents clearly has increased in the last six months, to the alarm of residents who thought that rats were an inner-city affliction.
"Most people don't think you have rats in the suburbs," she said. "The problem is getting people to believe that they really could have rats -- that the tracks they see, the tears they see in the garbage bags, really are rats."
Jay Nixon, an exterminator, agrees.
"It's there, and most people aren't aware of it until it happens to them," he said. "I've dealt with them in Chevy Chase and Bethesda, and in the the house of a congressman in Potomac. He wasn't doing anything to deserve rats. They just showed up."
Rats can carry at least 40 diseases, including the dreaded bubonic plague, but rat-transmitted diseases have been found in this area.
In Montgomery County, only two rat bites have been reported in the past 15 years. But animal control officials say that about two babies are bitten by rats each year in the Washington area, usually on the lips or fingers where there are remnants of food.
Rats prefer to eat grain, but they will eat anything when they are hungry. Montogmery County's rat inspector, W. Glenn Bransford, said that rats are "lazy critters" that normally live within 100 feet of their food source.
Pest control experts recommend killing rats with ordinary snap traps and poisons, removing the food sources, blocking entrances, and destroying their habitat. Many rat problems are caused by people not anticipating rodents, the experts say.
"In suburbia," said Fred Wootten, a Prince George's County health inspector, "people have $80,000 or $90,000 houses and every year their value goes up another $5,000. And they have 10-cent trash cans out in front with holes in the bottom and no tops on them."
As for Lunberg, she said that she began her hunt using "one of those humane traps, the so-called have-a-heart traps. It proved a very safe place to keep food. The rats activated the trap from the outside but didn't touch the food. They were very smart. They are real survivors."
So she bought poison and glue traps. She caught 10 rats in her basement and, after more than two boxes of rat poison were eaten, the rats have not come back.
"The glue traps," Lunberg said, "the poison and the Brillo pads in combination, I think, did them in."