"They're dead -- we killed them. We have killed them, and we continue to kill them."
No, these are not the words of a crazed mass murderer. They are the words of James Murphy, the District government official in charge of the highly successful "War on Rats" program, which has the city's rodent population on the run.
In 1968, when the program was launched, about half of all blocks in the city were rat-infested. But today, only about four of every 100 blocks merit that description, according to Murphy.
"We're claiming some kind of a victory over the rats here," said Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works.
Yesterday, the Citizens Advisory Board of the War on Rats presented Mayor Marion Barry with a plaque to express appreciation for his support of the project. The program, with a staff of 21, operates with an annual budget of $525,000. The city provides half the funds and the rest comes from federal block grants.
"He [Barry] has continued the War on Rats, he has given the money to keep it going," said Loree Murray, president of the eight-person advisory board. Murray and four other advisory board members presented the plaque to Barry in a brief ceremony in the mayor's office.
At the start of the war, the program had an annual budget of $1.25 million totally financed by the federal government. The staff peaked at 139 workers. Those numbers dwindled as the rat population declined.
Most of the current rat warriors on the program's staff spend their time hunting for signs of the little beasts. Those include telltale droppings, "rat noises," rat "runways" (the paths rats beat as they travel in lines through weeds and grass) and grease marks left by rats as they run along walls.
A tactical squad of eight program staffers are deployed to promising locations and "treat" the rats -- the word they use to describe killing them, which is usually done with a poison called Talon, an anticoagulant. Poison pellets are placed along rat runways, in "bait stations" and in rat burrows.
"They will slowly bleed to death internally, mostly in the burrows where they live," said Murphy, who explained that the poison causes the rodents to become weak and unable to move around much as they begin to die.
Murphy, who is known by many as "the man from the War on Rats," spends most of his time as chief of the Office of Public Space Coordination attending to other duties, such as sanitation code enforcement.
As far as Murphy is concerned, rats are "something that we can and should live without."
The Norwegian rats found in the city are the same type found in most cities in the United States and have a lifespan of about one year.
When fully grown, they are about 15 inches long from nose to tail and weigh about 16 ounces. Murphy said that contrary to popular horror stories, these critters do not grow to be as large as dogs.
"A healthy pair of rats, male and female, sexually mature in 90 days," said Murphy, who added that these rodents can produce a litter of about 15 after a gestation period of only 21 days. "The old rats . . . , they usually head a colony," the normal grouping of the rodents, Murphy said.
Two-legged D.C. residents apparently are not the only ones who sometimes find the streets of this city unsafe. As Murphy explained, rats "seldom leave[their] block if they have enough food there. They don't go out into the streets -- it's not safe for them."
But when food runs short, D.C. rats are on the go in search of edibles wherever they can find it, according to Murphy. "If you don't control them, they could overrun the city," he said.
Murphy said that he and his comrades are holding down the rat population to a 4 percent infestation rate, an achievement that leads him to boast: "We have people who over the years have been very proud to have dealt with the rats."