Takoma Park, a city whose conscience has moved it to ban nuclear weapons and provide sanctuary to political refugees, has now recognized that rats have rights, too.

With one eye on potential liability problems and a nod to animal protection advocates, the City Council has put a stop to the city's longstanding and unusual policy of handing out free rat poison to home- owners.

Officials have opted instead for humane "Havahart" traps, which capture an animal without harming it. Also, they are issuing somewhat less humane sticky traps, which are coated with a strong glue that immobilizes a rodent -- or any other small creature who happens to wander in, such as a chipmunk or kitten.

The city had been passing out free peanut butter or molasses-flavored rat poison since at least the early 1970s, public works employes said. The new traps will be available free to city residents, who are being urged to kill the rats as humanely as possible or to take them somewhere else.

But this new procedure has led to delicate and unresolved questions, Takoma Park officials acknowledged this week: What is a nice way to kill a rat? And where, in fact, are trapped rodents welcome? City officials were trying to work up a policy about rat-dispatching this week, and they were holding off issuing most of their traps.

Some animal rights advocates have suggested that rats can be enticed with snacks into the carrier-like Havahart wire trap and can then be liberated in a less hostile environment -- say, the pastures of Frederick County.

Groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals campaign against rat bait because the poison causes a slow, agonizing death. Also, the group does not like the glue traps because the immobilized animal may die of dehydration, starvation and exhaustion. Rodents will chew their legs off to escape, rat control inspectors say.

Milton Greenbaum, the Prince George's County food facilities sanitarian assigned to a portion of Takoma Park, usually recommends drowning of captured rats, which are suspicious, intelligent animals that are quick to figure out when bait has been laid.

"You just can't let them go again," he said. " . . . Rodents have been around for millions of years and are actually indestructable. If a nuclear explosion went off, killing every human on earth, mice, rats and rodents will still be here. You can't get rid of them . . . . Personally, I don't know of any good use a rat has."

"In my opinion, we shouldn't take a Wyatt Earp approach to any problem between animals and humans," countered Ingrid Newkirk, director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and former chief of the District's zoonotic zone control, a job that deals with health problems created by the interaction of animals and humans.

"The whole idea is to try to have a humane, sensible, problem-solving approach that just doesn't say, 'Yeah, kill them.' "

Suburban Maryland homeowners who actually capture rats -- but are too squeamish to kill them and unwilling to accompany them on trips to the country -- do have another option: local animal shelters. Shelters in Montgomery and Prince George's counties will inject a captured rat with a lethal dose of pentobarbital, although shelter workers say they cannot remember the last time anyone brought in a rat for euthanasia.

But killing off individual rats is not going to get rid of a rodent problem, animal control officers said.

Takoma Park, a heavily wooded, 16,000-resident, late-Victorian community that has had a middle-class revivial in the last decade, does not have an unusually bad rodent problem, city officials said. But they said the city experienced a surge of rat activity this summer in the northeastern section near University Boulevard and New Hampshire Avenue.

Maryland law governing the licenses for dispensing of pesticides has been tightened over the years. Montgomery and Prince George's, the border of which the city straddles, pass out advice but not bait, which can sometimes be mistaken for candy by dogs or children. In the District, city workers spread poison where needed, an official said.

Although Takoma Park has never been sued for misuse of the anticoagulant poison it was passing out, wrongful death cases filed by bereaved pet owners elsewhere have made Takoma Park's new housing services director skittish about continuing the city's program.

"We've always had a reasonably progressive rat program," said Takoma Park's public works director, Richard Robbins. "We will continue . . . in that direction. Our only problem is what we're going to tell residents once they have the rats caught in the traps."