FOR SEVERAL years, the city of Takoma Park has passed out free rat poison (in two flavors) to homeowners to help them get rid of the rodents. Few quibbled with this practice until some animal rights workers voiced their displeasure. "The whole idea is to try to have a humane, sensible, problem-solving approach that just doesn't say, 'Yeah, kill them,' " one said.

Now, the city will pass out free "havahart" traps that catch rats without hurting them. Homeowners will be urged to kill the rats as humanely as possible (that one hasn't been figured out yet) or to take them somewhere else. No one seems to have considered the legal ramifications of setting hordes of rats loose in neighboring jurisdictions.

A Chicago alderman once declared war on rats with a dollar-a-head bounty. He announced a truce after handing out $720. A janitor once tried to rid an apartment complex of rats by setting two snakes loose. Soon, there were lots of snakes. An Iowa chemist named Leonard Frantz -- a pioneer in the rats rights movement -- announced a major effort to domesticate rats nine years ago. Mr. Frantz was arrested on charges of being a public nuisance.

Things in the District, where the rat poison is called "warfarin," aren't so vague as in Takoma Park. "The only good rat is a dead rat," say city officials. The National Park Service has folks who are trained to spot rat burrows. The garbage left by humans is cleaned up, and surveillance is then maintained. "Live" burrows are filled with the least toxic rodenticide available. Innocent squirrels, rabbits and pigeons are thus spared. This is called "integrated pest management," but here, too, the results are more dead rats.

The challenge to Takoma Park is not simply to find a way to save its rats and dump them in someone else's back yard. It must find a way to reform them, reprogram them, teach them a better and more sanitary and more constructive way of life and -- yes -- keep them (that is very important). Takoma Park is known throughout the area for its advanced views. What could be more important than a rat re-education project