Nate Brown got married in a small town in Spain on July 1. When he returned home to the District, ahead of his wife, Ana, he realized he had a problem as soon as he entered his house in the Park View neighborhood.
“It ate through all our food,” he said. “Literally, all of it.”
The culprit, Brown knew, was a rat.
Like many northeastern cities, the District has long struggled with rodents. But the problem has reached record levels in the nation’s capital, driven by a combination of factors. The city’s booming human population, along with hundreds of new restaurants and bars, means more trash. Recent mild winters mean fewer rats die from frigid temperatures. And construction across D.C. has disrupted subterranean burrows, sending the creatures scurrying onto sidewalks, into residential yards and, as Brown knows, into homes.
Complaints to the city’s 311 phone line concerning rats are at a four-year high. There have been 3,286 calls this fiscal year, up 64 percent from fiscal year 2015, according to data from the Health Department.
“Even one rat is one rat too many,” said Gerard Brown, program manager for the District Department of Health’s rodent control division and no relation to Nate Brown.
Gerard Brown, who has been killing rats in D.C. for 30 years, said the recent uptick is noticeable.
Rodents cause property damage, chew on electrical wires that can start fires and can spread disease, although that is extremely rare in cities, he said.
The more trash, the more rats, he added. That’s why trash control has become a priority in D.C., where the number of restaurants and bars jumped about 30 percent from 1,729 in 2006 to 2,267 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The city has taken several steps aimed at decreasing the rodent population, including the installation of state-of-the-art solar trash cans in “rat hot spots” at an annual cost of $85,000 and offering grants to businesses that want to lease a commercial trash compactor.
The 25 solar-powered cans compact trash so it does not overflow and spill onto sidewalks, providing a buffet of rotting treats for rats. The 32-gallon cans, installed in the Barracks Row and Eastern Market neighborhoods, can compress content up to eight times their size, a spokesman for the Department of Public Works said.
The city also launched a pilot program that dispersed 400 trash cans with lids and sensors that alert the Department of Public Works when the cans need to be emptied.
Meanwhile, dozens have turned to the natural enemy of rats: cats. In January, the Humane Rescue Alliance launched Blue Collar Cats, which pairs feral cats that would otherwise likely be euthanized with businesses and residents struggling with rats. The “employers” agree to provide the feral cats with food, water and outdoor shelter, in exchange for their rodent control services.
The program, which has placed 40 cats and has a wait list, has been a success so far, said Erin Robinson, community cat program manager at the Humane Rescue Alliance.
Solving the city’s rat problem, District officials and national experts agree, requires preventing the spread of rodents, especially through trash control, rather than concentrating strictly on extermination.
It’s too soon to tell whether the city’s efforts are working, Gerard Brown said. But he’s confident they’ll make a dent.
The District’s rat woes are not new.
When he was mayor, Anthony Williams convened a “Rat Summit” in 1999 — reportedly the first in the country — in which national experts gave local leaders advice on stemming the tide of rat-related complaints.
“I don’t think we have a handle on this problem,” then-D.C. Council member Jim Graham said at the time. “It’s something on a lot of people’s minds. It’s causing a lot of fear.”
Nearly two decades later, rats are still very much on people’s minds.
“I don’t know where to begin,” said Kent C. Boese, who lives in Park View and is the chairman of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A. “There have been many more rats this year. Oh yes, many more.”
He said he regularly sees rats during the day, especially in local parks. In his area, which includes Park View and Columbia Heights, some businesses responsibly dispose of their trash, while others “really need to improve,” he said. The key is reporting every rat sighting to 311, which then dispatches Brown’s team to kill the rats using traps and poison, he said.
That team includes nine pest controllers across the city and five code-enforcement officers who identify buildings with unsanitary conditions that might lead to infestation.
Jason Forman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who represents Logan Circle and parts of Shaw, said the most complaints he gets — by far — are rat-related. “It’s been terrible all summer,” he said.
The rat problem was especially bad in the 23 parks controlled by the National Park Service before it reached an agreement with the city last fall that enabled the D.C. Health Department to inspect and treat the federally controlled parks.
At Dupont Circle, for example, where the park is really a grassy traffic circle punctuated by a marble statue, there were 150 rat burrows — each containing six to nine rats — when the city took control of rodent inspection there last fall, Brown said.
That’s as many as 1,350 rats.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” he said, adding that the park now has about six burrows.
Despite patrols of exterminators and legions of homeowners who see rats as the enemy, the rodents are not universally loathed.
“They’re biologically programmed to do what they’re doing . . . [they] should not be blamed,” said Bruce Colvin, a national consultant on rodent control. “It’s people who need to modify their actions.”
D.C.’s rat problem is comparable to that of most major cities in the United States, he said. As urban infrastructure ages, that rat problem gets worse, with cracks in sewer systems and sidewalks providing the rats more places to live and more pathways in which to travel, he said.
The solution to Mark Winstead’s rat problem was cats.
Winstead, who has worked at City Bikes in Adams Morgan since 1989, said rats were a constant problem in the shop. They ate the food. They nibbled at shoes. They scared the customers.
Then in 2013, the business adopted two cats, Tamale and Melora, who “pretty much rule the shop” and solved the problem.
“I’m living in a bubble of rat-free bliss here,” Winstead said.
Nate Brown, 40, said he might have considered enlisting a cat to kill his rat before his wife returned from Spain, but he is allergic.
He tried “every kind of trap you can imagine,” said Brown, who always secures his trash in a lidded can and keeps a meticulously clean kitchen. His neighbor even brought over an electric rat-zapper trap.
Nothing worked. He needed backup.
His exterminator decided to try rat poison because the traps weren’t working.
Initially, that was also to no avail.
“It would just run across the room as though it had little fear I was present,” said Brown, who added that the invading rat was far from the only one he has dealt with. On a recent summer night, he was driving in the alley behind a neighbor’s house when he turned on his headlights and saw “a sea of rats” part before him.
Much to his chagrin, the rat was still alive when Ana returned.
“You hear them,” Brown said. “There’s this sound they make. A squeal.”
But days after she got back, he said, they smelled decomposing rat outside the house. They haven’t seen or heard from the rat since.