Burrows Under the Hill

Capitol Hill’s War With Rats

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There is a rat problem on Capitol Hill, and it has only grown over the last few years. No, this is not another story about the last election. This is the story for our neighbors who face rodents daily.

“I live behind the bars on Pennsylvania Avenue,” a woman said at a recent Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B Outreach & Constituent Services Task Force (OCSTF) meeting that focused on the issue. She said when the bars let out, “for like an hour when people are walking out you can hear ‘AH! AH! ACK!’ because there’s so many rats out there.”

She went on, “When I go to my cycle class at 5 a.m. before work, I knock on my front door to make sure the rats that sit there will scurry away. It’s disgusting.”

Others tell similar tales. A newly purchased car with $3,000 damage because rats have chewed through wiring. A tree infested with rats, but with multiple roadblocks to removal. A rat that has made its home in a family barbeque.

And that was just one meeting.

Prevention in the Home
“If we’re having a rat meeting, we have three things,” Gerard Brown, program manager for the Division of Rodent Services at the District of Columbia Department of Health (DOH), told the meeting. “We’ve got a trash problem. We’ve got rats. And we’ve got a bunch of people who are sick of it.”

Rats are attracted to properties that provide food and shelter, so to get rid of them you have to eliminate the sources. Food is often easily accessible via garbage cans or dumpsters without tightly fitted lids, but spilled bird seed or pet food left outside are also potential buffets, as are animal droppings and fruit that has fallen from trees.

Rats aren’t picky. They like to live in rubbish piles, unused pet homes, woodpiles, or old cars. Rats can also burrow through the earth, even under sidewalks or cement pads. DOH will provide wire mesh that can be installed in yards to prevent burrowing. Residents can call 202-535-1954 or email rat.riddance@dc.gov to learn more.

But rats don’t need their own structures for shelter; they will also be more than happy to live in yours. Brown told the meeting that all rats need is an opening slightly smaller than a dime – about a half-inch – to enter a building. Inspect your home for openings, paying attention to the areas around vents, pipes, cable wiring, and roof tiles.

Prevention is important, because shelters and food sources have to be removed to make extermination possible. “Why would a rat go into one of those black boxes when it can get chicken in the trash?” Brown asked, referring to the commonly used poison bait stations.

The DOH Rodent Control Division assists property owners in abating rats. The DOH uses tracking powder, a single-dose poison shot directly into rat burrows. The holes are then covered with dirt, and DOH returns in a few weeks to do a follow-up inspection. Brown noted that unlike the black box poisoning system, tracking powder “does not compete with food. We shoot it in the hole and it gets on the rat’s fur, and when they groom themselves they ingest the poison.”

Rat control works best if the community is working together, and the DOH is willing to help. “You’re seeing the rats run through your yard, and they could be living 100 feet away,” Brown told the meeting, “So we want to get in as many yards on the block as possible.” To do this, residential property owners should fill out a petition and then contact the DOH to schedule an appointment. Inspectors will come out to each of the properties listed on the petition and inspect for and treat rat burrows.

Prevention by Business
At community meetings, residents pointed out that the most severe rat problems were around commercial areas with many restaurants and poor trash management. Brown agreed that restaurant trash is a significant source of the rat problem. “If you didn’t have those dumpsters, then you wouldn’t have rats,” he said. He called burrows in residential yards “collateral damage,” because the rats live in residential yards while they eat from restaurant trash.

Brown said neighbors should report trash infractions to the DOH and contact them about reoccurring problems. Improperly stored or maintained dumpsters can result in a fine of up to $500, and fines increase with repeat offenses. Neighbors can also arrange a meeting between the community, DOH, and business owners, Brown said, reminding the assembled that food safety and restaurant inspection are also under the purview of the DOH.

Legislating Prevention
Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) has heard these concerns at advisory neighborhood commission (ANC) meetings. Together with three other councilmembers, he introduced a bill on May 2 that increases commercial responsibility for rodent control. The Making Rodent Syndicates Flee Restaurants, Interior Settings, Basements and Yards Amendment Act of 2017, or “Mrs. Frisby Act of 2017,” requires a rodent control plan as part of the application for a food establishment license. It also establishes a Rodent Control Fund. The money collected from fines and penalties incurred as a result of insufficient rodent control will be directed to the fund and used in the fight against rats.

“I’m doing battle with a rat in my alley, too,” Allen told the March ANC 6B meeting, describing how he had recently opened his trash can only to have a rat jump out and over his arm.

Allen told the Hill Rag, “The explosion of rats has created a serious and complex challenge for neighbors and our restaurants. I want to work with some degree of urgency, and I think this bill can be a starting point for a conversation on what makes the most sense and what would be most effective for controlling the rat population. I’ve already heard some great feedback on ways to further strengthen the legislation and want the final product to work for neighbors to address the problem, work for restaurants to implement, and work for the Department of Health to enforce. I’ve got a lot of confidence we can get to some comprehensive solutions to make an impact.”

ANC 6B OCSTF Co-Chair Hoskins said that the Task Force is continuing work on the rat problem. She said that Councilmember Allen’s legislation presented a real opportunity. “We have made meaningful progress in Capitol Hill, working with one establishment at a time to adopt best practices for indoor trash management. Neighbors and the ANC understand what works and where Department of Health needs new authority.”

Gerard Brown said neighbors should work together with the DOH and their ANC. “I’m open to anything that works,” he said. “Every situation, every block, might need a different solution.”