“They’re the size of Pomeranians.”
Codi Parton stands in the alley behind Pitchers DC, a bar where he works in Adams Morgan, a popular area in Northwest that’s known for its nightlife and is a hotspot of the District’s rat infestation. By the light of day, the alley is full of overflowing dumpsters and the occasional passerby. But when night descends, rats feast.
“They’re here,” Parton says ominously. “We just kinda live with them.”
But city officials, faced with mounting complaints from District residents, are waging a multi-front battle against rats. Armed with a chemical sterilization program, a newly created “Night Mayor” and increased funding, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration hopes to gain an advantage as it fights the growing rodent problem.
“Like many cities across the country, Washington D.C. has seen an increase in the number of rodent reports over the past several years,” Bowser told The Wash in an emailed statement. “But through better analytics, smart technology, and broader community outreach, we are meeting the challenge.”
A growing infestation
Gentrification and a surging economy have led to a higher concentration of rats throughout the District. Rodent experts and urban biologists say the math is straightforward. The addition of new bars, restaurants and high-rise apartment buildings goes hand-in-hand with more people who bring more trash…more trash means more rats.
“Rats are just like you and me. They’re mammals. They need food to thrive,” said Bobby Corrigan, a leading rodentologist and the president of RMC Pest Management Consulting. “We provide that food. It’s human food that they’re eating in the alleys and outside restaurants. If they didn’t have lots of trash to eat in Adams Morgan, there wouldn’t be thousands of rats.”
According to the District’s 311 calls database, rodent activity in the business districts of Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle, U Street and H Street have a higher level of rat reports than other areas.
More rats mean the city’s nearly 700,000 residents are more at risk to diseases such as leptospirosis, bubonic plague, lassa fever and rat-bite fever.
“We’ve been seeing a significant increase in calls for treatment and inspection of rats over the past two or three years,” said Julie Lawson, director of the Mayor’s Office of the Clean City, which overseas much of the city’s efforts on the rat problem.
Rats tend to reproduce less during the winter as cold weather makes it harder for them to survive. However, the District has experienced milder winters over the last decade due in part to climate change, allowing rats to have more litters and leading to population growth.
“The rats are saying, ‘We might as well have one more litter because it’s warm enough outside.’” Corrigan said. “You have growth that was already bad before global warming. Now it’s off the charts.”
Disease-carrying parasites like ticks, mites and fleas that use rats as a host also can survive in warmer weather.
Property rental website RentHop studied grievances filed about rats in large U.S. cities last year. The research found the District had a higher number of complaints than any city except Chicago and New York. Adjusted for population, Washington jumped into second place with 725 complaints per 100,000 residents, behind only Chicago.
Not even local colleges and universities can escape the rat epidemic. A popular lunch spot, MegaBytes Cafe located on American University’s campus, was recently closed after a video went viral showing a rat scurrying around inside.
The District coming to fight
The city, though, has its own firepower.
Lawson said the city is preparing to disburse $350,000 in grants for trash compactors to help stymie the rat problem around areas heavy in nightlife. Not only does compacted trash take up less space, but it also is virtually impossible for rats to gnaw through the compactors’ hard steel. The city is also working through The Lab, a team based in the mayor’s office that is creating models to better predict where rats nest to attack the problem at the source.
“We also increased our rat abatement budget to increase the number of inspections that we have but also add some new tools to the toolbox,” she said.
Key among those is ContraPest, a chemical the city purchased to render rats infertile.
“When rats drink it, they get sterilized and they can’t reproduce,” said Gerard Brown, DC Health’s Rodent and Vector Control Division program manager, explaining that the program will include a test launch in Adams Morgan. “We wanted to find an area that has the severe problem that we could measure the impact of the sterilization in a short time.”
Initially slated to launch in October, Brown said, the program is behind schedule but still planned to proceed in the next few months.
“We are taking a comprehensive and 21st century approach to an old problem,” Bowser said.
While ContraPest has been used in other U.S. cities, there is little evidence to show how effective it can be.
The city is also rolling out a brand new agency, the Office of Nightlife and Culture, which was created in mid-October. This office and its accompanying “Night Mayor” position will be tasked with handling complaints, opportunities and issues that have arisen from the rat problem.
The agency will also be paired with a new, 15-member Commission of Nightlife that will include representatives from both the public as well as private sectors. The city is in the process of staffing the office and hiring a Night Mayor, and city officials hope to see its work begin soon.
“We’re hoping that over the next year or so, that all of these measures together will start to make a pretty big impact, but really it starts with residents,” Lawson said.
The rat issue in the area has gotten so out of hand that it has now entered the political arena. During the midterm elections, several candidates stumped, in part, on the issue.
But in some cases, community members are stepping up to the task.
NGOs are also getting involved with efforts such as the Humane Rescue Alliance’s Blue Collar Cats. The program places stray cats in new homes, sometimes residential and sometimes local businesses, with an eye toward using these cats to control rat populations.
While residents may like seeing cats in their neighborhood, experts say programs like these are unreliable. Corrigan says cats can also act as a vector for diseases and are not always effective at killing rats.
“Feral cats don’t under any circumstances control rat populations,” Corrigan said. “It’s a myth.”
Lawson said that the city is instructing residents on how to use treatments like placing dry ice in rat burrows, but turning back the infestation begins with residents taking simple steps first: closing garbage can lids, not putting trash out too early and calling 311 to have the city replace rat-damaged bins.
“Sanitation is rat prevention,” Lawson said.
For restaurants and bars, this means better controlling food waste, especially in alleys.
“I don’t know that we’re ever going to win,” Lawson said of the rat problem. But, she said, reducing the rat population in alleys could make local businesses’ employees, like Parton at Pitchers DC, feel safer going out at night, knowing fewer alleged dog-sized rats lurk nearby. This in turn could lead to more careful trash placement and begin a positive cycle.
“We’re definitely not going to let off the gas on this one.”