Rats on the Rise in U.S. Cities

In New York City, officials held a Rat Summit and appointed a rodent task force. Sightings of the furry critters in Chicago have shot up by more than 10,000. A Houston exterminator even witnessed a police officer with loaded pistol chasing a rat through a house.

All across urban America, rats are scurrying in larger numbers and gnawing at the nerves of city dwellers, prompting federal disease specialists to seek new solutions.

Health experts say the problem can be traced to a decision two decades ago to reduce federal funding for rodent control, and more recently to ever-tightening city government budgets.

"The resurgence of the problem in recent years is connected to cities having to make hard choices about what their priorities are," said Jerry Hershovitz of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, in Atlanta.

"As a result, urban rat control in many communities is approached in a complaint-oriented basis, and that will not solve the problem," he said.

Not Just a Nuisance

Rats are more than a nuisance. During the 14th century, they helped spread the bubonic plague through Europe. And more recently they have been known to carry diseases such as typhus or leptospirosis, a potentially serious bacterial illness.

"A mouse in your house or a rat — they could potentially kill you," said Robert Corrigan, a Richmond, Ind., rodent specialist. "We are competing on this earth with rats."

There's little doubt about the public's concern.

In Boston, complaints are up by 40 percent. Chicago rat sightings increased from 22,431 in July 2000 to 33,134 last month. And New York exterminations and rat inspections grew by about 19,600 between July 1999 and June 2001.

All the sun and surf doesn't help in the West, where a different breed of rat thrives on the warmth. "We have our own problems with these little critters," lamented Arturo Aguirre of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

Recognizing the infestations is easy; finding solutions is a bit more challenging.

Washington, D.C., officials have stepped up their efforts, baiting 2,000 premises, inspecting nearly 5,000 homes and issuing new rat-proof garbage cans. They even created a Bureau of Community Hygiene to address the critter crisis.

"You are never going to kill all the rats. But to keep them under control, you need a viable program that can be sustained over the years," said Maurice Knuckles, rodent control program supervisor for the capital city.

Solutions: Better Compactors, More Tickets

New York City held a Rat Summit last November at which pest-control experts met with city officials to devise solutions. The city also set up a rat-control task force last July.

Among the solutions: new trash compactors, better education of restaurant owners about trash containers and more tickets and fines for owners who don't follow sanitation guidelines.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is cited by some as a model. It has made rat control a priority, and the number of complaints has held steady between 8,000 and 10,000 per year.

Ken Gray, a Houston exterminator, said people don't realize their habits are the root of the problem. Instead, he said, people call 911 for rat help, kill rodents with shotguns and lock themselves in rooms.

Gray, of Rat-A-Way Pest Control and Termite Services, said he even saw a policeman chase a rat around his house with a gun. "Even our fearless fighters are frightened of the little men in gray suits," he said.

Rodent-Control Model Needed

There is no central census of rat populations, but CDC has grown concerned enough to intervene with a new program that will emphasize prevention and special attention to crowded and deteriorating neighborhoods.

In September, the center will award two cities about $250,000 each to come up with a rodent-control model that state and local agencies can follow.

"The comprehensive approach to the problem is that you eliminate food, water and harborage that allows rats to survive," CDC's Hershovitz explained. "They will either die or migrate to another neighborhood that has the conditions to support them."