City can't seem to e-rat-icate rodents

October 10, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

The next time you lift your toilet seat, remember Mary Finecey.

She got up one morning in her Canton home and walked to the downstairs bathroom. Through half-closed eyes she noticed something in the toilet.

Her eyes popped open. Splashing, scratching and clawing at the porcelain bowl was a rat.

Finecey slammed down the lid. She scurried out of the room, frantic and terrified, and returned a few minutes later, armed with the only weapon she could find at 6 a.m. -- a can of insect fogger.

The downstairs commode in the Finecey household is not the only place where rats have turned up unexpectedly in Baltimore this year. Rats have infiltrated well-kept neighborhoods unaccustomed to hideous rodents burrowing out back under the rose bushes.

At the same time, the city's Rat Rubout program, which works to educate the public and poison rats, lost partial funding in February that forced the temporary layoff of some employees. The remaining workers fell behind in responding to citizen complaints, and they haven't caught up.

Although now back to full force, the program is a shell of what it was 11 years ago. In 1980, it had 90 workers. In 1991, it has 29.

City officials fretted last week that Rat Rubout might suffer another blow. They feared that the massive cuts proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer might consume a third of the program's budget.

But after examining the cuts, Edward J. Gallagher, the city's budget chief, pronounced Rat Rubout safe, at least for now.

This combination of more rats and less Rat Rubout has resulted in a city "underfunded and over-ratted." Those are the words of Kelley Ray who, along with Pat Woodward and other neighbors in tidy Belair-Edison, mounted a blitzkrieg against their rat invaders.

"We'd sit out at night and drink margaritas and watch the rats," Ray said.

Residents met in an alley and plotted strategy, distributed fliers from Rat Rubout, and encouraged oblivious neighbors to put trash in metal cans with tight lids and to raise sheds off the ground onto concrete floors. They learned to trap and poison rats. And they wiped them out.

Why did rats overrun sections of Belair-Edison and other unsuspecting neighborhoods?

Donna A. Johnson, director of the Rat Rubout program, and James E. Childs, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health who has studied rats since the late 1970s, offered this explanation:

A normal winter kills many rats and retards their reproduction. Last winter was so mild that most rats apparently lived and loved all season through.

So this summer, with more rats competing for the usual food supply, some rats had to blaze new trails through the city's underground frontier, the elaborate storm-drainage and sewer system.

One made the fatal mistake of discovering Mary Finecey's toilet that August morning.

Finecey, who has lived in the 8000 block of S. Clinton St. for 16 years, said she had never seen a rat in her neighborhood before this summer. She saw a couple in the alley, and she swears one of them got into the house through an open door.

Johnson and Childs, the rat experts, said rats can swim and crawl through sewer pipes into toilets. The city gets two or three calls a year from people who discover rats in their downstairs toilets, Johnson said.

Finecey doesn't want even to think about a slimy rat fresh from the sewers poking its nose into her toilet. No, she surmised, her rat must have gotten into the house the night before, while her husband worked downstairs with the back door open.

After slamming the seat shut on the rat -- and calming down a bit -- she realized there wasn't much she could do at 6 a.m. She scrounged up the can of insect fogger, lifted the toilet lid, activated the spray, hurried out of the room and shut the door.

A little later, she stood outside the door and listened. She heard no more splashing. She opened the door, peeked in, and there in the toilet was the rat, afloat and dead.

Finecey scooped it out with a cup and dumped it into the trash. Then she and her husband spread rat poison around the house. Two weeks later they found a dead rat under the sink.

They tore up the kitchen floor. They plugged holes in the wall. They poured 150 pounds of cement inside the house to try to rat-proof it.

So far they've succeeded. But Finecey constantly thinks she hears noises around the house. And, she said, they haven't used the downstairs bathroom since that dreadful morning.

Her reaction is no surprise to anyone who's had a close encounter with a rat. Although they generally shy away from people, rats touch our deepest fears, said Johnson, head of Rat Rubout; they reach into some dark place in people's psyches.

Johnson believes that talking about rats is the best therapy. And sooner or later, she will say: "Each and every time there's a rat problem, you're going to find out it's a people problem."

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