'Ratman' is waging war on Anne Arundel rodents Rats: Sanitarian Heath Harmon is a superhero to area residents who have called upon him for his services.

November 03, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Daily, he wends a quiet path through the narrow streets and alleys of Brooklyn Park, squinting through his windshield, occasionally stopping, poking around piles of trash, scrutinizing abandoned furniture. He is looking for gnaw marks.

When he finds them or some other indication that rats have been there, the Ratman swings into action.

Heath Harmon has no cape, no theme song, no Ratmobile, but when he pulls up to rat-infested houses or makes appearances at community association meetings, residents treat him as a superhero.

"I've had kids answer the door and say, 'Mommy! Mommy! The Ratman's here!' " Harmon said. "I think it's funny, but my mom is like, 'Man, do you really want to be known as the Ratman?' She's always looking out for my best interests."

Harmon, 24, is one of three Ratmen, known in formal circles as county sanitarians. Harmon's turf covers Brooklyn Park, Anne Arundel County's hotbed for rats. Spencer Franklin, acting program manager for the Health Department's community hygiene program, said Brooklyn Park has the most rat problems in the county, partly because it is so densely populated.

"It's an old community with a lot of rowhomes, and this tends to have more potential for rodent problems than other areas of the county," Franklin said.

"It's a very important health issue to us to make sure it remains minor," he said, because rats are capable of spreading a variety of bacterial diseases.

When Harmon gets complaints, he immediately heads out to look for signs. If he finds rat burrows in the ground or tiny flattened paths on the grass, he opens a case and lays out boxes of fish- or peanut-butter-flavored poison.

Harmon estimates he's killed a few hundred rats since he became Ratman in June 1996. Most are about 4 to 5 inches long, but one summer day he found a dead 10-incher in a Glen Burnie home.

His first dead rat was far from that large, but unsettling nonetheless. "I was nervous the first time I saw a dead rat," Harmon said. "It makes my skin crawl -- I guess because they're a public health hazard."

Harmon enjoys his daily rounds in north county, cruising along in his old, blue Chevy Cavalier.

He has about 20 hot spots now that he visits two to three times a week. That's pretty much the winter rate. His caseload at any one time is about 80 during summer, when people are outside more and are more likely to spot rats, he said.

He can close a case in a month usually, but Harmon says he has one in Glen Burnie that's been open for a year. Sometimes it's hard to get people to change their habits to eliminate rodent problems, he said.

His advice to put out trash only the night before pickups, to use trash cans and to position catch-pans beneath bird feeders often goes unheeded.

"It's hard playing mother and father to all these people," Harmon said. "And many think, 'Once the problem is gone, I can go back to living however I want,' so a lot of times I get called back two or three times for the same problem. It's frustrating because I told them what the problem was. I was out there."

But Harmon also has his triumphs. Like the time this summer when he was in a Glen Burnie back yard, backyard, and a few rats emerged and began scurrying. around.

"I had my fire poker in hand, and I'm running around the back yard, and all the kids were on the back porch going, 'Yay! yay! yay!' " Harmon said. The rats weren't all killed that day, but Harmon's poison eventually got them all.

"It's usually [the residents'] responsibility to dispose of the rat," Harmon said. "But knowing how people are, I'll do it."

Harmon's easygoing attitude has won him many fans. Linwood McCormick of Brooklyn Park said he began seeing rats four months ago and tried several different kinds of poison without results.

"I didn't stop seeing them rats," McCormick said. "They just cut across the yard like they paid rent here."

McCormick said Harmon took about a month to kill his rats.

Harmon says the rat business isn't always great party talk.

"Usually at parties I start with something more dignified, like, 'I'm a health inspector,' " he said. "Later, I'm like, 'I kill rats,' but nobody's impressed. Maybe if I said I do it with my bare hands. "

Pub Date: 11/03/97

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