Watch out, rodents -- Dr. Rat is back

Vermin: Their archfoe is returning for a rally to warn of a possible boom in the city this spring.

April 07, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Dr. Rat, the khaki-clad, crusading superhero who delighted schoolchildren and became one of Baltimore's more mysterious cult figures, is expected to appear in public tonight for the first time in 17 years during an anti-rodent rally in front of City Hall.

Between 1980 and 1982, the enigmatic Dr. Rat, whose academic credentials have long been shrouded in secrecy, visited every elementary school in the city.

Accompanied by actors and musicians, he sang self-composed tunes such as "Pestilence" and enlisted youngsters for the city's crusade to keep the local rat population under control. But then, with little explanation, Dr. Rat vanished -- joining, it was rumored, the underground.

The Citizens Planning and Housing Association confirmed in a statement that Dr. Rat would appear, but organizers of the rally at 6 p.m. were unable or unwilling to release details, including the identity of the actor who would take the doctor's mantle.

His re-emergence tonight is intended as a light-hearted warning to rat-weary Baltimoreans of the potential for a serious surge in the rat population after another relatively mild winter. Members of Baltimoreans Against Rats, a new coalition of 20 community associations that organized tonight's rally, say Dr. Rat's presence should inspire residents of a certain age to renew the decades-old fight against rodents.

Protesters tonight are expected to call on city government for more citizen education on public sanitation, greater enforcement of city codes on trash cans and dumping, and a new, comprehensive baiting program.

"I can't remember the rats ever being this bad before," says Connie Fowler, president of the Carrollton Ridge Association, who traps rats in her yard and has her husband drown them later. "Dumping is so common that a lot of people don't even own a trash can. Everyone in the city needs some inspiration to fight this."

Enter Dr. Rat, whose presence highlights a severe reduction in public spending on rat control over the past two decades. When Dr. Rat first appeared in front of City Hall in 1980 and famously declared, "I have a vision: I see a planet completely free of rats," he stood beside Mayor William Donald Schaefer, who had just announced the hiring of 14 city employees to bait rats.

Dwindling funds

Federal block grant funds covered the new positions then, but that money was severely cut in 1991. While the city spent nearly $2 million a year on rat control during the 1980s, by 1996 that figure had dropped to $270,000, according to city records.

The government cuts, coupled with the growth of vacant housing, left Baltimore extremely vulnerable to fast-multiplying rats. Humans who come in contact with rat wastes can contract the flu-like disease leptospirosis or hantavirus, which causes severe respiratory illness. Rats are sometimes the cause of electrical fires (they chew through wires), and are suspects in the high rates of asthma and renal failure in urban populations.

While the number of rats in the city isn't known, surveys of neighborhood leaders show that two-thirds identify their rat problem as "bad" or "very bad."

But since the Department of Public Works assumed responsibility for rat control from the city's housing staff last summer, director George G. Balog says he has made progress. He doubled the size of the Rat Rubout staff, from 11 to 22, and its budget, to $505,000. He hired two pest control companies to help with baiting. The department completed targeted sweeps -- including cleaning, baiting and follow-up enforcement -- in 15 Southwest and West Baltimore neighborhoods.

Weekly complaints about rats have dropped from 500 to 60 a week.

"We feel pretty good," says Balog, who pledged to meet with Baltimoreans Against Rats this month. "There's still a minority of citizens we need to reach. It just takes time to succeed."

In his heyday, Dr. Rat asked his followers to can trash, plug rat pathways with crushed glass or wire mesh, and put deterrents such as ammonia or cayenne pepper near rat holes.

But the accumulated detritus of two decades seems to have obscured memories of Dr. Rat and his teachings. Even Baltimore Development Corp. Executive Director M. J. "Jay" Brodie, the housing commissioner during the early 1980s, remembers Rat -- incorrectly -- as a man in a rat suit. John Huppert, the chief of housing inspection then, recalls Dr. Rat as "an unsympathetic character."

"Whoever he was, Dr. Rat was more effective than anything else we did," says Brodie, whose department commissioned Dr. Rat's performances.

Dr. Rat was not a rat but a human being, who wore combat boots, epaulets crowned with rat traps and an Australian bush hat with a plastic rat affixed to the top.

The man behind Dr. Rat

Derek Neal, the Theatre Project actor who served as Dr. Rat's alter ego nearly 20 years ago, describes the character as part Johns Hopkins University professor, part Indiana Jones, part Pied Piper.

While remembered by some as a physician, Neal says Dr. Rat held a doctorate in "rodentology."

Dr. Rat's target audience was fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, the children often in charge of taking out the trash. His war cry was "Tight, Right, Fight" -- "Put your lids on Tight, clean your house up Right, and win the Fight against rats!"

"Occasionally, people will still recognize me as Dr. Rat," says Neal. "Back then, it was impossible for me to go outside and do anything. Kids mobbed me."

Now 46 and a teacher at Harlem Park Middle School, Neal said this week that he was unaware of Dr. Rat's expected return and had not been asked to play the character again. But he still lives in Baltimore, and worries about the trash he sees.

"There's always a need," he says, "for Dr. Rat."

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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