Good Night, Mr. Rat

Robert Eades, head of the city's Rat Rubout squad, is a rodent's worst nightmare. And he won't sleep until the city's problem is exterminated.

June 01, 1999|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

You dirty rat.

You lice-laden, disease-carrying, trash-chewing rat.

Pretty clever, aren't you, sneaking around garbage cans and burrowing into back yards and generally scaring the bejabbers out of every poor soul who sees you?

Well, rat, meet Robert Eades.

He's on our side.

And he wants to kill you.

Nothing personal, rat.

"Just business," he says.

The 55-year-old Eades knows rats. He knows that they live about a year. He knows most weigh about 10 ounces and stretch 18 inches, nose to tail. He knows that they're more promiscuous than the cast members on "Friends," with the females capable of producing a litter of 10 to 12 baby rats six times a year.

Eades has hunted rats in Baltimore for 23 years, longer than any city worker. He has found them in tree trunks and car engines and in the basements of terrified residents. He has killed them with shovels and poison pellets and deadly gas. He has watched them traipse along telephone wires and swim through drains and chew through lead pipes.

And this is his conclusion:

You, you dirty rat, are one tough foe.

"I have a certain respect for the gentleman," Eades says. "They can be challenging."

Eades has a voice that's so deep, he should be narrating television commercials. He wears a black baseball cap with a pin on the front of two hands praying. The back of his gray vest displays a cartoon drawing of a rat, surrounded by a red circle with a slash through the middle.

He takes his work -- supervising the 22 members of the city's Rat Rubout program -- very seriously. Say good night, rat.

"He's a pest that's out of control and he needs to be brought to control," Eades says firmly. "If not, he could wreak a lot of havoc on the citizens of this city. It's bad enough with the property damage that he's doing."

How many rats are there in Baltimore? You might as well count mosquitoes. City officials used to say 600,000, but that was just a guess based on one rat for every person (you can have mine).

This much is known: The rodent problem is severe enough that 20 community groups formed Baltimore Against Rats earlier this year. Two mild winters in a row have produced bumper crops -- and increased frustrations.

"It's terrible," says George Bennett, who lives on Clifton Avenue in North Baltimore. "At night, they're running from yard to yard."

The city's public works department assumed responsibility for rat control last July. Director George G. Balog says weekly complaints have decreased from 600 to 60 since then, "but the pessimists will say the complaints are down because people are tired of calling."

Balog doubled the number of rat control workers, to 22, and the budget, to $500,000, and he hired two pest control companies to help. He says the workers have taken a four-step approach: inspect and clean neighborhoods, bait rat holes, educate residents and enforce infractions, such as dumping trash in a yard.

The cleanup began last year in the west and southwest parts of the city. Now workers are focusing on East Baltimore, specifically Fells Point, Little Italy and Butchers Hill, as well as northern sections. After completing one cycle, the workers will repeat the process.

If you complain about rats in your neighborhood, the city will respond in two to three weeks, Balog says. He hopes to cut that response time to a week.

"We think with all those elements that we've done a pretty good job," he says.

Rats are an annoying -- and health-threatening -- fact of life in urban America. All cities struggle to control them. In Washington, for example, rats are so prevalent that Mayor Anthony A. Williams convened a summit last month to discuss countermeasures.

In Baltimore, Eades says, the average homeowner who spots a big rat roaming around his house has little patience for government programs or three-week waits. They want the police department, the National Guard and the U.S. Marine Corps to respond, immediately if not sooner.

Homeowners will try anything to fight back, from pouring gasoline into burrows and setting it afire (a practice Eades does not recommend) to sprinkling cayenne pepper near garbage cans (which Eades does recommend).

When members of the rat control crew appear, grateful neighbors greet them as if they're carrying checks from Publishers' Clearinghouse.

"A lot of people are afraid of this animal," he says. "If you don't know anything about him, yes, you're going to have fear. But if you know about this animal, what he can do and can't do, you don't have to be afraid of him."

Asked if he's afraid, Eades laughs, a laugh that a rat might describe as sounding sinister.

"Nooooooo," he says, smiling. "I have no problem with him."

Let's test Eades' theory. Let's see if rat knowledge lessens your fear.

Rats can carry 30 diseases, "and pretty much every year something new is found," says Gregory Glass, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

They can slip through a crack the size of a quarter. They can jump three feet in the air. They can chew through plastic trash cans.

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