Middle school students attack rodent problem around Dundalk

They counted rats and want to eradicate them

May 31, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

At community cleanups this year, eighth-grade students from Dundalk Middle School heard a lot of complaints about rats — rodents roaming alleys, gnawing on plastic trash cans and digging deep holes in yards.

Students in Patricia Knight's environmental science classes figured they could do something about it, by gathering data and ultimately launching their own eradication efforts.

Soon after the cleanups, Knight asked her eighth-graders how many had recently spotted a rat in their neighborhood. Nearly every hand went up. So the classes, about 110 students in all, launched Operation Rat Find.

They studied "ratology," their unscientific designation for rodent habits, and they have dubbed their vigilant teacher "the Rat Lady." Then, applying the scientific method, they tried to determine the extent of their neighborhood's problem.

In one two-week period this spring, the students reported sightings of about a dozen live rats and many dead ones.

"We might have found more with night-vision goggles," said Adam McKinley.

High-tech devices are unnecessary, said Robyn Clark, one of four Baltimore County code inspectors assigned to the eastern county area.

"You will see them just fine with a flashlight," Clark said on a visit to the classes Wednesday.

Knight had hung an aerial map of the school neighborhood in her classroom. The rat finders' target area roughly encompassed neighborhoods within the school's boundaries. The map is now dotted with pink to denote live sightings and orange for dead sightings and includes data the students gathered recently as well as last fall.

Clark reviewed the information. Even 20 rat sightings are far too many and could signal a widespread infestation, especially since several sightings occurred during the day, when only the hungriest rats are prowling, Clark said.

"You don't want to live with rats," she said. "They carry diseases as well as fleas and lice."

Every day of the past two weeks, the students added more dots to the map. They also were certain the numerous burrows they found harbored more pests, an assumption Clark said was entirely correct. She suggested a blue marker for the burrows, where dozens of rats could be hunkered down.

Knight has reviewed the data with the students and has them working on an eradication strategy.

"Now we know we have rats, and we know we can do a lot to stop them," Knight said. "We have to act and make a difference in our community."

She urged the children to become neighborhood watchdogs. Even a bird feeder will attract rats. These animals can climb trees and scale walls. Knight's own hummingbird feeder hangs unfilled in the yard of her Dundalk home, and she planned to check the feeders on the school roof to make sure those were not providing meals for rats.

"I am starting with 110 kids," Knight said. "We can make a difference. We will spread the word."

Operation Rat Find will soon evolve into Operation Eradication, basically a community education program led by students, she said.

The county has spent time and money on eradication efforts. In 2010, crews treated 4,500 east-side homes with rat infestations. Only community support can sustain the work, Clark said.

"Rats won't leave as long we feed them," she said.

Before coming to the school Wednesday, Clark said, she drove down several alleys and found numerous violations. The county will issue fines of up to $500 to residents who do not comply with regulations designed to control rodents.

Residents need to keep their yards free of trash and pet droppings and they should apply rat poison to burrows. Clark circulated photos of open trash cans or ones that rats have gnawed through.

"Metal trash cans with tight lids should be the law," said Nikirra McDonald, a student.

Neighbors should not use plastic bags for trash, said her classmate Alex Bolt.

"That is like leaving food out for the rats," Alex said.

Clark asked the children to keep an eye out for commercial Dumpsters that are not well maintained.

"A rat can make a meal of what's left on a candy wrapper or snack bag or in a soda can," she said.

Knight plans to continue the community education effort with her classes next year. Adam, who will be attending Dundalk High in the fall, plans to bring his rat eradication experience there, he said. And he won't let his guard down this summer.

"I will report the burrows and whatever else I see," he said.


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