First Maxine Schwartzman found a hole in her yard that her son — an architect and builder — said might be a rat hole. Then she saw something unusual in her pool.
“I took a look and it was rat,” she said, “just like Templeton in Charlotte’s Web. He swam over in the blink of an eye and ran up the skimmer and ran away.”
Rat infestation has long plagued Washington and other cities and has become increasingly common in populated suburbs like Bethesda and Silver Spring. Fearing that rats have reached Potomac, Schwartzman, who lives on Tuckerman Lane, has called a meeting to discuss the problem — and hopefully nip it in the bud.
“We’ve had record numbers this year due to environmental conditions,” said Richard Lefebure, the environmental health specialist with Montgomery County’s department of Health and Human Services who handles the county’s rat complaints. The most complaints his department had received before this summer was 225, in July of 2000.
This year they got 336 calls in June, 371 in July and 242 in August. He cited the mild winter, cool, wet summer, and the cicadas, which amounted to a two-month all-you-can-eat buffet for the county’s rats.
But Schwartzman’s alarm may be premature. “Probably Potomac numbers are down,” Lefebure said.
Cliff Babcock of Wheaton-based APCCO Termite and Pest Control, who will speak at the Oct. 6 meeting, said that his company receives calls equally from throughout the county.
“Rats are a problem everywhere, wherever they have a food source, they’re going to get rats,” he said.
Both Babcock and Lefebure emphasized that controlling possible food sources is the key to controlling rats. Lefebure said that seed falling from bird feeders accounts for more than 30 percent of residential rat complaints. The only way to keep the rats away is to remove the feeders or to use a container to prevent falling seed from reaching the ground and to clean the container out frequently.
Other things that will attract rats include spilled pet food, pet feces, unsecured garbage, compost piles, garden vegetables and wild fruit. And again, the solution for homeowners is meticulous cleanliness: feeding pets inside, cleaning up after pets, using garbage containers with tight-fitting lids, and bringing in fruits and vegetables from the yard.
It is important to keep the rats outside. “When they can get into the house, then they can always find food, so the solution is to exclude them from actually getting in to the house,” Babcock said. “The rule of thumb is anything you can stick a pencil, in it needs to be sealed. Mice can get in to a quarter inch square, and young rats.”
Exterminating rats is a lot more difficult than deterring them. Poison can be used but must be employed with extreme caution where there are children or pets, generally using locked boxes. Even when poison packets are placed underground or otherwise out of reach they can still sometimes be dragged into the open. Trapping is less effective and both methods are likely to leave residents living with the unpleasant odor of dead rats. A well-sealed house and a clean yard are the best remedy.
The culprit here, as in most areas, is the Norway rat, which ranges from brown to steel gray and weighs about a pound. Lefebure says that the biological habits of these animals make them tough to eliminate once the population has a foothold. “They require about one ounce of food a day and one ounce of water a day. ... So it’s not a lot,” he said. They don’t hibernate and can breed in any season. Females give birth to as many as 12 young per litter with a gestation period 23 days and under ideal conditions can be in heat again after four days, says Lefebure.
“When people talk about rabbits” for their prolific breeding habits, he said, “they should be talking about rats.”
The concern that a few rats now might multiply is exactly why Schwartzman wants to act quickly. “I’ve heard a lot of people worried to death” about the problem, she said. “They are so healthy they that they’re going to be a lot of them in the spring. We’re going be overrun.”
The meeting will be held Oct. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Potomac Community Center and will specifically address infestation in the Oldfield and Willowbrook communities. However, all area residents concerned about the rats are welcome to attend.
The community center staff have started seeing rats themselves.
“We have had a few problems over by our dumpster,” said Linda Barlock, the center’s director. But the rodents have never been seen inside the building. “I don’t think I’d be coming in here at 7 o’clock in the morning if they were,” Barlock said. “The most serious thing we’ve had in the building was mosquitoes.”