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Rats In Paradise (continued)

BY CHRIS WRIGHT

When describing his work, Bruce Colvin often sounds a little like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In humankind’s ongoing war on rats, he says, he and his team resemble Special Ops forces more than infantry troops. Instead of barging into a rodent situation with guns blazing — or traps snapping — for instance, Colvin and his crew hang back, do a little covert work. "You begin with surveillance," he says. "You have to have great knowledge of a rat population. Then you can work toward change."

Very often, people are dismayed by this approach. They have a rat problem, and all they want is for the problem to go away. "We would say, ‘Yes, we can kill the rat tonight,’" Colvin says. "‘But if we watch it for a couple of nights we can figure out where it lives, where the colony is, where it is feeding, and why it is here.’"

Indeed, Colvin insists that slaughtering rats willy-nilly can make the problem worse. "If we just kill the rats, reinfestation occurs," he says. "If we don’t change the environment, get rid of the food sources, the reproduction rate will actually be greater, because there’s no competition. If you just kill a bunch of rats, three to six months later the rats will recolonize in greater numbers. Long-term management is needed."

Even when it comes to killing rats, intelligence-gathering remains an important part of the job. "You have to recognize that there are dominant animals and subordinate animals," Colvin explains. "To me, it wasn’t how many rats did we kill, it was which rats did we kill. What I want to know is, did I get the adults? Did I get the dominant rats? We haven’t won the battle until we get the dominant animals, because reproduction’s going to go into high gear once you’ve eliminated all the subordinates."

But because of its subterranean existence, the rat is a tricky animal to keep tabs on. Some people estimate that there are equal numbers of rats and people in Boston, but John Meaney, the ISD’s head rodent-control expert, snorts at such arithmetic. "Whoever says that," he says, "is talking off the top of his head." The only way to gauge a city’s rat problem, Meaney says, is to tally up the number of complaints received annually by the city’s rodent-control division. And if Boston’s figures are anything to go by, its approach to rodent control has worked. In 1995, the ISD received 1814 rat complaints. In 2000, the figure had dropped to 647.

According to Colvin, the Artery rodent program — which was also adopted by the ISD — eliminated up to 95 percent of Boston’s rat population in its first few years. Today, the "Boston model" is touted the world over as the rodent-control program to follow, and Colvin has traveled as far as Argentina, China, and the Philippines to spread the word. But, as rat-control people point out time and time again, resting on one’s laurels would be a mistake — like quitting the gym because you’ve lost 10 pounds. Left unattended, rats, like fat, always come back.

Nancy Caruso, founder of the North End Central Artery Committee, says she’s been generally pleased with the Artery’s approach to the rats in her North End neighborhood, but she wishes the city would be a little more diligent about trash removal. "I just came across three huge Hefty bags with garbage spilling out of them — if I could smell them coming around the corner, then rats could smell them a mile away," she says. "The city should send out staff and start tagging people. I think some people may have grown complacent. They’re getting careless again."

OVER THE PAST few years, Boston’s rats have been relatively quiet. And it’s tough to justify spending money on a problem that has seemingly ceased to exist. In 1999, Bruce Colvin was laid off from his Central Artery position — essentially because he’d done his job too well. Today, the Artery’s rodent-control division employs three people, down from a high of 10 in the mid ’90s. While the anti-rodent budget for the ISD — which has 15 employees — has remained fairly stable over the last few years (at roughly $800,000 per year), its non-payroll-related expenditures have been cut by more than 50 percent since 2000. In 2001 rat complaints to ISD rose over 43 percent from the previous year, to 928.

"We’ve had our success stories, big ones," says the Central Artery Project’s Frank Fothergill. "But there’s still a lot of work to do. We’re in the tough part right here."

Even under the best conditions, killing rats could not be described as easy work. The hours are long. There’s the ever-present risk of injury from falls, bites, and finger-snapping traps. Rat catchers are hassled by homeowners and harassed by the homeless. They spend their days and nights wading through appalling filth, coming into contact with greasy, disease-carrying vermin. As one pest technician puts it, "We’re the guys who creep around at night that no one wants to talk about."

The ISD’s John Meaney vividly recalls his first descent, a few years back, into the abandoned Scollay Square MBTA station, an ink-black catacomb beneath City Hall, to assess the rat situation down there. It was, he says, the first time anyone had set foot in the tunnel in years, and the rats numbered in the hundreds. "I’ve been in the business for 20 years," Meaney says, "and it shook me. It was a scary walk." Even today, relatively free of rats, the tunnel is a ghastly place, with cobwebs hanging like Spanish moss and cockroaches as big as a man’s thumb. "I hate the place," Meaney says.

And yet, despite his frequent trips into the heart of darkness, Meaney insists that he loves his job. It is, he says, a "constant challenge." Part of that challenge is trying to figure out what, exactly, the challenge is. "The numbers keep changing, the city keeps changing," Meaney says. "Construction. The weather. There are so many variables. Each area is unique, and each provides a different set of environmental factors. In some areas it’s the sewer lines, in others it’s how trash is picked up. It changes."

One thing that remains fairly constant is this: Boston, weather notwithstanding, can be a wonderful place to be a rat. "We’re an older city, we’re a waterfront city," Meaney explains. "We have a fairly active nightlife, a lot of restaurants, which generates trash." He slips into his IPM mode: "The key is making environmental changes, improving sanitation, decreasing the food supply."

This might not be as easy as it sounds. On the night he discovered a dozen rats feasting behind that top-notch Boston restaurant, Meaney went inside and gave the owners a talking-to. It could have been worse: he could have given them a hefty fine. In July 2000, the city initiated a Site Cleanliness Ordinance, which stepped up inspections and increased the penalty for sloppy commercial-trash disposal from $300 to $1000. While the ordinance has enjoyed some success — "Oh, yes," Meaney says, "you hit them in the pocket and they respond" — it is by no means a silver bullet.

Having been chastised by Meaney, the contrite restaurant owners had come out, eyed the offending dumpster, and promised to fix the problem. A few days later, when Meaney and his partner Chuck Trainito return to the site, they find the dumpster in exactly the same shape. As they take note of this, they attract the attention of a couple of homeless guys, who, in their eagerness to talk rats, illustrate the difficulties Meaney and his colleagues face.

"One of them rats ate a whole chicken while I was asleep," says a bearded guy named Carl.

"Bones and all," chips in his friend Bill.

When Meaney tells Carl and Bill to refrain from sleeping at the site, or at least from leaving food scraps there, Carl seems scandalized. "I wouldn’t sleep there," he says. "I don’t want to get eaten by no rats. They’ll attack you. A rat will come after you." He pauses and adds, "I do take a dump there every once in a while."

"Yes," says Meaney, "and that’s rat food, too."

In the days following their discovery of the dumpster-diving rat colony, Meaney and Trainito lay traps, breaking the backs and necks of 16 animals. A trapped rat is not a pretty sight. Brown-gray and slick with grease, the creatures are mangled by the traps’ jaws (powerful enough to break a man’s fingers), their little faces pinched into expressions of agonizing death. In one trap, all that remains is a leg, a shoulder, and a mush of flesh, the rest of the rat having been eaten by its cohorts. "There’s a quarter of a rat right there," says Trainito, matter-of-factly. "Look," he says, pointing out another rat whose glossy eyes seem raised to the heavens, its teeth bared, "he’s posing for the camera." Trainito is in a good mood today. Sixteen rats, after all, is a good haul.

And yet the rats in these traps are all juveniles, meaning that the dominant animals, the big boys, those too smart to fall for the old peanut-butter ploy, are still on the loose. "You’ll never get rid of homeless people, and you’ll never get rid of the rats," calls Carl as Meaney and Trainito retreat to their vehicle. "They’re everywhere! Big as cats, some of them."

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Issue Date: March 14 - 21, 2002
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