Tails of the City
Or, of rats and men
If you know your enemies and
know yourself, you can win a hundred
battles without a single loss.
So says The Art of War, the ancient
military treatise attributed to a Chinese
general named Sun Tzu. Clearly my dogs
and I should bone up on Sun Tzu.
For years, our little rescue hound
Misha has re-enacted a “Tom and Jerry”
cartoon starring chipmunks that live,
condo-style, inside a stacked stone wall
in our back garden. Scene one: A chipmunk ventures a stroll. Scene two:
Misha the hound, baying like a maniac,
gives chase. Scene three: The chipmunk
escapes into the wall crevices. Scene
four: Misha, tail wagging, stares at the
wall for hours, waiting for the game to
The game changed after my husband
and I rescued Brody, a big Labrador with
the look of an aging prizefighter. Brody
taught Misha how to dig out big sections
of wall so they could poke their lunkheads in, looking for chipmunks.
I hired a company to install an elec-
tric fence to keep the dogs from wreck-
ing themselves and the garden. Misha
and Brody were fitted with radio col-
lars that beep a warning when they cross
into forbidden territory.
Looking at me like I’d be hearing from
their lawyer, the dogs simply refused to
go outside. So the man from the elec-
tric fence company lured them out by
spreading pounds of their favorite kib-
ble across the safe zones of the lawn and
“Won’t that attract rats?” I asked.
He looked at me as
if to say: Do you really
think rats aren’t already
here in suburbia? “I’ve
been to $5 million
homes with rat boxes
around them,” he said.
Sure enough, a rat scurried into our
garden the next day from beneath the
fence that marks our property line. Its
nose twitched, perhaps at the delicious
scent of kibble on the lawn.
Startled, I unleashed a war cry and
hurled my trusty rose pruners at the rat.
I called for reinforcements, but Misha
and Brody just stared at me from their
side of the electronic fence. Good dogs!
They’d learned their new fence line.
If dogs are man’s best friends, rats are
the worst. Rats infested with plague-car-rying fleas may have wiped out 30 percent of the human population of Europe
in the Middle Ages. Rattus norvegicus,
the common Norway Rat, likely arrived
on our shores on European ships during the American Revolution. Like us,
they spread across the land, plundering,
depleting resources, moving on. In fact,
the charter of rats’ “manifest infestation” is to follow food, water and us, says
author Robert Sullivan, who spent a year
observing rats near Wall Street.
“If the presence of a grizzly bear is
the indicator of the wildness of an area,
the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat
is an indicator of the presence of man,”
Sullivan writes in Rats: Observations on
the History & Habitat of the City’s Most
Unwanted Inhabitants (Bloomsbury
I shouldn’t be surprised by a rat scouting real estate in my garden. In nearby
downtown Bethesda, you can’t walk a
block without spotting black plastic rat
bait stations by restaurant dumpsters, in
green spaces where people eat lunch, and
in dim corners of parking garages. Construction downtown and in surrounding
neighborhoods disturbs their nests and
sends them scurrying for new shelter.
Twenty-two percent of complaints
about rats at private residences last fiscal
year came from Bethesda, according to
the Montgomery County Department of
Health and Human Services. And that’s
just the tip of the rat tale. Most homeowners who discover rats don’t call the
county; they hire a private pest control
company. Homeowners who call the
county often are ratting on a neighbor
they blame for their rodent problem.
Rat sightings in Bethesda and elsewhere fluctuate, depending on all kinds
of factors. There’s a rat boomlet now
in Montgomery Village, for instance,
because “they are following the waterways [streams and sewers],” said Kenny
Welch of the health department.
Overall, rat reports in the county are
down from peak years such as 2004,
when the cicadas’ return caused a rat-
breeding boom and the health depart-
ment had to put all of its inspectors on CLAUD