Rats are the deadliest creatures on earth. Back in the 14th century, the lice that caused the Black Death rode into Europe on a herd of black rats. The insects sucked up the plague virus from the rodents' blood, then passed it on to the human race. Within four years one out of every three Europeans was dead, a decimation far worse than the continent suffered in World War II.
In humanity's pantheon of loathsome creatures, rats rank right down there with snakes, spiders, cockroaches, and head lice. Tales of the world's disdain for these creatures go back to ancient times. Even before epidemiologists came along to prove it, people sensed that there was something unclean about the rat. The Zoroastrians declared a holy war against rats: to kill one, they believed, was to serve God. In ancient Greece Apollo Smintheus, god of hygiene, was Olympus's designated rat and mouse catcher.
"From the point of view of all other living creatures, the rat is an unmitigated nuisance and pest," declared Professor Hans Zinsser in Rats, Lice and History, his entertaining and informative history of typhus, another of the rat's gifts to mankind. "There is nothing that can be said in its favor. It can live anywhere and eat anything. It burrows for itself when it has to, but, when it can, it takes over the habitation of other animals, such as rabbits, and kills them and their young. It climbs and it swims. It carries diseases of man and animals -- plague, typhus, trichinella spiralis, rat-bite fever, infectious jaundice, possibly Trench fever, probably foot-and-mouth disease and a form of equine 'influenza.' Its destructiveness is almost unlimited."
Here in Chicago, rats have carried on their underground war against the human race by honing their teeth on the electrical wires of hospitals, causing blackouts. They have contaminated food warehouses with their urine and feces. In 1991 a rat burst out of a bank president's private toilet in Lincoln Park. Every year rats bite about a dozen Chicagoans. During a blizzard in 1974, a west-side man crawled into the boiler room of an abandoned building to get warm and collapsed on a pile of garbage. He was too weak to move, and by the time he was found, three days later, rats had gnawed his legs so badly they had to be amputated.
Rats live wherever people live, sustaining themselves on the leavings of civilization. They will eat eggs, vegetables, carrion, leather, and dog feces. They'll eat each other if they get hungry enough. They breed with a passion that makes rabbits look prudish. The average female goes into heat at the age of 75 days and will mate with 20 males a day. A day after she throws a litter--and that can be 20 pups or more--she's back in heat. If all the offspring of a single pair survived, there would be 15,000 by the end of a year. Rats are so adaptable, so prolific, it's assumed that they, along with roaches, will be the big winners if there's ever a nuclear holocaust.
In the meantime, we've got to keep them away from our garbage cans. Rats will always be with us, but our weapons in the war on rats are now so advanced that in many places, including Chicago, there are fewer rats than people. In the 1970s we had six million rats. Now, the Bureau of Rodent Control estimates their numbers are down to 440,000, about the human population of Austin, Texas. Most of them live on the west side, says John Antonacci, the city's director of rodent control.
"We have a dense population in that area," he says. "Two or three families living in single-family homes. They produce a lot of garbage, more garbage than the carts can handle."
Last summer the rat problem in west Humboldt Park got so bad that residents began begging the city to annihilate them. The crisis, says Rod Smith, who works in the neighborhood, started last August, after a heavy rainstorm flooded the rats out of their burrows. Once the rats emerged from their holes and began to crisscross the alleys, searching for new homes, they became so brazen even the cats were afraid to go out at night.
"When they heard you walking down the street, they did not move," said Smith, a Chicago community organizer. "I was walking down the street and I saw one eating French fries, and I stamped my feet and it did not move."
Kimaco Rocquemore, who lives in the 4300 block of West Crystal, claims the rats there made a gruesome show of strength.
"My cat died. They killed her," she said, standing in her weedy backyard and pointing at the peeling, sagging garage. "They ate her and all. I have rats all around the house. When you come home late from church you see them running around. I don't let my kids play in the yard."
This year's winter was so mild that more rats than usual survived until spring, so in late May, the city cracked down. The bureau decided to sweep out four alleys: the 4200 and 4300 blocks between Potomac and Kamerling and between Potomac and Crystal. It's a neighborhood of 1920s brick two-flats and boarded-up corner groceries. Garbage, the rat's manna, fills the frowzy grass between the street and the sidewalk: flattened malt liquor cans, orange rinds, plastic juice bottles, Big Mac boxes.
At 0830 hours on May 22, an armada of cars, trucks, and official Streets and San minivans shows up. A huge flatbed stacked with brand-new plastic garbage carts begins rolling through the alleys, followed by laborers who pick up broken carts that garbage-hungry rats might be able to invade. Ray Dockery, who lives in the 4300 block of West Potomac, watches from his backyard as the workers slam down the new, rat-tight carts.
"I think the rats are here because of a lack of care with the garbage cans, people leaving food out," he says. "The kids play with the garbage cans and knock them over."
In the Middle Ages farmers believed that piles of grain literally bred mice. Today the pest control establishment holds almost the same opinion about garbage and rats. Here's a quote from a brochure that was part of the "rat pack" left on every neighborhood resident's door that morning: "Getting rid of rats is simple: deny them a regular source of safe food....It is essential to keep garbage in secure containers."
If a colony--which usually numbers around 30 rats--loses its food supply, the members eventually start eating one another. First, the adults eat the babies, then the stronger rats, the "alphas," eat the weaker rats, the "betas." ("Rats are racist," jokes Hipolito Ramirez, an inspector in the bureau.) Once only the strong remain, the cannibalism advances to a single-elimination round, until only the biggest, meanest rat is left alive. Eventually he'll have to leave the nest to look for food, and when he does he'll be jumped by a gang of rival rats, who hate strangers on their turf. End of rat colony.
Rat societies don't always reach this stage of anarchy, though. That's because the rat crews leave them something to eat after their supply of garbage runs out: poison.
Poisoning rat burrows is the job of Roger Glanton, who walks through the alley between Potomac and Kamerling carrying a plastic bucket, a long pole with a scoop at the end, and a copy of the Yellow Pages. As he advances, Glanton keeps his eyes on the ground looking for rat holes. After years of hunting rats, his eyes are as keen as a deer stalker's.
"You just have to look for burrows," he explains. "A lot of times you can see the trail in the grass, rat droppings. Look around the trees where they're digging. Mark where they're slipping in and out."
Glanton also asks neighbors to rat on their rats.
"Especially in the summertime, all the kids, when they're out from school, they know where the rats are so they'll tell me," he says.
Two houses west of the alley's mouth, Glanton walks into a backyard and spots a crack in a concrete slab under a tree. Rats don't need a big front door to their burrows. If they can squeeze their nose through, they can squeeze the rest of their body in after. A rat can wriggle through a hole the size of a quarter.
"Suspect," Glanton mutters.
He digs a scoopful of poison out of his bucket and pours it into the fissure. (The pellets, which look like alfalfa dyed green, cause rats to bleed to death by hemorrhaging.) Then he crumples up a page from the telephone book and stuffs it into the hole, to keep dogs, cats, and birds from eating the poison. Some poisoners use newspaper, but "I like the Yellow Pages," Glanton explains, "because it's easier to work with. It's smaller and softer than the newspaper."
When he's done, someone will post one of the yellow TARGET: RATS posters you see stapled to telephone poles in every alley in the city. And over the next few weeks Glanton and the other rat baiters will return to the neighborhood to rebait holes and poison burrows they missed the first time.
Glanton's job is about as action-packed as reading gas meters or delivering mail. But when he started this job 18 years ago, Glanton was an executioner. Back then, before the effectiveness of the poison pellets had been proven, the bureau killed rats by pumping their burrows full of cyanide gas. Some rats were asphyxiated but others fled their holes, woozy and thirsty for fresh air. As soon as they appeared, Glanton and his fellow rat hunters beat them to death with broomsticks. It was an urban safari.
"We'd just tap 'em on the head," he says. "It was fun. You would kill more at one time. If we didn't get 'em the gas would kill."
Glanton's foreman wielded his wooden baton with the accuracy of a kendo warrior. One swing was enough to end a rat's life.
"He was very skilled," Glanton says admiringly. "He didn't hit them two or three times. He was deadeye."
"I don't believe it!" As he watches one of the enemy gallop past his feet and wriggle into a burrow under a garage, Chuck Frangello is as apoplectic as a high-school narc who's just spotted a student streaking bare-ass naked through the lunchroom. "He ran back across the alley, the son of a bitch!"
Frangello composes himself, then apologizes for swearing, even though the curse was directed at a rat.
"I just get emotional," he says. "I hate 'em."
Frangello, a garrulous, 50-something guy who grew up in east Humboldt Park when it was still an Italian neighborhood, is one of the bureau's eight rat inspectors, a job created in 1995 when the City Council gave Rodent Control the authority to force home owners to plug the holes in their rat-infested houses and garages. Before, if a rat crew saw a hole they had to call out the Building Department to get the thing fixed. Now rat inspectors write citations. They can order people to replace garage doors that aren't flush with the driveway or to surround their garages with a concrete apron reinforced with chicken wire, since rats can gnaw tunnels through concrete but not metal. Anyone who doesn't comply can be called into rodent court, where the fines run as high as $500.
Frangello has been a rat inspector only 18 months, but he learned to despise the little SOBs years before, when he worked on a garbage truck.
"When I was on garbage," he says, "there were always rats."
Since he started his new job, "My wife kids me a lot," he says. "Some people like to hear stories. My family, they pull your leg. They say, 'Let your father look for it. He's a rat hunter.'"
In the alley between Potomac and Kamerling, Frangello finds a garage so chewed up it has 20 rat burrows under its foundation. He tells the owner, Amanda Ball, that it would be cheaper to tear the garage down and build a new one than to patch all the holes. If she wants, Streets and San will send out a front-end loader and knock the garage down for free.
"He said we could probably build a new one for $4,000," says Ball. "We'll probably tear it down if it's more economical."
Around 10:30 in the morning, Frangello and the other inspectors are standing on a sidewalk, talking rats, when a blue minivan pulls up to the curb. Suddenly all the inspectors stop talking and stare reverently at the van. It's as though Ted Williams has suddenly appeared at the batting cage in Fenway Park. Inside is Terry Howard, the former head of the Bureau of Rodent Control and the man who designed the city's three-pronged offensive against rats--garbage control, poison, and home repair.
"This is the rat man," Frangello says in a hushed, admiring voice. "This is the guy that knows everything about rats."
Terry Howard is 76 and not much bigger than a jockey. But as he'll tell you, terriers make better ratters than Dobermans or rottweilers. Retired, he still works as an unpaid consultant to the Bureau of Rodent Control, unable to stay away from his calling. In six decades as an exterminator, he's probably killed hundreds of thousands of rats, but he still lies awake at night thinking of new tactics to use against "the little buggers." He also wants to rid the city of squirrels, because they chew holes in garbage bins.
"I liken him to--in the olden days when the milkman delivered the milk with a horse and cart, when the horses were retired they still walked the route," Streets and San spokesman Terry Levin says of Howard's unwillingness to quit the rat game. "They kept walking the route and stopping in front of the same houses every day."
When he was head of the bureau, Howard used to keep a photo of a two-pound rat, the biggest ever caught in Chicago, on his office wall. He once said, "I still get a kick outta killin' rats. I seen too much damage done. This is my ballgame, my Cubs, my Bears, my Sox. They're just another dumb animal."
Howard began his rat-hunting career as a teenager in Portlaoise, Ireland. He had a small stable of ferrets he used to trap rabbits for meat during the German blockade of World War II. Eventually he found out that farmers would pay him to turn his ferrets loose in their grain piles during harvest time, to chase out the rats who were eating the crop. As the rats fled, Howard's pet terriers broke their backs with a snap of the jaws.
"You turned 'em loose and the rats come running out of those ricks like nobody's business," he says in a soft, whirry Irish accent. "All the terriers in the neighborhood would be waitin' for 'em. All you had to do was whistle, and the dogs'd come runnin' when they knew what was going on."
(Howard has never been bitten by a rat, but they've run up his pants leg three times.)
After his discharge from the Irish army in 1950, Howard emigrated to Chicago. Looking to resume his rat catching, he immediately applied for a job as an exterminator.
"I thought it was killin' rats," he says, "but it was a lot of other things--ants, roaches. Believe me, though, that's a lot more interesting than digging ditches or turning hamburgers."
In the 1950s, rats were plentiful in the United States. Concerned about air pollution, people had stopped burning garbage in concrete pits in their backyards, and instead were placing it in 55-gallon drums out in the alley. The rats loved the new disposal system.
To fight back, exterminators used poisons straight from the devil's pharmacy. DDT, 1080 (sodium monofluoroacetate), arsenic, and strychnine killed the rats, but they also killed dogs and cats. After reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Howard became so horrified by the toxins he was spreading that he quit the business and opened a fishing camp in Canada. That lasted two and a half years. Then, like Washington being called to battle from his farm, he was called back to Chicago to fight the biggest rat crisis of the century.
By the early 1970s the poisons that appalled Howard had been banned, and exterminators were left with only one weapon--warfarin, an anticoagulant so weak it took three doses to kill a rat. Rats laughed at it. Their numbers boomed, to six million. It was another environmental trade-off. Fewer poisons, more rats. Richard J. Daley, an acquaintance of Howard's ("Comin' from Ireland, not many people didn't know the mayor"), drafted him to Rodent Control in 1971 when the mayor was mobilizing the bureau to deal with the plague of rodents.
Some people call the 70s the era of the "superrats," huge, aggressive rodents that bit 100 Chicagoans a year. Howard calls it the Resistance, as though the rats had organized a guerrilla movement to take over the town. Whatever you want to call it, it was a golden time for snuffing rats. That was when Rodent Control began using calcium cyanide, the poison gas Roger Glanton recalls so fondly. It was the only effective toxin available.
"We would pump the gas into the holes, into the yards and the gardens," Howard says. The 15 trucks would go out--each truck would have half a barrel of rats by the noon break. "They'd run out, and we'd whack 'em, stomp 'em."
The newspapers and TV stations loved it. Rodent Control was providing great pictures and massive body counts. But the numbers didn't show that the enemy was increasing faster than we could kill it.
"A picture of a thousand rats is effective," Howard says. "But for every one we'd get three would run away. You'd kill 'em by the hundreds but they were here by the thousands."
During the Resistance Howard and his crew once had to clear out a house that was home to 350 rats. The rats had been drawn to the little bungalow by the six inches of clothing and newspapers on the floor, and stayed because the mother and daughter who lived there fed them Quaker Oats, hoping to placate the pests. The living room couch had 15 burrows, and the rats that lived in them were so tame that they would run across the mother's shoulders when she sat down. When Howard opened the front door to admit a curious reporter, six rats ran out after the man.
Because it was someone's home, Howard's crew couldn't use gas, so "everything was done the hard way, one by one," with sticks and shovels. By the time they were finished, between 200 and 250 rats were dead.
The Resistance was finally overcome not by rat crews with broomsticks but by scientists. In 1979 researchers came up with a second-generation anticoagulant called Talon, which kills rats with a single feeding. Crews dumped it into the burrows, and within days rats were bleeding from every orifice and dropping dead. It was like the atom bomb. All of a sudden the big war was over.
Rats will never be eliminated entirely, but Howard thinks their population can be reduced to the lowest level ever, now that Rodent Control has the power to cite building owners. Before, "We were given the responsibility to get rid of rats in the city, but instead of giving us a knife and fork they were giving us a spoon," Howard says.
Armed with its new ordinance, Rodent Control attempted to rat-proof the Loop a few years ago, "because businesses there had money to fix problems." The bureau told landlords to seal off the gaps between their buildings with sheet metal to prevent rats from nesting there. It gathered restaurant owners from the same block and asked them to chip in on shared trash compactors rather than throw their leftovers in Dumpsters.
"Within a couple years, two, two and a half years, there was a hell of a difference," Howard says. "The rat population has never been as low as it is in the Loop."
One reason Chicago has been able to reduce the rat to a marginal pest while New York City still has millions of the creatures (anywhere from 7 million to 30 million, depending on whose estimate you take) is that Chicago made the same department responsible for rat control and garbage control. In New York, killing rats is still the task of the public health department.
"In most cities, the health department runs the rat problem, which is bullshit because it's a garbage problem," Howard burrs.
It's easy to cringe when you hear someone on a rat crew confess that he loves his work. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals thinks that instead of killing rats, cities should control them with tight garbage cans and natural predators, such as falcons and owls. But remember this: humans and rats are locked in an interspecies war. Rats are more than our parasites. They're our competitors. It's been said that rats are the second most successful mammal; left unchecked, they might bid for the top spot. Their only function in nature seems to be controlling the human population. They stung us pretty good with the plague, but since then we've kept them in their place.
"Man and the rat will always be pitted against each other as implacable enemies," Zinsser writes. "And the rat's most potent weapons against mankind have been its perpetual maintenance of the infectious agents of plague and typhus."
Interestingly, the rats you see in Chicago and most of the rest of the world aren't the same rats that carried the Black Death. They're Rattus norvegicus, the Norway rat, which actually came from Inner Mongolia. In the 18th century the Norway rat swept out of its desert homeland like Genghis Khan's Golden Horde and quickly conquered the European rat world, ending the dominance of its sinister cousin Rattus rattus, the plague rat. In 1722 the Norway rat was driven across the Volga by an earthquake, and just 28 years later it arrived in the New World on a ship from England. But through Rattus norvegicus isn't the rat that slew Europe, it's just as dangerous.
"Any rat is a plague rat," warns Howard.
"There's a dog here," Chuck Frangello says, staring at a BEWARE OF DOG sign on a gate in the 4200 block of West Potomac. "You want me to call its bluff? Maybe it's a pit bull. I need my arms."
"You might get a medal," prods Hipolito Ramirez, an inspector working with Frangello. It's been almost a week since the rat crews first invaded the neighborhood, and the inspectors are still going house to house, canvassing for rat damage.
"I don't need no medal," Frangello scoffs. He rings the two-flat's doorbell. After a minute or two, Mary Rasmussen (not her real name), a pale, blond, 86-year-old widow who lives alone on the top floor, edges down the stairs and unbolts the lock. She stands a few steps up from the door, her hand on the knob, in case she has to shut the door on these strangers.
"I'm from Streets and San," Frangello booms. "We're here for the rodents."
Mrs. Rasmussen shuffles to the bottom of the steps, looking pleased that these men have come to visit her.
"Yeah, we've had a lot of those," she says. "I'm the one that reported it. They run across the yard, about seven o'clock. They run under the fence."
When Mrs. Rasmussen leads the inspectors through the gate, it becomes evident that the warning sign should read BEWARE OF RATS. The rodents so dominate the yard that Mrs. Rasmussen won't let her poodle play outdoors.
Frangello and Ramirez begin examining the garage and the fence, their eyes scanning the ground. They find several huge holes in the dirt beneath the garage's stone foundation. While Frangello is recording this on his inspection sheet, Mrs. Rasmussen, who has been resting in a chair beside the house, snaps upright.
"There he goes!" she squeals, pointing at the garage.
Ten inches long from nose to tail, the rodent trundles across the grass. Rats are not swift creatures. They escape predators by squeezing into hideouts. This one dives into a hole.
"Years ago, we never saw anything like that," says Mrs. Rasmussen, who has lived in this house since 1926, when she was 14. "People aren't like they used to be. People have got so much garbage. The garbage cans are so full. It's just been in the last five years."
"I'm going to give you a number to call for a garbage cart, Mrs. Rasmussen." Frangello scrawls it on the back of a business card. "Because of the burrows on the property, we have to write up a notice to abate. You're going to have to fill the burrows with chicken wire and steel mesh with concrete on top o' that."
"Couldn't I hire someone to do that?" she asks.
"By all means you can."
"I'm alone and I don't know anyone."
"I know some handymen who do work like this. I'll give you a number. That first burrow is more active than your house on Thanksgiving Day."
Frangello and Ramirez stand around the yard a few minutes more, listening to Mrs. Rasmussen tell stories: how she's writing an article for Reader's Digest about her dog; how, back in the 30s, she had to look all over the west side to find a priest who would allow her to marry her Lutheran boyfriend. Frangello, who seems charmed, listens with a genial smile.
"All right, Mrs. Rasmussen," he says, as he and Ramirez prepare to move on to the next house. "We'll be back in a month to see how you're doin' with the garage."
Frangello and Ramirez walk out the gate together.
"Nice lady," Frangello says. "These are the ones I worry about in the neighborhood. The widows who've been living here forever and don't have anyone to look after them."
The rat inspectors leave the neighborhood around 11:30. No one wants to work west Humboldt Park in the afternoon. It's getting hot, people are starting to hang out in front of their cars, and a domestic brawl has already broken out on a front porch on Crystal. The inspectors return the next morning, though, and by the time they're done combing the alleys they've written up 52 properties. They tell a man on Kamerling to tow away the six abandoned cars on his property, since rats like to file their teeth on the electrical wires and burrow into the seats. They issue orders to cut weeds and warn one woman to clean up the dog feces in her yard. Anyone who doesn't fix things up in 30 days, or come up with a good excuse for not doing so, will have to appear in rodent court, at 400 W. Superior.
Patricia Rocquemore ended up in rodent court. Rocquemore owned the garage on West Crystal where her daughter Kimaco's cat supposedly was jumped and eaten. When she appeared in court in July she told the hearing officer that she didn't own a car, so it was fine with her if the city tore down the garage. The next day Streets and San sent out a front-end loader to do the job. The department tears down over 900 garages a year, spokesman Terry Levin says. Ninety-nine percent of the time it's because they've become rat motels.
When the demo crew arrives in the alley behind Rocquemore's house, they find a stripped, gutted Buick in her garage. Someone abandoned it there just since the inspectors last looked at the garage, two days ago. While the front-end loader is preparing to haul the car away, Rocquemore takes a last look inside her garage.
"The rats done got worse since we been here," she says. "With nobody using the garage, they done made themselves a home."
Rocquemore starts coughing. The bitter odor of rat urine is aggravating her lungs.
"That's bad for your asthma," she says, walking out into the fresh air.
The front-end loader crushes the roof of the garage, and the walls slump inward. A distressed rat dashes across the alley to look for a new burrow.
The machine takes about an hour to flatten the garage and haul the splintered wood to a dump truck waiting at the mouth of the alley. When the job is finished Frangello inspects the rubble. To his glee, he spots a dead rat on the foundation.
"Look at this," he chortles. "Hey, what happened here?"
Frangello kicks the rat off the concrete, into a pile of dirt and crushed asphalt.
"Ain't so tough now," he mocks.
It's been a month and a half since baiting crews began pouring rat poison down burrows here. Rats have been turning up dead all over the neighborhood. Kimaco Rocquemore found one in the grass when she was taking the garbage out.
"It was over by the door," she said. "The flies ate his head. It's a lot of dead rats in the grass now."
A few houses away, Geneva Foster had gathered up several rodenticide victims.
"It's much different since they put the poison down," Foster said. "I picked up five or six in the yard dead. They're still eating the poison."
And on Potomac, Mary Rasmussen regained her yard after spending $380 to lay a wire-reinforced cement apron around her garage.
"They're gone," she said. "They started disappearing about a week ago. I used to see one every day."
(Laura Leon of Nobel Neighbors, the local community group, says she's heard mixed reactions to the campaign. "Some blocks, they've been doing cleanup and they've seen a real difference," she says. Some residents complained the city was heavy-handed with its home-repair citations.)
The grass may be full of casualties, but rats still live under west Humboldt Park. Rats will always live under west Humboldt Park, and anywhere else their host organism--the human race--dwells. "There's going to be a day when we're done," predicts Terry Levin, of Streets and San. "We're going to replace all the carts, tear down all the garages. At that point, it's entirely up to the residents."
The war against rats will never be done, though. The plastic carts will crack open or be gnawed through.They'll be filled above the lid line and garbage will spill out of them into the alley. Someone will throw a Burger King bag containing a half-eaten Whopper on the ground and rats will eat it. Old wooden garages will rot from neglect and rats will move in. We'll never hunt this species into extinction, the way we did the passenger pigeon. They're too cunning and too fecund. In fact, their genius for adaptation burns so strongly that some rats in Europe have become immune to the second generation of poisons. If this new breed of superrat makes it to North America, it could start another Resistance, Howard says. The question for exterminators isn't "Can we get rid of rats?" It's "How many rats will we have to we live with?"
"There will always be rats where there's people," Howard says. "You go out to Asia and there's rats in the crop fields. There's no way you can stop it." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Randy Tunnell.