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The critters that spread disease and creep us out


She lifted the toilet seat and screamed.It had half-crawled, half-swum up the pipe into the porcelain bowl, dragging its belly through the city's sewage, its hide glistening with waste. It came from an underground colony to Virginia-Highland in search of fresh meats, fruits, grains and vegetables. Back where it came from, it would kill and eat its brother if the food supply was low. But it would just as soon push through sewage to feed off you.

Rats are not like us. Their senses of hearing, smell and touch are keener than ours. They can hold their breath longer, fall farther, claw deeper. They will fight each other to the death to prove themselves to their peers.

Theirs is a world of structure. "They use their strength and viciousness to keep certain members of the society confined to certain areas," says Maxcy Nolan, a retired University of Georgia entomologist. "They respect that hierarchy because if they don't, they can get hurt or killed."

The are not like us. But they need us. We are their providers. They live in families of 10 or 20 in our pipes and sewers, our attics and trees. They are not at home at ground level, but they cannot resist the feast and warmth a human home offers. They nibble on our leftovers to fill their 10- to 17-ounce frames. Pound for pound, they are among the most dangerous and damaging creatures people have known.

About every city has rats. What sets Atlanta apart is its rat-friendly environment, and the local government's tepid response to rat control. The city phased out its Rat Attack team nearly 11 years ago, and Fulton County has slashed funding and staff positions for its own rat patrol. At the same time, there are more people in metro Atlanta, most of them living a more comfortable life, than ever before. So there are likely more rats, living off our fat. A headcount is not available, but scientists, exterminators and officials estimate that there is one rat for every person. Around 4 million people live in the Atlanta area.

Atlanta's growth and development has forced rats and residents to share closer quarters. To accommodate the influx of people and businesses, utility companies have tunneled underground to extend sewer and water lines. Contractors have gutted and renovated abandoned buildings to create luxury lofts. Bulldozers have leveled fields to make way for Super Wal-Marts. The construction has riled the rats that lived in these up-and-coming pockets.

"When you disrupt the normal rodent pattern," Nolan says, "you expose people to more rodents and the problems associated with rodents."

Ancient kind of germ warfare
The Norway rat arrived hundreds of years ago, not from Norway but on ships originating in Asia. It thrives in burrows, basements and sewers, and can grow to a pound in weight and a foot in length. People swear they've seen bigger. Residents and business owners in downtown Atlanta run into their share of Norway rats.

The smaller roof rat, which lives in trees and attics, weighs up to 10 ounces and grows up to 8 inches. It, too, arrived years ago by ship. It currently shacks up in wooded neighborhoods, like north Fulton and the suburbs.

Both species have short lifespans, but thousands of years of evolution endowed them with unrivaled survival skills. The roof rat is a skilled climber, the Norway a swift swimmer. Both have fangs that grow constantly, allowing them to gnaw through concrete or metal without shortening their teeth.

They multiply at a manic rate. Female Norway and roof rats live about 18 months and can give birth to more than 10 litters producing more than 180 total babies. Each of the offspring, like the generations before, can carry 100 different bacterial and viral diseases. They are conditioned to survive all but the worst of those diseases, and they carry them to us.

"In many cases, these disease organisms have co-evolved with these specific hosts for thousands of years, or millions of years," says Dr. James Mills with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "In the natural cycle of these diseases, humans have not been present. They're dead-end hosts and they happen to get in the way of the transmission, like catching a stray bullet."

Mills studies the ecology of animals -- most often rats -- that carry viruses like hantavirus, or bacteria like Yersinia pestis (the plague) and leptospira. He is an expert in rat-borne diseases as they relate to places as distant as China and as far back as two millenia ago, and he has reached a disturbing conclusion about the relationship between man and rat.

"It may be," he says, "the most dangerous interaction between a human and any other animal."

Never was that more clear than in 14th-century Europe, the setting of the greatest rodent-related epidemic in modern history. The Black Death wiped out a third of the European population. The bacteria that caused Bubonic plague spread to humans through rat fleas. Rats died; their fleas jumped to humans.

Bubonic plague starts with a swollen lymph gland, then a fever, chills, headache and fatigue. Left untreated, the bacteria multiply in the blood. Without antibiotics, the disease usually is fatal.

Plague predated the 14th century. It also exists today, in much smaller numbers. Each year, about a dozen people in the U.S. are diagnosed with plague. About two of them will die.

There are other, more recently discovered cases of rat-related disease. In 1993, 11 young Native Americans living in four Southwestern states became ill. It wasn't plague. But it was carried by rats. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is rare but deadly. People can get it from a rat bite and from rat feces or urine entering a wound. They more commonly get it by breathing.

Rat feces and urine, as they dry out, release particles of hantavirus into the air. You breathe it in. It could be a week later; it could be five. First comes the shortness of breath, and coughing. Within four to 10 days, your lungs start filling with fluid. You will likely end up in the hospital, on a ventilator, or dead. The disease is fatal in one in three cases.

Since the 1993 outbreak, 274 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome have been reported in 31 states. Georgia is not one of them.

Few cases of rat-related illnesses have been identified in Georgia. Mills says that doesn't mean disease isn't around. "It's probably just there and under-diagnosed," he says. "You really have to look for it in order to see it."

Rat experts believe leptospirosis to be the most common disease rats carry -- and the least recognized. It resembles the flu. Tests that detect the bacteria are expensive, and few health departments are equipped to administer the test. The ones that are equipped usually must confirm their results through the CDC.

People contract leptospirosis after drinking or swimming in water that contains infected rat urine. The leptospira bacteria causes aches, pains and fever in most of the people infected with it. But a tenth of those infected with leptospirosis suffer acute kidney failure, internal bleeding and even death. In 1996, researchers trapped rats in Baltimore alleys to search for the presence of leptospirosis. Of the 21 rats trapped and tested, 19 carried the bacteria.

Two years later, the CDC found leptospirosis in samples taken from 35 people who had been swimming in a Springfield, Ill., lake. A total 73 people exposed to the lake were treated for illness, and 228 lake-goers reported symptoms.

There have been five documented cases of leptospirosis in Georgia since 1993, the last available year for such records, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health.

Mills suspects there are numerous cases of leptospirosis and other diseases in Georgia that have gone unnoticed. Because his job is to track such disease internationally, he cannot say just how many Atlantans might carry rat-borne viruses or bacteria. But he doesn't have to leave his Druid Hills home to form a personal opinion about rats in Atlanta.

"I have problems with rats in my house, and I see them in the streets from time to time," he says. "And it's disconcerting and disturbing. I would say that the situation has not improved, not in the seven years I've lived here."

Rat fighting not what it used to be
Nobody really knows how many rats live in Atlanta, nor is it easy to determine whether more people are complaining about them. Fulton County keeps records of rat complaints for only three years. The Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness failed last week to answer an Open Records request for files on those complaints.

Some spotty information on Fulton County rat complaints offers no definite trend. John Gormley, who has worked 21 years for the Health Department, says the county received 4,215 rat complaints in 1994, 6,600 in 1995, and 2,084 in the first half of 1998. The numbers give no real insight into the rat population, partly because county residents increasingly call on private exterminators to handle rat infestations.

Gormley does have an unofficial assessment: "For every rat that you see, there's 10 that you don't see. Or 100, depending on where you're at."

Gentrification may be exacerbating the problem. Every time a bulldozer shoves a pile of earth or an old foundation, it could be eliminating a rat burrow; whole colonies have been uprooted by vacant lots-turned-condominiums and the demolition of condemned houses. The rats that live there are forced to find somewhere else to go, and they seldom go homeless for long. Take away their home, they'll find another.

The opening can be a crack in the foundation, as big as a buttonhole. They push their heads through and then collapse their skeletons, squeezing their foot-long bodies onto your polished wood floors. They may see only 13 feet in front of them, but that doesn't matter. They know where to go. They race along baseboards, their whiskers skimming the wall like antennae. They raise their quivering noses in the air to pick up a scent of something appetizing. They can smell the food on a human's breath. It can send them into a frenzy.

"The hunger is the primary reason they'll attack a person," Gormley says.

He knows this from experience. One call he vividly remembers came from the Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital on Butler Street. The nurse asked him to check out her patient's south Atlanta home. The rented green house sat on a dirt lot scattered with waist-high weeds. The landscape was dotted with rat burrows, each of them about three inches in diameter. The rat surfaced at night, worked its way into the green house and ran past piles of droppings scattered across the floor. The toddler had been sleeping, bits of un-chewed food collecting in his drool.

"The rat started licking, then eating, then biting," Gormley says.

The Fulton County rat patrol is responsible for inspecting rat-infested sites and handing out bait and traps to people who need them. Its efforts stop there. The county spends $10,000 annually on rat bait, poison and education, as compared to rat extermination budgets of $8 million in New York, $5 million in Washington D.C. and $500,000 in Baltimore. DeKalb County will spend $145,000 this year on rat control, but that includes salaries for three full-time employees. Fulton's budget -- down from $15,000 a few years ago -- is just enough for education material and crates of bait and poison. "We exhaust them every year," Gormley says.

Gormley says budget cuts and understaffing are partly to blame. He also says the county's program -- rather than doing the poisoning itself -- has made headway in educating the public on how to control rats. Whether the county's effort has aided the public or not, one thing is clear: The war on Atlanta's rats isn't what it used to be.

"The program should probably be built up like it was 15 or 20 years ago," says Kevin Jones, interim environmental health manager for central Fulton County. "We know the rat population hasn't decreased."

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the city of Atlanta employed approximately 17 full-time workers devoted to its Rat Attack team. Throughout the 1980s, the team shrank to six workers. In 1989, the city's team was phased out altogether and the county took over. At that time, Fulton County had six rat patrollers. That staff has since dwindled to one full-time employee and six part-timers, each of whom spend about a tenth of his or her time on rats, Gormley says.

DeKalb County Board of Health reports a steady 2,000 rat complaints per year -- about a third of the calls Fulton took in 1995. Those employees confirm the presence of rats, determine what is attracting them and place poison.

Mills, of the CDC, says Fulton County is not alone in its cutbacks.

"I kind of lament the fact that at one time, most major cities in the United States had rat control programs that were very effective," he says. "Now, in this age of cost-cutting and other priorities, those programs have disappeared and the problem is coming back."

Because of the budget cuts, the fight against rats has now shifted from the public to the private sector.

"The health departments have a mandate to do certain things, but they have priorities and they have budgets," says Nolan, the retired entomologist who studied rats for 35 years. "A lot of times, they allow folks to either take care of the problems themselves or get professionals in to help."

Tools of termination
J.J. Younts says he and other pest exterminators, have filled a niche the county and city ignore. "They don't take any responsibility," he says. "That's why we're in business."

In the repertoire of rodent control, there are the familiar methods like snap traps, glue boards and poisons. There also are more revolutionary items on the market, like chemical repellents that ward off new rats and erase the scents of old. There are live traps for homeowners who get queasy at the sight of a dead rat, and electrocution boxes for those less bothered by death.

"There's a little chamber in which the animal walks and gets fried," says Jonathan Schaefer, owner of a Lilburn pest-control store called U-Spray Inc. "It's kind of like the electric chair."

The rat, attracted to the loganberry-scented bait inside, enters the chamber and steps on a pad, triggering a 30- to 60-second volt of electricity. Within five or 10 seconds, the rat is dead. The nine-volt battery attachment is capable of killing between 10 and 30 rats. An extra battery pack allows the device to kill up to 100. A basic zapper starts at $50, with larger versions going for $80 and $90.

"Though humane, this type of death can be messy," according to Schaefer's website,

Live traps are cleaner, cheaper and safer, especially for pets that might paw at a trap. But with a live trap, an individual becomes responsible for killing the rat, or somehow getting rid of it. Schaefer suggests drowning, freezing or relocating.

To drown a rat, place the whole cage-like trap in a bucket of water for 15 minutes. To freeze it, leave the trap in the freezer overnight. To relocate it, drive the rat at least five miles away, so it won't find its way back.

Or, hire someone.

John Underwood, owner of Atlanta Animal Evictions, describes himself as a meticulous and conscientious exterminator. His truck is stocked with supplies like fox urine and coyote gland. He soaks his traps in a special oil to attract rats and glues eye-catching props to them. He carries a black light that illuminates rat urine. He buys coupon books filled with $5 vouchers. In exchange for a voucher, the city of Atlanta will incinerate a dead animal. Underwood says that for the sake of health and hygiene, he abstains from burying the dead or tossing them in dumpsters.

Underwood, on his initial visit to a rat-infested house, spends the first hour-and-a-half scouring evidence of rodents' habits. "I'm looking for openings, trails in insulation, droppings, the food source and how it's eaten."

If it's rats he's after, he'll place up to six dozen traditional snap traps, 10 tunnel traps, 10 live traps, numerous glueboards, maybe a zapper or two, and body grip traps, which fit over small holes leading into the infested home. "I work crawl spaces," he says. "I work basements. I work attics."

For $250 to $500, Underwood will devote about two weeks to a job. He'll dispel rat myths for customers. He tells them, for instance, that cats lure more rats than they kill because rats love pet food. He'll visit his clients at least once every other day. On the day before Thanksgiving, Underwood called on clients in Lilburn, Loganville, Dacula, Buckhead, Dobbins Air Force Base, Roswell and Dunwoody. That was by 6 p.m. And he was on his way back out to answer calls in the city.

Rats aren't the source of all his calls. He also traps mice, squirrels, foxes, possum and coyotes, among other creatures. But rats are the source of his greatest frustration. "The problem with me and rats is they can reproduce as fast as we catch them," he says. "It's difficult to catch all of them."

In fact, it may be impossible.

Even if you were to take away all the curbside trash, all the rat-attracting birdseed and feeders, and all the rodent-luring bowls of outdoor pet food; even if you were to board up every half-inch entrance to every home and business, demolish every vacant house and seal every sewage pipe; even if you spread poison to every rat colony, there's no guarantee that the rat population would disappear entirely.

"You try to isolate it," Schaefer says, taking a break from ringing up customers at his pest-control store. "But what you have to understand is that rodents have always coexisted with man, and the only place where they do exist is where man is. It's always been a side-by-side relationship."

They have adapted to humans, and they have adapted to our efforts to kill them. Nolan, the entomologist, has helped develop rat poison to meet EPA standards. He found that rats catch on to the poison's presence when some members of their society begin dying. They know where the dead rats walked, and they won't go there. The rats that survive poisoning serve a purpose, too. They pass trace amounts of the poison to other rats, building their immunity. New poisons are constantly being developed to keep up with rats' resistance.

Younts, who makes his living off killing rats, says there is no foreseeable end to rat infestations. But he believes that there is a way to drastically reduce Norway rats in the city. To do it, Younts says, you have to go underground. "It's an unsolvable problem," Younts says, "unless you really get down there and do some serious rat-trapping."

For Younts and the sewer rats, the battle is a mind game, on their turf. You must corner them in their environment to get in their heads. "You gotta know how they think to know how to catch them," he says.

He has descended to the sub-Atlanta sewer to face the enemy, and he swears the enemy stared him down. Those rats are bold, he says. They're smart enough to stay underground during the day, if they can. There, in the comfort of the sewer, they multiply. And they'll rest just long enough to recognize the gnawing hunger in their yellow bellies, just long enough to take that swim up the pipes. Younts knows. He's the guy who took that call one night from the screaming Virginia-Highland woman. Younts wasn't all that daunted. "I just went over there and pulled him out," he says. He laughs a little when he describes it: "She lifted the toilet seat and ... "

Gormley is more grave when it comes to rodents and their persistence. He recalls one of the county's most prodigious tasks, the elimination of rats at the abandoned MARTA repair station on Pine Street across from Renaissance Park. The downtown site was closed in the early 1980s. Trash from as many as 30 homeless people accumulated for eight years in 100-foot pits. Looking into the pits, Gormley saw the trash moving. "Garbage was the water," Gormley says. "Rats were the fish." The cleanup started took more than a year to complete. Some of the rats died. More simply relocated.

"You'll probably never be able to get rid of rats," he says. "Not in our lifetime, anyway."

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