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Mark Ritter pulls his white city pickup truck to the side of the road and points up the sloping hill of Melvin Avenue, in the far north spur of St. Louis. Small houses, some of them neatly kept, others in shambling disrepair, line the streets of this poor and working-class neighborhood just a few blocks from the Mississippi River.
During heavy rains, Ritter says, runoff from the city's antiquated sewer system drains down the hill and creates a prime breeding ground for rats at the bottom. "I know the sewer system here is contributing to the problem," he says.
The white wood-frame house Ritter has parked in front of has had a rat outbreak. Crews from the vector control division of the St. Louis Department of Health have been out a couple of times to lay poison pellets, but effective rat control usually takes six to eight weeks. That's long enough to tax the patience of any resident who's seen a rat.
Ritter, vector-control supervisor for the city of St. Louis, scans the front yard and quickly spots a small hole, about six inches across, nestled in the corner of the yard between the house and the driveway. It probably leads to a burrow under the concrete front porch, and it could house as many as a dozen brown rats. The grass around the opening has been chewed away, indicating that the rats that dug the burrow are still using it.
"Rats don't like to be touched, so they clear all that away at the entrance," Ritter says. He's 46 years old, rotund and congenial, but his round, open face and glasses make him look younger. He wears a baseball cap, even on the few days a year when he has to wear a necktie. A regular guy who's been reined in by a management position, he relishes the few opportunities he gets to be, as he says, "out in the field." And he knows as much about rats as anyone else in the city.
As he's examining the hole, a woman opens the front door and sticks her head out, curious about the strangers in her front yard at 9 a.m. on a brisk day in late March.
"We're with the health department," Ritter says, waving his hand toward her before she has a chance to say anything. His eyes stay focused on the hole. "It's OK."
The woman says she hasn't seen rats in the past few days and asks Ritter whether they're gone. He tells her they're probably still living under the house but that his crew will be back soon. He reminds her to keep her garbage cans tightly closed. She nods.
"As long as they don't come in here, that's all right," she says.
No one knows how many rats live in St. Louis. Just as people exaggerate the size of the rats they see scurrying along downtown streets or alleys, they tend to overestimate the number of rats on the basis of anecdotal evidence. In the 1970s, when rats were a huge problem in New York City and all along the East Coast, experts guessed that the rat population of the United States might equal the human population.
Most rat experts tend to dismiss those figures now, saying there's no way to count rats anywhere. Rats are nocturnal, and they carefully avoid people and predators. The most common species in most big cities -- the Norway rat, or Rattus norvegicus -- lives primarily underground, so an exact count is next to impossible. Even Ritter says he's only seen live rats seven times in the nine years he's been with the city's vector-control office.
But for people who've encountered rats -- who have seen them corner a pit bull or watched dozens of them feast at a grain silo or met them in their own toilets -- the experience can be haunting.
See a rat, and you'll never forget it.
It's not necessarily size that makes an impression. An average adult rat reaches ten inches in length, not counting a seven- to eight-inch tail, and tips the scales at a pound or so. At its biggest, a rat is much smaller than a typical pet dog or cat, but what a rat lacks in size, it more than makes up for in attitude.
A rat, for instance, will hold its breath for five minutes and swim a mile and a half just to reach your bathroom. Like Spider-Man, a rat will crawl straight up the side of a brick building; like Superman, it can jump from a 60-foot-tall building and land on its feet. If cornered, a rat will attack cats, dogs and even human beings. Not unlike a typical fraternity member, a rat maintains a single-minded focus on life's basics -- food and sex.
A rat can find food almost anywhere. Rats are omnivorous and will even resort to cannibalism when food is scarce, with the stronger males killing and eating the weaker ones. They prefer grains and cereal but will eat fruit and nuts, dog food, garbage or even animal waste, and they ruin far more food than they actually consume. For shelter, Norway rats like to be close to the ground -- or underground, if they can. They dig under houses, make burrows in basements or inside building foundations, or settle under abandoned cars and outdoor woodpiles.