Mark Ritter knows he'll never get rid of all the rats in St. Louis -- but as long as he gets the ones he's after, that's all right with him

Bigger, stronger rats dominate the best food sources, forcing weaker rats to forage in the daytime. Rats will travel about 150 feet from their burrows to gather food, but they follow established trails, usually hugging walls and staying out of sight. The oil on their coats leaves a greasy, smelly smudge that other rats follow.

A male usually lives with two or three females. Their lifespan is about a year and a half, but they reproduce rapidly. They reach sexual maturity at eight to twelve weeks and produce five or six litters a year, with seven to ten pups in each litter.

Ritter, who's spent much of his life learning to think like a rat, sums it up this way: "Rats eat and reproduce. That's about all they do."

Pest control worker Anthony Elliott accompanying Ritter on an expedition into the heart of local rat habitat
Jennifer Silverberg
Pest control worker Anthony Elliott accompanying Ritter on an expedition into the heart of local rat habitat
The more rats Ritter can put in this state, the happier he is.
Jennifer Silverberg
The more rats Ritter can put in this state, the happier he is.

Ritter has been chasing rats, in some capacity, for nearly twenty years. He ran the custodial department at Maryville University, helping with landscape maintenance and groundskeeping in the 1980s, then worked for a private extermination company for a year in the early '90s. He joined the vector-control division in 1994 and worked there for a couple of years, then for two years as a city lead inspector, before becoming vector-control supervisor in 1999.

"It can be tough on a person," says Rich Stevson, head of the health department's animal-control and vector-control divisions, "especially in the summertime, during mosquito season, and especially after the summer we had last year with the West Nile virus. He has no free time. I'm constantly throwing things at him, and he's always out in the evenings, giving talks and presentations."

Ritter's first encounter with a rat came in South City, behind his grandparents' house on Wyoming Avenue, in the early 1960s. The alley behind the house held rows of old chicken coops, and even as a child, Ritter had heard stories about rats back there.

"I was told that rats used to come up from under the coops and grab a sick or dying chicken every once in a while," he says. "Then one day I was back there and fell into a huge rat warren. I stepped on it, and my foot went a couple of feet underground. Later that evening, my grandfather saw a rat hole and used the old tried-and-true method of dealing with rats in the 1960s. He poured gasoline down the hole and soaked the rats and set it on fire. We don't urge people to do that anymore. There are safer and less illegal ways to treat a rat problem."

As a boy, Ritter, whose father worked for Ozark Airlines, wanted to be a pilot. But he ended up working at Maryville University, where dealing with rats and other pests was part of his job. He never intended to become a rat expert.

"My wife's generally pretty amused by it," Ritter says. "She calls me the Vermin Man; sometimes in the summer she calls me Mosquito Man. My friends just love to call me Vermin Man. They just love it to death. It is kind of fun, though, to go to a party, and when someone asks me what I do for a living I can say, 'I kill things.' One aspect of my job I like is that on stressful days I can just gather my guys and tell them, 'Go forth and kill.'"

Not everyone shares Ritter's bloodlust. Even though most rat experts are found in the pest-control industry, a few people have had positive experiences with rats and see them as no different from any other animal.

"Just because they're pesky to us doesn't mean they don't have their own world, their own lives, too," says Kathy Guillermo, a spokeswoman and writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "They just do what they have to to survive."

During the late 1980s, Guillermo kept a brown rat she rescued from a local shelter in her office and, later, at her home in California. The rat, whom she named Angus, amazed her with his vibrant personality and affection during the four years she kept him. "Once Angus realized he wasn't going to be injured or hurt if he came out of the cage, he learned to come out, and he'd run to the edge of my desk or he'd stretch out on the top of my typewriter," Guillermo recalls.

Even when rats aren't as personable as Angus, Guillermo says, prevention, not extermination, is the answer. "People leave dog food out on the back patio or have large gaps under their garage door, then complain because they have rats. The way to deal with it is to stop it in the first place."

Ritter, on the other hand, has no compunction about killing rats. He may have the weight of history on his side: "They're a public-health concern. If you have a severe rat infestation and they're carrying the plague, you have a severe health issue. If you look at your history books, look at Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. That's always in the back of your mind."

In their continuing efforts to keep the plague at bay, Ritter's nine vector-control employees last year conducted more than 2,000 inspections for rat complaints and treated nearly 600 sites.

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