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

Since the '70s, when St. Louis started using metal-and-plastic containers for garbage collection, rats haven't been a significant nuisance. But in a river town with high concentrations of restaurants and a sewer system with sections that date back to the mid-nineteenth century, rats will always be around.

"There are spots in certain areas of the city that we've been targeting for a number of years," Ritter says. "We'll always be treating them until the building is torn down or the sewer system is replaced. We can control it, but we'll never exterminate them completely."

“On stressful days, I can just gather my guys and tell them, ‘Go forth  and kill.’”
Ryan Greis
“On stressful days, I can just gather my guys and tell them, ‘Go forth and kill.’”
“There are a lot of people who have no idea what’s underneath their bird feeder at night.”
Ryan Greis
“There are a lot of people who have no idea what’s underneath their bird feeder at night.”

Rats need three things to survive: food, water and shelter. "Any place you have all three of those things, you can have a rat population," says Greg Baumann, technical director of the National Pest Management Association in Dunn Loring, Virginia. "The types of food they eat are consistent with the types of food we eat. If there's an explosion in the rat population, it's one of two reasons: either a sanitation issue, which is true of a lot of pests, or there's a food source or a place to live."

The most effective way to treat a rat problem is to first exterminate the existing population -- with poison applied to the burrow or, in rare circumstances, traps -- and then to block access to food, water and shelter so that more rats don't move in.

"You can sometimes control harborage, you can definitely control food and you can definitely control water," Ritter says. "If you can control two of those factors, then you introduce poison bait so they'll eat it. Then you're in good shape."

Most thriving rat populations depend on the unwitting cooperation of people. In some cases, as in the North St. Louis neighborhood Ritter inspected in late March, sewer problems are the primary cause. But most often it's simple human oversight that brings rats.

"Most of the time, when people get them, there's a situation in the yard that's attracting them, or an old sewer system separation where they can get to food and fecal matter," Ritter says. He mentions an elderly woman a few years ago who fed birds in her back yard with a whole ham hock.

"Most people aren't aware they're doing it."

But the city's 150-year-old sewer system can be a problem even when people are careful about rats. The ancient pipes, some of them made of clay and brick, often separate, creating leaks and spills that quickly attract rats and other vermin.

"Some of [the pipes] have held up, to the surprise of today's engineers," says Ollie Dowell, director of public affairs for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. "The thing is they're just old. One of the problems, especially in the city, is that the combined sewers may break, and in that case you have a situation where what's supposed to be in the sewer gets in someone's basement or back yard."

In March, the MSD board removed a measure from ballots that, if approved by voters, would have allowed the agency to issue $500 million in bonds to pay for new sewer lines and sewer plants. The agency's board was replaced after state auditors smelled a rat in MSD's accounting practices. The new board withdrew the measure, but it may return. "We'll get it back on the ballot in November," Dowell says, "hopefully."

Rats, like human beings, can be found anywhere. They have no particular affection for the city. And, like people, many rats fled to the suburbs years ago. "They can survive anywhere humans survive," Baumann says.

Every summer, rat complaints seem to pop up in unexpected places. In September, residents of St. Ann complained to their City Council about rat sightings. The year before, people in St. John and Maplewood had similar problems. Unlike the city, St. Louis County's vector-control office doesn't treat rat infestations.

"We can't bait on private property, just public property," says Ellen Waters, public-information officer for the St. Louis County Health Department. In the county's municipalities and in St. Charles County, the police and health departments are usually willing to help people with rat infestations, but exterminators are generally the most effective -- if somewhat expensive -- way to get rid of rats in the suburbs.

Jeff Holper, who's run Holper's Pest & Animal Solutions for eighteen years, says rats and mice make up about a quarter of his business. Clayton and University City, especially around the Washington University campus, are particular problem areas for Holper. "There's a huge pocket of old sewers in Clayton, so they have a huge rat problem," Holper says.

"Then there are a lot of people who think they're feeding birds but they're just making the rats fat and happy. They have no idea what's underneath their bird feeder at night." When they find out, Holper says, it can be "a life-changing experience."

One of Holper's clients -- who asks that his name not be used -- had that kind of experience. A few years ago, the man and his wife were out on a Sunday afternoon. Their sixteen-year-old daughter and thirteen-year-old son were at their home in Clayton.

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