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

"We got a phone call. My daughter was screaming frantically," he says. "I thought an intruder was in the house or someone was injured. It sounded like an incredible crisis. She was crazy on the phone."

It took a few minutes to sort out what had happened. Their daughter had gone into the bathroom on the second floor of the house, lifted the toilet seat and stared straight into the eyes of a rat.

"I told my son to go upstairs and put the seat down," he says. "He said he wasn't going up there. My son and I hunt together, and he thinks of himself as a manly kind of guy. He would not go back inside to close the seat."

That was one of several episodes with rats the family experienced. A year earlier, the son had found a dead rat in a trap inside the shower stall. "I don't know if you've had the pleasure of seeing a rat in a trap," Holper's client says. "The snout gets caught, and it shoots blood everywhere. You're just walking calmly into the shower and see that, or getting ready to sit on the throne and run into one. My son wouldn't even go back in the bathroom. My daughter's in college now, but she doesn't use that toilet any more when she comes home."

Ritter has similar stories, such as the one about a nearly blind woman who thought she was feeding squirrels in her back yard -- they were rats -- and let them crawl in her lap. Or the St. Louis police officer who was ready to shoot a rat he had trapped in his bathroom. Or the 110-pound rottweiler, raised for illegal dog fights, backed up against a fence by a pack of five or six rats. Or the house with 200 rat burrows in the back yard.

Ritter doesn't like rats. Anyone who's spent twenty years killing them probably doesn't. Even after so much experience, he still finds them creepy. But his life has become inextricably intertwined with theirs, and he often finds himself trying to think like a rat.

"It's easy for me," he says. "I'm a bureaucrat."

He knows what rats do, where they do it and why -- almost as well as he knows himself. Although he thinks about rats a lot, he doesn't dream about them, keep them as pets or train them to do his bidding. He likes telling his stories, and he takes some satisfaction in being the city's go-to guy on vermin, but it's a job, not an obsession. He's proud of cleaning up the worst rat infestation he's ever seen, two years ago, at a grain elevator on the north end of Grand Boulevard, near the river. "It was a rat city -- let's put it that way," he says. It took him three months, but he cleared the rats out, and they haven't been a problem since.

Ritter knows he'll never get rid of all the rats in St. Louis.

As long as he gets the ones he's after, that's all right with him.

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