WASHINGTON — Andre Pittman and Gregory Cornes are on a mission to rid Washington of opportunistic vermin.
But their target isn’t corrupt officials or shady political fixers; it’s Rattus Norvegicus, the common Norway Rat.
The nation’s capital is facing a spiraling rat infestation, fueled by mild winters and a human population boom. Washington’s government is struggling to keep pace, with the pest control department fielding a record number of calls.
On one recent day, Pittman and Cornes, both veteran Health Department employees, were working within sight of the Capitol, shoveling dry ice pellets into suspected rat burrow entrances. On another, they’re summoned about six blocks north of the White House, at 16th Street and M, where residents have complained of an outbreak.
“Rats adapt to everything. They can be like geniuses,” Pittman said.
On the grounds of a church, Cornes and Pittman poke around, expertly spotting telltale holes and matted dirt trails that signal rat burrows. Cornes uses an instrument like an extra-long Super Soaker to inject poison into the hole, while Pittman watches to see if the white powder puffs up from other holes and then shovels dirt to block those exits.
At the office building next door, the crew receives a hearty welcome from the security guard.
“The rats would scurry over employees’ feet as they left the building after sunset,” says the guard, who asked that his name not be published so as not to embarrass his employer. “We finally moved all garbage cans away from the door because that’s where they would feed and party.”
Cornes assures him, “We’re winning.”
The numbers don’t exactly back up Cornes’ confidence. The pest control company Orkin ranks Washington as America’s fourth “Rattiest City,” based on the number of new service calls per year. That’s up one spot from the previous year and just behind Los Angeles and New York; Chicago has been ranked No. 1 for four consecutive years.
While Washington doesn’t boast New York’s famous subway monsters, anecdotal evidence is piling up that the rodents are on the march. In September, a viral video showed security camera footage of a rat pulling a fire alarm , forcing the evacuation of an apartment building.
This isn’t even Washington’s first war on rats. Former Mayor Anthony Williams referenced rat problems in his inauguration speech in 1999. Back in 1967, a rat gnawing on power station wires knocked out electricity for about a third of Washington for nearly an hour.