Rats are a growing problem in the nation’s capital, so public health officials put them on birth control. (AP Photo/Robert Mecea, File)
WASHINGTON, DC — Some rats in the nation’s capital are getting The Pill — well, sort of — so they won’t breed more like them. There are dozens of political jokes to be made about that, but before you send your mind into a downward spiral indulging in that particular fancy, know this: These rats are the four-legged, long-tailed vermin from the muridae family, and they’re so out of control that the health department is putting them on birth control.
No one knows if it will work. But the rat infestation in Washington — again, we know what you’re thinking — is so dire that something has to be done. They’re tunneling anywhere they find opportunity, under sidewalks and streets and through support beams. They’ve invaded the city sewer system. They gnaw on gas lines and electrical wires and, according to some estimates, are responsible for about a quarter of unexplained fires. Rats carry hundreds of disease-ridden pathogens and dangerous parasites and, overall, are just gross.
They. Are. Out. Of. Control.
D.C. is the fourth-rattiest city in the country, according to the pest-control company Orkin, and frisky little devils that they are, a pair of mating rats can produce as many as 15,000 descendants a year. Rats live only a couple of years at best, but do the math.
D.C. health officials did, and that’s why they have hired SenesTech, a company that developed a rat birth-control product called ContraPest. Rats gobble it up because it’s fatty and sweet, the company claims, and it immediately reduces their fertility.
The city has tried traps and poison, turned feral cats on the rats and even tried dry ice cocktails that effectively puts the rats to sleep. But with exponential rat population growth, the health department is looking at preventive program to supplement its control measures.
The product hasn’t been fully tested in a real-life citywide situation, but the health department is willing to make D.C. a guinea pig for rat contraception.
"I think this will be the real-world test," Gerard Brown, who heads DC Health’s rodent control department, told WRC-TV. "And then we’ll have some information to back up the claim that it does work. And we hope it does."
It’s not a cheap proposition, clocking in at about $300,000 for the ContraPest product alone. About $1 million has been budgeted for the project, which includes staff costs.
But given the rat problem, business owners like restaurateur Scott Bennett think "it’s going to be the best money ever spent" if the product works. His business in the Adams Morgan neighborhood backs up to an alley, one of 16 across the city, where ContraPest is being tested. Each city ward has two test alleys.
"Bring it on!" Bennett told WRC. "You have my full, whole-hearted support."
SenseTech says on its website that the birth control product has been successful in rat-infested multi-family housing complex in New York. Results were seen within a month, and ContraPest "successfully reduced the population," the company said.
ContraPest is also being tested in other cities, including Chicago and Boston, where a spokesperson told WRC the contraceptive product was discontinued because the city didn’t have an overly large rat population and other methods of control better suit its needs.
But with an increase in rat complaints in D.C., Brown said birth control for the rodents is worth trying in conjunction with other rat-control measures.
"We are excited … and we will be more excited if we determine that it’s successful," Brown told WRC.