How to Kill a Rat

There was a time, in the 1970s, when rats outnumbered humans in Chicago two-to-one. It was the age of the superrats, huge, aggressive vermin who bit 100 Chicagoans a year. Cats were afraid to go out of doors. One family tried to make peace with the rats by feeding them Quaker Oats. The little pests were so tame they ran across the mother’s shoulders when they emerged from their burrow in the couch. The Department of Streets and Sanitation raided the house, and beat every last rat to death with sticks and shovels. In rat-killing circles, it was a period known as The Resistance.

Rats were hard to kill in those days, because the only poisons available -- DDT, arsenic and strychnine -- also killed house pets. So rat crews pumped burrows full of poison and waited outside with broom handle to whack the rats that scrambled outside for fresh air. In the late 1970s, scientists came up with an anticoagulant called Talon, which caused rats to bleed out of every orifice. Now, Streets and San crews go around town, pouring it down rat holes.

Cutting the city’s rat baiting crews in half, as Laborers Local 1001 claims Streets and San is planning to do, won’t cause the rat population to explode to 6 million again. But it may increase the rat problem in poor neighborhoods, where overcrowded buildings generate more garbage than carts can hold.

When I lived in Uptown, I had a rat in my apartment. It used to emerge from under the sink and run across the kitchen floor, like the chuck wagon in the old dog food commercial. I finally poisoned it. One day, I came home to a funky odor, and found my pet rat curled up under the radiator. Soon after that, I got permission to accompany a Streets and San crew on a rat safari in West Humboldt Park. There, I met Terry Howard, the city’s legendary rat man. Howard, an Irish immigrant, worked as an exterminator before Mayor Richard J. Daley drafted him to lead the war against the superrats. Howard helped develop a strategy of poison, garbage carts with tight lids, and a “rodent court” forcing homeowners to rat-proof their properties by sealing holes in concrete and tearing down old garages that served as rat’s nests. Howard succeeded in reducing the rat population to under 500,000. Even after he retired, he stayed on with the city as a consultant in a war against “the little buggers.”

“I still get a kick outta killin’ rats,” Howard said. “I seen too much damage done. This is my ballgame, my Cubs, my Bears, my Sox. They’re just another dumb animal.”

(After I wrote about Howard, I got a call from sex columnist Dan Savage, asking for his number. Savage wanted to know whether a rat could crawl inside a grown man. Knowing Howard was a conservative Catholic, I refused.)

With budget cuts to the city’s rodent program, I would advise all Chicagoans to wear heavy boots and carry broomsticks, especially when walking through alleys. If you see a rat, you may have to kill it yourself.

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