Feb 10, 2022 - News

This D.C. dog is on the front line of the city's rat war

A rat scurries away while dog Manny catches a breath.
A rat scurries away while Manny catches a breath. Video: Cuneyt Dil/Axios

Everyone knows to scoop your dog’s poop.

But Manny, a 91-pound-nine-year-old Akita, leaves behind more to scoop up — dead rats.

Why it matters: Frustration over rats is increasing as the District’s population grows, and the resistance is getting creative.

  • Last year saw a record-high 12,638 complaints to 311 about rodents and insects. Calls have soared 130% since 2017, accelerating during the pandemic.
Data: Open Data DC. Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

What's happening: “I have been fighting this battle with rats for a couple of decades,” Marina Streznewski, told me as I joined her and Manny for an evening walk through Foggy Bottom, “And it's getting worse, and worse, and worse.”

  • For years, Manny has gleefully prowled for rats, his ears perking up when one is nearby. He leaps on trash cans, hounds bushes, and often races after rats.

Streznewski's war escalated in Oct. 2014, when her 4-month-old puppy Mamie died from leptospirosis.

  • Rats are a common asymptomatic carrier of the bacteria, and she suspects Mamie drank out from a puddle of infected water.

Several rats evaded Manny during my walkalong with Streznewski on a rainy and windy night. But she has many hunting stories. In the past year, he has killed maybe a dozen rats, Streznewski says — but you wouldn't know it by the way he sweetly wags his tail at people.

  • A first kill was two decades ago. Back then, Streznewski took her new Shiba Inu puppy on an evening walk and reached the landscaping of a condominium building. The puppy pounced on a rat and “shook it like a burrito, and that was the end of it,” she said.
  • In shock, Streznewski called the emergency veterinarian. They advised her that as long her dog had her vaccinations and did not eat the rat, she would be fine.

Zoom out: Bobby Corrigan, who has a Ph.D. in urban rats studies, has a scientific explanation for the species' success.

  • The Northeast megalopolis is “the rattiest” part of the United States, according to Corrigan, who is officially known as an urban rodentologist with over 160 publications. He advises cities, including the District.
  • “All you have to do is look at human densities,” he says. “These are mammals, and again, whether they're whales or wolves or rats or dogs or cats — or people — you need food. And you need shelter.”
  • In our booming urban cores, messy garbage cans and litter allow rats to flourish, he tells Axios. “Homo sapiens means wise person,” he says. “When it comes to our trash, we're homo sloppy."

The pandemic also spurred a migration of rats from restaurants to our homes, as more people stay in to eat at all times of the day.

  • “Now the rats are desperate and unpredictable,” says Gerard Brown, a veteran rodent control division leader at DC Health.

The growth of the rat population makes Streznewski's walks more nerve-wracking, especially when Manny chases after prey in fits and starts, straining his leash. Streznewski has to be hyper-alert to not fall over.

  • “He might be disappointed if there were fewer rats around,” she says, but, “I'd be more relaxed.”

Go deeper: Read an urban rat expert's tips to deter rats

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