Inside Out Blog

01 Jul

DC’s Rat Problem: A Storied History

We’ve blogged previously about DC’s rat problem. It may come as shock that Washington, DC is the third most rat-infested city in America only behind New York and Chicago, which are numbers one and two, respectively. As discussed in the previous blog post, a big part of DC’s rodent problem is due to extensive real estate development within the city coupled with ample sources of food in the form of refuse from DC’s many fine-dining establishments. Life is good for rodents in DC these days. But this isn’t a recent development. Rats in the Nation’s capital can trace their roots all the way back to the District’s earliest days.

First, some background on rats. They are not native to North America or even Europe for that matter. Interestingly enough, they originated in Asia, eventually migrating to Western Europe bringing along diseases such as the infamous Black Plague which devastated Europe during the Middle Ages.

First settlers and rodent stowaways

The first rats in America came over the same way as the earliest European immigrants to the New World: they hitched a ride on a boat. The two main varieties of rats are black and brown rats. Both thrive by living in close proximity to humans. This is primarily because humans provide a steady and reliable source of food. It seems humans have a long and storied history of being slobs no matter where they’ve been.

Having established a foothold in America’s capital city prior to the War for Independence; DC’s rodent inhabitants would be the beneficiaries of further American military conflicts in the centuries that followed.

DC rats and the Civil War

At the start of the American Civil War, Washington, DC was still a sparsely-populated backwater with only a few thousand inhabitants. At the same time, the city was in the cross hairs of the Confederate Army and was in desperate need of strong defenses. It didn’t help matters that the Confederates wanted to make DC their capital. Thousands of Union volunteers along with professional soldiers descended upon Washington to not only fortify the city, but also to use it as a staging area for campaigns such as the First Battle of Bull Run and others to follow.

lincoln's first inaguration civil war and rats
Lincoln’s first inauguration, March 4, 1861

During the latter stages of the war, the population of the city swelled. Government buildings were pressed into service as hospitals and temporary military prisons. The U.S. Capitol even served for a time as a temporary hospital. The Army Corps of Engineers performed heroic work confronting the water and sanitation needs of the now teeming city, however, despite their valiant efforts, sewage and garbage piled up in streets and alley ways of Civil War era DC.

DC was a funky place back then – even more so than it is today. Along with open trash pits and on-going construction of the capital city (Lincoln insisted on continuing with construction during the war) it can only be assumed that the now entrenched rat population experienced a boom in number as a result of these new found hospitable conditions.

DC and the war effort

The Second World War spurred Washington, DC to even greater heights of development and growth. Incredible mobilization was undertaken to prepare America for entering the war and tens of thousands of personnel – both military and civilian — descended upon DC.

Temporary military housing and office buildings were hastily constructed on the National Mall. There were buildings from one end of the Mall to the other. Some were located outside the National Gallery of Art, while others were built down by the Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool. Some of these structures remained in place until the 1970s.

The die was cast and the economic boom following the war set DC on its present course as a densely-populated city serving as not only the seat of the federal government, but also as a major American city with a diverse population and a thriving economy.

Rats, activism and unprecedented growth

Despite its diverse population, DC remained a segregated urban center in the years following World War Two and to a large extent, remains so even today. The DC rat problem was already an issue during the 1960s, especially in predominantly African American neighborhoods such as Northeast, DC, which also happened to be where legendary political activist Julius Hobson lived.

Frustrated with the inaction of the DC government to address the rat problem in his neighborhood, Hobson began trapping rats and threatened to drop them off in wealthier DC neighborhoods such as Georgetown. His rationale was that things weren’t a problem in DC until they became a “white problem.” It’s unlikely that Hobson actually followed through on his threats (he even threatened to drop off rats on the steps of the White House), but it was enough for the DC City Council to take notice and create rat control programs for Northeast and Southeast, DC.

Effective DC rodent control solutions

Today, DC’s Department of Health has a dedicated rodent control program. This is a clear indicator just how serious the DC rat problem has become. DC’s extensive real estate development and construction is driving rats from their existing habitats only to have them quickly relocate to new accommodations throughout the city. Just about anywhere within the city limits of DC is a prime location for an upwardly mobile rat family. Ready access to abundant supplies of tasty food can be found by rodents almost anywhere in the District of Columbia.

None of these conditions bodes well for DC’s rat problem subsiding any time soon. DC commercial pest control companies can trap and spray poisons until the cows come home, but none of these tactics will have much of a lasting impact on the problem. A prudent and strategic plan of sanitation combined with reducing the availability of outside habitats for rodents combined with sealing off access to building interiors is the most promising way forward.

Have a rodent problem at your commercial property in DC? Request a free, no-obligation assessment today using the quote from on our Commercial DC Rodent Control services page. We’re confident we can make your DC rat problem a part of history!

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