There was a full moon the night I saw the rat.
I had seen bigger rats before, but never one in this Brookside neighborhood and never one this brazen. This wasn't a nervous rodent scurrying around a Dumpster. It moved with fearless swagger as it merrily crossed 59th Street. I stared as it found the sidewalk and then strolled along like a homeowner on a morning walk, nodding at the neighbors.
The next day, I mentioned that brassy Rattus norvegicus to a neighbor. He grabbed my arm, suddenly possessed. "Don't let anyone know what you saw," he said.
It's the thing you don't hear anybody talk about in Willard, that horror classic about killer rats: real estate. Rats don't kill people, but they're hell on house value.
And this lone gunman from the rat underground set my neighbor into a paroxysm of dread, confirming his suspicions about Kansas City's long-sought sewer renovations.
"When that happens," he told me about the project, "thousands — maybe millions — of rats will come up from the sewers and take over Kansas City. The streets will be overflowing with them, like in some Third World country."
He's not the only one quaking in his bungalow. As I began to ask around over the following two weeks, I heard a half-dozen more variations of the displaced-rat scenario, all from seemingly well-adjusted people otherwise immune to urban legend.
"Don't forget what happened in the 1990s, during the Brush Creek Flood Control and Beautification Project," one person warned me. "They tore up those old sewers near the Plaza, and the West Plaza neighborhood was inundated by rats."
I was reminded of a story I'd heard a lot back then, about a doctor living in one of the tasteful homes along Westwood Road, who found two jumbo rats lounging in his basement laundry room, where they'd eaten through a wooden door. Surely an apocryphal tale, right?
Well, no, according to Michael Swoyer, the supervisor of the Kansas City Health Department's rat-control program.
"There's documented truth to that tale," he told me when I called him. "There was a big uptick in rat complaints from that neighborhood during that time." (Darryl Franke, owner of SOS Pest Control, which has had a contract with the Health Department since 1995, confirmed that he was sent to the West Plaza "a whole lot of times" during that period.)
So is the sewer overhaul a precursor to rat domination?
"Kansas City has always had rats," Swoyer says. "They're already everywhere."
Kansas City's rat population exists in an arc extending from the Missouri River on the north to the old city limits — around 85th Street — to the south. And Swoyer says downtown (and the area immediately surrounding it), which also boasts the city's oldest sewer lines — some dating back to 1853 — has been a rat refuge for years. Everything the rats need is here: shelter, food, water.
Our rats are almost exclusively what pros like Swoyer call Norway rats: the wharf rat, the sewer rat, the street rat. If that sounds like the rodent version of a thug, that's because it is. Averaging 9-12 inches in length, the Norway rat lives fast and dies hard (more on that later), with a life span of from six months to a year but a reproductive cycle that produces from four to seven litters a year, with at least eight pups to a litter.
They may not attack people, but they carry diseases that do — more than 100 different bacterial illnesses, according to some reports, among them Murine typhus, leptospirosis, bubonic plague and rat-bite fever. (The stealth sickening agent, though, might be salmonella. As Swoyer reminds us, rats "walk through a lot of nasty stuff.")