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They have a mean bite, with a pressure of 3.5 tons per square inch, compared with a human bite that's 800-900 pounds per square inch. "Their teeth are harder than iron," Swoyer says. "They can chew through almost anything."
That includes wood and concrete. (Rats can chew through paper and plastic in seconds.) That's what the customers at the ill-fated Family Dollar Store at 5440 Prospect discovered in May 2011, when a rat chased a patron out of the building. The customer reported to the Health Department an aggressive rat "tearing through bags of food" during business hours. An investigator with the department's Food Protection Program suspended the health permit for the business after reporting "large amounts of rat droppings under shelves and shelves of merchandise." The report also says the inspector "observed various shelves of cat and dog food bags, candies and potato chips containing opened bags that had been chewed through."
The store did not reopen, and the building that housed it sits at the western edge of KC's ground zero for rat complaints: the 64130 zip code. The area bordered by Prospect to the west and Hardesty to the east, tucked between 39th Street and 63rd Street, dominates a 2011 chart produced by the Health Department to track such complaints.
Unlike that star-crossed store, though, most of the properties in that area remain occupied. "There's a lot of human density in this area," Swoyer says.
Swoyer is essentially a one-man show, and as recently as 2002, no one ran rat patrol for the city. In 2005, the Health Department made its rat-control program a full-time gig again and brought back Swoyer (who had held the job from 1998 to 2000, before being promoted to a technical-support position).
It was a rodent boom that made KC flip on its rat signal again, but not one in the 64130. Swoyer says, "An uptick in rat complaints from the Brookside neighborhood brought the program back to life."
But even with a rat population that Swoyer estimates to be in the thousands, his department isn't growing very fast. "I take the complaints and file reports but very rarely visit the actual complaint sites," he explains. "The city hires exterminators — currently Smithereen and SOS Pest Control — to handle the on-site visits."
The outsourced exterminators investigating the complaints begin by looking for signs of residency: namely burrows around a property. These are easy to see in a well-maintained neighborhood but less obvious around an abandoned building, which might be surrounded by brush and overgrown weeds.
The next step: dropping pellet poison into the burrows. "They do it so it mimics the action of seeds washing down the holes during a rain," Swoyer says. "Unlike mice, rats are not curious creatures. They tend to be frightened or wary of anything new or unfamiliar."
Rats have become resistant to most of the old-guard poisons, including warfarin, which was for years the ne plus ultra of rat killers. "Rats just got used to eating it and passed on the resistance to their children," Swoyer says.
Swoyer says he averages about 1,200 complaints each year, and his program budgets about $27,000 for exterminator visits. (St. Louis received only 675 complaints about rats in 2011, according to Warren Nichols, the public information manager for the city's Department of Health. This year's budget for what St. Louis calls "vector problems" is $293,581, a figure that includes mitigation against not just rodents but also insects and any other pests. "We don't break it down by the different areas we address," Nichols says.)