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Years of the Rats 

They're just about everywhere, but prefer the Inner Richmond

Wednesday, Dec 31 1997
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Despite two earthquakes and a fire, San Francisco has done remarkably well for itself in the last century. Today, with the high-tech economy booming and construction cranes dotting its skyline, the city is indeed, as Mayor Brown says, "world class."

Especially when it comes to rats.
Rats made their presence absolutely clear in San Francisco in 1900 -- perhaps not so coincidentally the Chinese lunar calendar's Year of the Rat -- when an outbreak of rat-borne bubonic plague killed 113 people, mostly in Chinatown. A second plague epidemic struck after the 1906 earthquake and fire, taking the lives of another 103 people.

Plague, it seems, is no longer a major concern. Ben Gale, who heads the city's Environmental Health Management Department, says the last incidence of the disease in San Francisco was reported in the '50s. And plague can be treated with antibiotics, if caught early enough. But the rats that once carried it round the world are very much with us, and Gale admits they still pose disease risks, and, of course, contaminate food and damage property.

Though the city's Department of Public Health does not keep statistics on the total number of rats in the city, experts estimate that in major cities there is roughly one rat for each person.

It's likely their numbers are much the same as they were in post-quake 1907, at the beginning of the city's second plague epidemic, when "travelers through the burned district at night could see hundreds of [rats] scampering across lots and around the place where working men assembled to eat their lunches ... the burned district became a rat paradise" (from "Eradicating Plague From San Francisco: Report of the Citizens' Health Committee," 1909).

Now, 90 years later, residents report rat sightings in all parts of the city: running down Market Street at dusk, scampering about the branches of Sunset District trees, darting along fences in downtown parking lots. But it is the Inner Richmond, with its high concentration of produce markets and restaurants, that has a particular problem with roof rats -- the brownish, Black Death-carrying variety.

Apparently, the problem was worse a few years ago, when neighborhood activists launched a campaign to clean up Clement Street. Green Apple Books owner Richard Savoy recalls regularly seeing dozens of rats on Sixth Avenue at dusk: "There were so many, I'd kick them out of my way," he says.

Steve Nurge is a telephone repairman in the same neighborhood. He says he sees several rats each week, and claims the creatures are very fond of chewing on the plastic insulation around phone wires. In his 22 years on the job, he has encoun-

tered so many rats that he's able to smell them before he sees them.
"Musty and pungent," says Nurge. "It's a semimoist smell. That's what lets me know they're around." He also believes he's seen an increasing number of rats in recent months.

The problem is particularly bad around the public parking lot on Eighth Avenue between Geary and Clement. Unlike the Citizens' Health Committee of 1907, today's Health Department is not offering a bounty of 10 cents a rat. Nor is it purchasing thousands of pounds of cheese and bacon to use as bait. The department has, however, installed rat traps -- rodent "bait stations" -- in the parking lot.

The lot, which abuts several eateries and produce stores, remains a rat haven. The wood and wire fence that separates the lot from the shops has holes in several places. The lot is typically littered with food and paper garbage: A recent afternoon visit found one corner liberally scattered with moldy bread crusts and wet, disintegrating cardboard boxes.

One merchant, who declined to be named, says he still sees the rats scurrying across the lot after dusk. "They come out when it's dark and scare my customers," he says. "Nobody wants to park there anymore."

The city has attempted to clean up the Eighth Avenue lot and its environs, citing merchants who fail to keep their business areas clean. But the rats are hardy critters, shy and resourceful. As Gale says, roof rats "are a more sophisticated rat." And, no matter how worldly San Francisco becomes, the rats keep up with the times just fine.

"Their habitat is what we create for them," says Gale.

About The Author

Tara Shioya

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