Dallas Has a Rat Problem, and It May Be Getting Worse

It began with the smell. Something like cooked meat with kimchi, coating her furniture and clothes. Thinking it was mildew invading her ducts, Casey blasted the AC, and that worked for two days. Then she wondered if her four cats were peeing overtime. The noxious odor of decay continued to cloud her sleep until she knew she had to call someone. She couldn't work all day as a pediatric nurse, treating kids with scabies and snake bites, and come home to this.

The first company hemmed and hawed and said they would fit her in ... in three days. Meanwhile the curtain of death hung over her house. Even the cats were starting to wince. Omega Animal Removal was next on Casey's list. A sleepy technician answered the phone on a Friday night. "We'll be there in the morning," he promised.

Casey hung up the phone, feeling some measure of relief. But she had to spend one more sleepless night in the shroud of Pet Sematary. And what if Omega didn't come in the morning? Or what if they weren't any good? Would they be a match for whatever monster was living around her?

Omega discovered what a lot of Dallas is finding; the stink wasn't just from the decomposing possum slumped in her crawl space. Dark markings covered Casey's neglected, decaying vents, almost like someone had drunkenly drawn mustaches on them in Sharpie. They were the telltale grease tracks of the opportunistic rodents that follow when other mammals — like possums , squirrels or humans — make openings into a home.

Casey had rats.

Rats have evolved to depend on us. They are highly intelligent and acrobatic, with noses capable of snuffing out traces of poison down to 1 part per million. They have sex up to 20 times a day (so if you're reading this in or around Dallas, chances are you're not far from rats going at it, making more). They can birth 20 babies in a litter, up to 12 litters a year. That means as many as 15,000 descendants between New Year's and Christmas. They live under our feet, above our heads, burrowing into our walls.

Soon, Casey found out that rats were living not only in the crawl spaces she never visits, but above in the attic, and in the insulation — literally, all around her. They were feeding silently at night and returning to hunker down inside her home.

Brett Johnson, an urban wildlife biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, says it's hard to get reliable data on DFW's rat situation because Dallas isn't as proactive about addressing the problem as other cities like New York and New Orleans. When we contacted the Dallas County Health Department to talk rats, they referred us to wildlife removal companies.

Joshua Lehmann, CEO of Omega Animal Removal, says if there's been a boom, it's not in the rat population but in our awareness. Rats have lived with people for centuries. Fifty years ago, some Americans would call a pest guy, others would put out poison. Beyond that, the rat problem was never addressed, and it remained until the housing boom of the early 2000s, when homeowners became aware of the damage rats had inflicted on their property. Dr. Mike Merchant, a scientist who studies pest management at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, says that as Dallas grows and its neighborhoods age, more people are being exposed to rat legions.

"I know East Dallas is plagued with rats, and I wish we could provide coverage, but the government will never subsidize this."

tweet this

Demolition of older houses and the building of new ones displace rats, Johnson says. The red-tailed hawks, owls and terrifyingly large (though nonvenomous) black rat snakes that flank new construction sites are there to feast on rats that scurry away from rumbling bulldozers. Some people worry about hawks flying off with shih tzus or Mr. Kitty, but those taloned sentinels weed down the rodent population. Another theory that explains an apparent uptick in that population blames wildfires and storms that damaged raptor nests in 2014.

Booming or not, rats are worthy of concern. Because they gnaw wires, rats are thought to be responsible for up to a quarter of civic fires of unknown origin. They chew holes in duct work, destroy insulation with urine, nibble on beams and drywall and even bite through PVC pipes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 10 diseases that rats directly transmit and 15 they can carry, including rat bite fever, lyme disease and salmonella. They are known to explore houses, including all food and dish storage areas and preparation surfaces, leaving behind invisible drops of urine. Contrary to popular belief, rats don't transmit rabies, and the dreaded hantavirus is uncommon around Dallas. But rats did carry the plague, which is an unsettling thought. And according to Dr. Merchant, rat urine can transmit viruses that we don't know about to humans.

A wild rat, like the wood and cotton rats living in fields and forests, is not the same creature a Dallas resident beats to death with a plunger after it surfaces in the toilet at an intimate moment. That would be a Norway or roof rat. Field rodents are adapted to wild ecosystems. However, as Dallas expands and their habitat is tilled for subdivisions, we displace the natives and make shelter for their invading relatives. In effect, Dallas is creating homes for both humans and rats.

Because of its layout, Dallas' rodent of choice is the roof rat (Rattus rattus), aka the black rat. Roof rats are less common than the Norway rat, known for swarming Manhattan sewers, and they're arboreal. They live in trees, shrubs, vines and Dallas attics, preferring to travel above ground. They sport strong, clingy limbs like superheroes, which allow them to scale brick, telephone poles and everything else. They shimmy across cable lines to gutters, commando-style.

All a growing rat needs is shelter, food and water. What better than an urban environment rich with trash, berries, pecans, acorns, untended attics, dog food, old tool-sheds, bird feeders, copious trees and lots of water, because Dallas loves its green lawns. Flush grass, despite any chemicals it's sprayed with, gives birth to insects. Rats eat those too. "They love munching on roaches," says Johnson. The Park Cities, with its luscious, ornate and well-watered landscaping, is a Disney World for the nose-twitching set. When a grass field is razed to make way for a mansion, just remember that its builders are setting out a door mat to welcome more than people.

The command center for the rat resistance is located in a North Dallas neighborhood known for its strip clubs and Asian food. Omega Animal Removal lies inside a one-story office center on Walnut Hill Lane, among lots of empty windows and parking lots, where refuse swirls in the wind. At 7:45 each morning, the place becomes a flurry of activity: half a dozen crop-haired, buff men latch ladders onto trucks, carrying paperwork, caulking guns and buckets of tools and traps to a fleet of new Ford F-150 double cabs with the words "wildlife specialist" emblazoned on them.

"Never call us pest control," says Tyler Ogden, 24. "I'm a 'wildlife relocation specialist.' It says so right on the truck."

He's handsome, with a strong, chiseled chin and a crew cut. He attended Texas Tech for one year, but he hated it and left without a degree. Now he's a manager at Omega, where he makes between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, all by excluding, removing, baiting, tricking, counter-attacking and, yes, killing lots and lots of rats. Ogden answers an average of 30 to 40 calls a week, almost all about rodents. During the winter months, when rats, like any mammal, seek warmth, the numbers go up. "A cold snap makes our phone ring off the wall," he says.

Omega offers a lifetime guarantee, so if Ogden starts a removal and 50 years later a customer calls back with a rat problem, he will return, old and gray, to finish it. That means he often visits the same customer many times. He's in and out of their closets, crawl spaces, attics, getting to know them as he roots around the junk they can't part with. Some customers recognize how intimately Ogden becomes acquainted with their lives and will make him a meal. "Then we become friends," he says. "I still have lunch regularly with some customers."

He is their knight in shining overalls. When many people learn their home is beset with rodents, they irrationally fear the rats will attack and gnaw their faces like a pet chimpanzee on a rampage. Ogden is the warrior who protects them from the dark forces that scurry in the night.

Today Ogden is headed to the Park Cities. He'll answer three calls there in one day, including Casey's. Peace of mind will be costly. Casey will cut a check for $2,500. "It sucks that it costs so much to do it," Ogden says. "I know East Dallas is plagued with rats, and I wish we could provide coverage, but the government will never subsidize this."

Unlike other companies, Omega doesn't control rodents with rodenticide or so-called "rat proof" insulation, which is cheap cellulose covered in boric acid. Boric acid might be fatal to rats who eat it, but rats don't eat insulation. As for rodenticide, although many companies claim it forces rats to go outside for water, Dr. Merchant warns, "That's a bunch of hooey. They just die where they die, and if it's in a wall, tough luck." Ogden claims over 90 percent of the dead animals he has removed were poisoned by homeowners or his competitors.

"I'm a 'wildlife relocation specialist.' It says so right on the truck."

tweet this

Watching Omega work, rodent control seems more like construction than game hunting. "It's not like in Dirty Jobs," says Ogden, who started working at Omega in early 2014 after he saw an Internet posting. "Though sometimes I have to grab a dead body, and by the time somebody calls about it, it's already crawling."

Ogden's worst call was to remove two skunks that had died and released their scent glands inside a crawl space. Ogden elbowed in with a respirator and had to peel off the safety device to vomit by his shoulder. "That was not in the job ad," he says.

It would put Ogden out of a job, but he says builders should cork up their homes like wagons ready to float the Oregon Trail. "Most builders don't take into account how crafty rats are," he says. During a regular day, Ogden patches leaky roofs, paints, repairs fencing, caulking and ventilation grills, closes roof junctures and seals any cracks or holes rats may have created. Rats can squeeze into any opening that fits their skulls, the only part of their body that's not flexible. "There's no limit to what I've had to block them out of," Ogden says. "They're super creatures."

On one of his calls today, Ogden has to double stack ladders to reach the top of a roofing juncture. He carries a 30-foot ladder while climbing a 30-foot ladder. "I've definitely had my life in my hands in precarious situations, all in the name of rats," he says. The next day, Ogden plans to rappel off a steeply pitched roof in Highland Park to caulk a few rat holes.

Ogden traps plenty of squirrels, too. They occupy a similar niche as rats but operate slightly differently. Rats are nocturnal and stealthy, whereas squirrels careen from trees by the bright light of day. Both will eat nuts and berries and camp inside attics. Ogden says he's caught rats and squirrels sharing the same attic.

Ogden's own apartment building is plagued with squirrels, but the landlord won't cut Ogden a rent deal for his skill set. Still, Ogden almost feels grateful for the creatures. "I kind of like rats because they provide me with a living, but I'm desensitized to killing them," he says, pausing to reflect for a moment. "Maybe before I die I better build a wildlife refuge to atone."

While driving around Dallas, Ogden passes wealthy neighborhoods. Grandmotherly oaks, manicured hedges, lawns covered in piles of leaves, unused tool-sheds, empty garages, telephone poles and roofs stretch as far as the eye can see. "All of this is structure for them to build homes with," Ogden says. The sea of shingles and trees forms the coral reef of the city's ecosystem and plenty of safe havens for all manner of small, four-legged things.

Casey, a rosy-cheeked woman in her 40s, arrives home from work to find Ogden sealing her home. She is visibly exhausted: her eyes baggy, her hair coming undone and spilling down her shoulders. Her nurse's scrubs have mysterious splotches on them. She can barely function as Ogden calmly explains how he's turning her house into a fortress.

First, the biggie: Ogden removed her possum two days ago, using a respiratory mask, heavy gloves and a trash sack. "Essentially I was scooping," he says. But he's also discovered Casey lives on a pier and beam foundation. If a rodent can dig, it can get inside. Some homes with pier and beam foundations have so many problems that Omega has to trench them, shovel a perimeter around the entire house and place grilling deep into the earth so the influx will cease. For now, Ogden lugs five 30-pound bags of white marble chips from his truck bed to pour into the holes riddling Casey's home, including the basketball-sized one that the unlucky possum sneaked through.

Then Ogden circles the house to assess the damage, which is severe. Casey's house is a highway for rodents, with so many vents blown open, corner seals that need covering and cracks that need caulking. "Crazy how many gaps pop up on a house over the years," Ogden says. He peels away a shoddy unsealed grill hanging from an air conditioning cable and shakes his head. He'll spend four hours on Casey's house today, not to mention the reoccurring rat-trap checks.

If there's another possum underneath the house, Ogden plans on capturing it live, as Omega does with pretty much any animal except rats and mice. When asked where he plans to release the animal, he laughs. "It's the wild West with rodent control. I can release them anywhere as long as it's not a city park," he says. Ogden lets most of the squirrels go in a field by his place in Allen. "I've probably created a whole population of squirrels by my apartment."

Ogden climbs up to the roof to screw in a patch of metal roughly the color of the peeling paint, covering a series of holes. To fix another rat-chewed hole near the roof's corner, he clips off a section from a roll of metal screening known as hardware cloth, which has a sharp, needle-like border. "If I'm not bleeding by the end of the day it means I haven't worked hard enough," he says. Later he maneuvers galvanized aluminum to cover more roof cracks and re-screens Casey's corner gable. Down below, he jostles the bushes to get at the rat-worn vents and also covers them in hardware cloth. "I can't tell you how many times I've been bitten by spiders doing this."

Then he readies 12 rat traps and two possum traps. Ogden will use anything to bait, usually whatever he's got in his truck cab: stale donuts, honey buns, cat food, trusty peanut butter. Today he sets the trap with pieces of Vienna sausage. "I think I could put a dead rat in a trap and catch a rat," he says.

Inside the house, Casey removes piles of shoes blocking the crawl space entry. She recalls that after enduring the wafting mist of possum rot for a week, Ogden seemed like a comic book hero. As soon as he stepped inside, she says, Ogden identified the culprit. "Smells like possum," he said.

"I was amazed," Casey says, "that he could tell the difference between dead things. It must be some kind of super power."

While she is talking, Ogden is down in her crawl space, his headlight shining up through the floorboards. He's checking his live traps for possums and setting new ones. As he's Army crawling in the dirt beneath the home, Ogden spots rat scat.

He surfaces without a dead rat to report, but he's sure it will take advantage of that easy meal soon. And once his trap has snapped the rat's neck, Ogden will throw its body in the trash, where swarms of its kind may be hunting for a meal.

If Omega's technicians do their job well, won't it eventually put them out of work? Driving away from Casey's, Ogden laughs at the thought: "There will always be rats," he says.