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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Just How Nasty Is a Rat? It's New York, Ask an Expert

October 26, 2005
About New York
Just How Nasty Is a Rat? It's New York, Ask an Expert
By DAN BARRY

THE members of the inaugural class of the New York City Rodent Control Academy followed the signs adorned with drawings of rats to a lecture room yesterday morning. They slapped on name tags, collected spiral-bound copies of the curriculum - "Section 11: Using Exterior Bait Boxes for Rat Control: What, When, and How" - and squeezed into school desks.

Some wore neat pantsuits and some wore rumpled work clothes. Some had ties dangling from their necks and some had huge key rings dangling from their belt loops. Most were city employees, representing sanitation, or transportation, or housing. All had a professional interest in "controlling," which is a nice way of saying "getting rid of," a creature of insidiously perfect design: the Norway rat.

Edgar R. Butts, the City Health Department's assistant commissioner for veterinary and pest control services, welcomed the students the way a college president might greet incoming freshmen. He had reason to be upbeat, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had awarded the city a sizable grant to create this first-of-a-kind course, one that explains why rodent control is more than simply laying out bait.

A lot of thought and planning had gone into the academy, especially by two Health Department veterans of the city's rodent war, Flavia Diaz and Karlette Sylvain. They had helped in everything from organizing the three-day curriculum to settling on navy blue for the matching "NYC Rodent Control Academy" hats and tote bags.

But the academy's greatest coup, perhaps, was in acquiring the services of its first speaker and visiting scholar: Bobby Corrigan, a balding, unassuming man who writes poetry and putters around with his wife on their 70-acre farm in Indiana. He also happens to be the "superstar of the rodent-control industry," as Robert Sullivan dubbed him in his seminal work on this squeamish subject, "Rats" (though the "superstar" did not complicate his appearance with divalike demands for, say, red-only M&M's).

Dr. Corrigan thinks that one-rat-for-every-city-resident ratios are silly and misleading - the number is "unmeasurable," he says - and realizes the Sisyphean element to his life's work. But he is clearly committed. Not only is he the author of "Rodent Control: A Practical Guide for Pest Management Professionals," a frequent columnist for Pest Control Technology magazine, and a former researcher at Purdue University, he has also been there: answering calls about rats in toilets, blending into the dark to study rodent behavior, tracking the greasy paths of rats through subway, sewer and high-rise.

With this combination of the practical and academic, coupled with a familiar Brooklyn-Long Island accent that betrayed his roots, he had his downtown audience at hello.

Halfway through his introductory session, the only sound in the darkened room was the scratchy tenor voice of Dr. Corrigan, spinning stories and lessons as he flashed one disturbing photograph after another onto a screen.

Here was one of a subway station. That little blur there? A rat, scurrying into a utility room. And this black greasy streak along the subway tiles? The rub marks of filthy rats, running back and forth in that spot thousands of times.

The Latin root for the word rodent, by the way, means "to gnaw." And so what might that rat do in the utility room? Or in the wiring of airplanes, and cars, and buildings? "If it starts gnawing on wires," Dr. Corrigan said, warming to his point, "we've got potential."

Here was another photograph, a still portrait of sorts, showing a spice shelf in a kitchen, blackened by the repetitive visits of greasy rats. Imagine where that grease came from; imagine the potential for disease for the distraught tenant and her two children; and imagine what the landlord said about sound pest control. Too expensive, Dr. Corrigan recalled.

IT is the responsibility of everyone in this city to participate in rodent control, beginning with the proper disposal of food. But Dr. Corrigan flashed a large photograph of a black rat on the screen and told his students that "nobody is collecting that guy" - except the likes of the people in this room.

You protect the roof over people's heads, he said. You protect the food that they eat, their health, their comfort, their safety. No other occupation can claim all those responsibilities, he said, except those dedicated to rodent control.

"Without pest control, this city would be in a hurt," he said. "In a big, big way."

Another speaker began the second session - "Rodents and Allergens" - and Dr. Corrigan stepped outside to sip his coffee. He admitted that his introductory talk was partly meant to boost morale.

"No one's going around saying, 'Do you want to grow up to be an exterminator?' " he said after the class. "No one has 'Thank You Exterminator' days."

Then he returned to the classroom to lecture about "The Biology and Behavior of Rodents." After that, lunch.

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