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.")
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.)
SOS Pest Control's Franke says the city contract is a very small part of his business. "We make about 50 to 100 calls a year exclusively for the Health Department," he says. "Do I think Kansas City has a rat problem? Let's just say that Kansas City has a healthy rat population, especially in certain areas of town."
"People get freaked out by rats, they really do," says Swoyer, who will never forget his first professional run-in with a rodent. "I was moving a board leaning against a building, and a rat jumped out at me. I jumped back myself — about 30 feet.
"I can understand the discontent people have at the idea of these old sewers being ripped out," Swoyer continues. "But it's not going to be 'open the sluices, here come the rats.' There will be some rat issues around town, but for the most part, rats living in the sewers are just going to move to different parts of the sewer."
Jennifer Kincaid, the external communications liaison for the Kansas City Water Services Department, echoes Swoyer's calming refrain. She says the 25-year, $500 million Overflow Control Program isn't designed to rip up as many of the aging sewer lines as rumor suggests.
"There will be some replacement of pipes," she says, "but we'll be making more cost-effective repairs that don't involve digging up the old sewer lines. There's a new technology that allows us to use a mylar product, almost like a balloon, in the existing lines to seal any cracks or problems."
Kincaid adds: "I spoke to one of our rat gurus here at the Water Department, and he told me that he's seen a lot of miles of our city sewer and really hasn't seen a lot of rats in the lines unless it's an area near a grain silo or a major food source. I don't think our OCP project is going to stir up a lot of rats."
But not everyone is so comfortable with the idea.
"This city is a giant rat's nest," said a 76-year-old woman I met at Home Depot last week. "I'll never forget the night, in the 1960s, I was driving with my husband to a restaurant in the West Bottoms. We made a wrong turn and found ourselves on this strange street, and we were surrounded by rats. Thousands of them. We barely escaped with our lives."
She put a box of rat poison in her cart and moved on. I chose a different brand.