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Washington recruits dogs and cats in war on rodents

WASHINGTON POST (AFP) – On a hot June night, revelers descend on Washington’s Adams Morgan neighbourhood, a nightlife and dining hotspot in the United States (US) capital. But they aren’t the only ones profiting from the good weather.

Also out in number are the city’s rapidly growing population of rats, which prowl the alleys behind the restaurants, bars and clubs, feasting on leftovers tossed out in the trash.

The rodents’ merrymaking comes to a swift halt amid a flurry of barks, gnashing teeth and splattered blood: the result of a hunt involving a dozen humans and their hounds out on a weekly “ratting” expedition.

“Good boy, Henry!” Marshall Feinberg, a 28-year-old dog trainer, cries out as his lurcher claims the night’s first kill.

The District of Columbia consistently makes the top five list of America’s rattiest cities, a problem made worse by warming winters, a rising population, and outdoor dining areas made permanent after the COVID pandemic.

There were nearly 13,400 calls to a city hotline for rat issues in 2022, up around 2,000 on the year before, according to local media reports. Now, some residents are fighting back.

A rat runs away from rat-hunting dogs in Washington, DC, United States. PHOTO: AFP

The putrid stench of garbage mixed with urine fills the air as the posse pushes forward. Their dachshunds, terriers and sighthounds dart beneath dumpsters in pursuit of their quarry.

Like their dogs, the humans are a diverse lot: Black and white, old and young. Some are from the city or its suburbs while others have travelled from neighbouring states, after connecting with fellow ratting enthusiasts through social media.

Bomani Mtume, a 60-year-old retired police officer who’s here with Barto, his Cairn Terrier (the same breed as Toto from The Wizard of Oz), joined the group in March just as it started out.

“When we first hunted, they didn’t even run – they just looked at the dogs,” he said of the rats, explaining the predation that has since made them more skittish.

“Even dogs that don’t know each other start working together, it’s a beautiful thing,” he added.

Teddy Moritz, a 75-year-old nicknamed “Grandma Death,” is something of a legend in the hunting dog community, and has brought her son and teenage grandson with her from Delaware.

“It’s a good way to organically control rats,” she said, explaining rat poison takes several days to exterminate the vermin, while dogs quickly snap their spines, preventing them from feeling anything. “Primitive but effective,” she added.

Spry and full of stamina, Moritz stamps her feet at a dumpster to redirect an escaping rat back towards the dog pack. A longtime breeder, she helped establish a lineage of dachshunds that team up with falcons to hunt rabbits, and are now used in ratting.

Over the course of three hours, the team racks up more than 30 kills, before disposing of them in trash cans.

“What you saw basically was the definition of teamwork. It was dogs and people working together and trying to do good pest control to help our city,” said Feinberg.