Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions and images of dogs hunting rats that could upset some readers.
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The sound of a rat screaming in the jaws of a terrier is the same sound that a stuffed squeaky toy makes.
It seems so obvious. Of course the toys sound that way, because that sound awakens something deep in a docile dog’s neurons that says: Shake it. Shake it till it’s dead.
It’s Saturday night. Flavia and Jigs, a duo of mother-daughter border terriers, are shaking a rat. It is already dead. On one side of the alley wall in a tony part of Northwest Washington, young people are drinking espresso martinis. On the other, a rogue group of dog owners is taking the city’s rat problem into their own hands, and their dogs’ mouths.
“Drop it,” says Susan Storey, the owner of the border terriers. “It’s dead now. Drop.”
“Who’s got gloves on?” asks Linda Freeman, the ringleader of the Ratscallions, a rat-hunting band of dogs and their owners.
“Who’s got the rat bag?” says Bill Reyna, a New York rat hunter who has traveled here with his rat terrier named Centauri.
The rat bag is a black garbage bag that the Ratscallions tote around in a wagon, along with a first-aid kit and water for their dogs. After a dog kills a rat, a member of the group will put on latex gloves, pick up the rat corpse by its tail, and put it in a bag, which, by the end of this particular night — after they have journeyed to a spot they have nicknamed “Hell’s Alley” — will contain 32 other bodies. Ratscallion tradition is to pose for a trophy photo behind the pile of their kills.
But before anyone can pick up this one, Freeman’s Bedlington terrier swoops in for one last shake.
“Callie!” she yells. Flavia comes back for another shake, too.
“We usually don’t let them play with the rat for that long,” says Freeman, finally extricating it from the dogs’ jaws. “But these two are just so excited.”
Washington has a rat problem. During the earliest months of the pandemic, the rodent population dispersed as restaurants shut down and office workers stayed home. But when people and their trash came back into the public sphere, so did the rats — with a vengeance. As of July, there had been nearly 11,000 service-request calls to the city this year regarding rat infestations, according to the D.C. Department of Health. There were approximately 13,000 calls for the entirety of 2022.
The city does not provide rat-abatement measures inside businesses or private property. But when someone reports an outdoor infestation, workers try to address it using two methods, says Gerard Brown, who oversees rodent control at D.C. Health: They will fill their burrows with carbon monoxide to suffocate them, and they will spray a poisonous tracking powder that gets on a rat’s fur and is ingested when they groom themselves.
The dogs are not a part of its rat regiment, says Brown, adding: “The department does not support, participate in or endorse the hunting and killing of rats with dogs.”
Most of the Ratscallions own terriers, a category of dogs that was historically bred to hunt small mammals. Freeman, the ringleader, is a breeder of Bedlingtons, and her dogs are immaculately groomed and have won prizes at major dog shows. She started letting them hunt rats as a test of their abilities.
“If I’m going to advertise this dog as a good, quality Bedlington, it needs to be able to do its job,” says Freeman. “I don’t want to breed my terriers down to the point that they’re nothing but a Yorkie.”
And the dogs love to hunt.
“When I go to put on my rat-hunting clothes, they just start jumping up and down,” says Freeman. “They start barking and running in circles, because they know they’re going to get to go rat hunting.”
The humans’ rat-hunting clothes are a pair of thick-soled shoes (to navigate alleyways littered with broken glass), long pants that aren’t too baggy (“We did have a rat run up one gal’s pant leg”), and a custom shirt embroidered with “Ratscallions.”
Is all this safe for the dogs? Mostly. They are vaccinated against leptospirosis, a common rat-borne disease, and because they shake the rats but don’t eat them, they don’t ingest poison that rats have eaten (if the owners see the poisonous fur powder in an area, they won’t let their dogs hunt there). Rats do not carry rabies. The rats do occasionally bite the dogs or scratch a human; Storey, the border terrier owner, is a veterinarian who can administer first aid.
The Ratscallions invited The Washington Post along on one of their monthly Northwest Washington hunts on the condition that it not identify any specific locations. They don’t want to embarrass any local businesses, anger the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District or, perhaps most importantly, jeopardize the free parking they have been offered by one business for their services. The Post tagged along on a second hunt with the Renegade Rebel Ratters, a weekly hunting group in Adams Morgan that shares two members with the Ratscallions.
The rat hunters’ primary motivation, they say, is making their dogs happy. The free pest control for the city is a bonus. But the dogs aren’t the only ones having fun. The humans see it as a team sport.
“There’s the dog and the handler, there’s the dogs that work together as a team, and then there’s the handlers that have to work together as a team,” says Bomani Mtume. He and his Cairn terrier, Barto, “have a great bond. We’re like partners.”
There is a choreography to catching rats. There are “push” dogs, who go into a rat-dense area first and scare the rats out of hiding, and there are “catch” dogs, who wait nearby and pounce, lightning-fast, to snap them up and shake. On both hunts, a miniature dachshund named Dickie — short and stumpy, good at fitting in tight spots — was the push dog. He is so cute that, back on the street, semi-inebriated 20-somethings regularly stoop down to pet him, not knowing that he has just been waist-deep in garbage. His owner, who has an impish streak, rarely stops them.
“Ooh, a little wiener!” says one group of young women that encountered him on the street in Adams Morgan.
“Hey, it’s a big wiener,” retorts his owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because — well, we’ll get to that later.
[Play this video game to try your paw at surviving as Cheddar the D.C. rat]
They’re a funny trio, the Renegade Rebel Ratters: Little (er, Big) Dickie, scrappy Barto, and Henry, a lurcher — that’s a greyhound mix, formerly notorious for its association with poaching — ambling the streets and alleyways of Adams Morgan, past an abandoned, broken toilet and cans marked “Solo basura.” Restaurant workers on their cigarette breaks take in the scene as Henry enthusiastically flings a dead rat at his handler and onlookers. Inside, the ding of a bell indicates that a food order is up.
Restaurant workers aren’t the only spectators. The owner of a nearby store called Grindstone — who spoke on the condition of being identified only as Grindstone, too — begins to tail the group, broadcasting the scene live on Instagram. They’ve entered a narrow, stinky alleyway, with several dumpsters and a propane tank rack positioned above a well of stairs leading to a basement entrance. After a day of rain, the concrete at the bottom of the steps is slick with mud and trash sludge.
“They’re all going to fly to the bottom step,” says Henry’s owner, Marshall Feinberg, who seems to have a keen understanding of rat psychology. The Renegade Rebel Ratters all take their positions: Feinberg and Dickie’s owner by the dumpsters and rack, Henry at the top of the steps, Mtume and Barto at the bottom of the steps, and Dickie racing around in between. Feinberg shakes the rack, and the rats come flying.
“Oh s—! … Look at them motherf—ers!” says Grindstone to his Instagram followers. “This is crazy, dog. Why am I back here?”
Meanwhile, Barto is up to his elbows in mud and shaking out rats, one after another.
“That little dog is wrecking them,” narrates Grindstone.
Each shake of the rack or a dumpster lid produces more rats. Henry catches the ones who flee through the alley, and Barto catches the ones who try to escape down the steps. By the time the rats stop coming, Barto has personally killed nine. By the end of the night in Adams Morgan, they collectively kill 25.
“These dogs are vicious, man,” says Grindstone, wrapping up his Live and preparing to return to a silent disco down the street.
“They’re just doing what they’re made to do,” says Mtume.
Do you feel bad for the rats?
Maybe we should, because it’s our fault there are so many of them. Rats proliferate in areas where there is poor trash management. Open dumpsters are a buffet. Unkempt properties are welcoming nests. If humans cleaned up after themselves better, then there wouldn’t be as many rats for these dogs to kill.
Think of it as a nature documentary. It’s the natural order of things, like when a lion takes down a gazelle. Imagine Werner Herzog’s voice: The rat is prey, the dog is predator, the “common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility and murder.”
If rats must be killed — which they must, in a city where they can spread disease, damage property and chew through electrical wires — the ratters say that the jaws of a dog is the most humane way possible. Glue traps sentence the rat to a painful death of starvation. Poison, one of the most common methods of killing rats, is no kinder. It causes organ failure and internal hemorrhage, a process that can take up to two weeks.
“You time the death of a rat, using rat poison, with a calendar,” says Freeman, the Ratscallions ringleader. “You can time the death of a rat in the jaws of a predator using a stopwatch. It’s usually less than five seconds. Tell me: What’s more humane?”
A rat that is being shaken to death usually has its spine quickly snapped. Some dogs aren’t shakers, though — they’re “crushers.” The rats that meet their end in the jaws of Henry have it worse, momentarily — they might die of disembowelment, or a pulverized skull.
One might argue that it’s a fair fight. Rats are incredibly smart, with a strong survival drive. Many of them are faster than the dogs. They flee up walls and through cracks that are too small for dogs’ snouts. They fight back, sinking their teeth into soft muzzles, in one instance leaving Henry spewing blood. But once they’re in a dog’s jaws, it’s over.
Unsurprisingly, animal welfare groups say the practice is barbaric. “Groups train dogs to kill rats as a blood sport, not in any way as an effective control measure,” says Catie Cryer, a media relations manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Rats mean no harm and are simply trying to eke out an existence like the rest of us.”
“Killing rodents in this way is animal cruelty and extremely inhumane,” says Samantha Miller, acting director of communications for D.C.’s Humane Rescue Alliance, which has a program that enlists feral cats to roam the streets as nonlethal rat deterrent.
“They’re entitled to their opinion,” says Bill Reyna, the New Yorker. “We’ll just keep killing rats.”
The city has been aware of the hunters, who once met with Brown, D.C.’s rodent czar, to tell him about their activities (not to ask permission, he wants to make clear). “I’m open to anything that’s legal that’ll help us reduce the risks to people getting some kind of disease or property damage,” Brown says.
But is rat hunting legal?
On this, the city is clear: No. (That — and the fact that some of the hunters unleash their dogs in public, another violation of D.C. law — is why some of these rat catchers still like to remain anonymous.)
The D.C. code “protects an animal’s existence, including a rodent, and specially states: An owner or custodian of a dog shall not direct, encourage, cause, allow, aid, or assist that dog to threaten, charge, bite or attack a person or other animal,” a spokesman for D.C. Health writes in an email. The penalty ranges from $500 to $1,000, and enforcement is up to the Humane Rescue Alliance.
“We investigate every allegation of animal cruelty reported to us and make decisions regarding enforcement based on the findings of those investigations,” says Miller, of the Humane Rescue Alliance.
“The only interaction we’ve had with the cops was positive,” says Mtume, Barto’s owner. “They came up and said, ‘Thank you for your service.’” He suspects the city is wary of the positive publicity the rat hunters have earned.
“I think we would be a fantastic reason to change the law,” says Freeman, who considers the city’s method of rat killing to be more cruel than hers. “There are a lot of things that are illegal that make no sense whatsoever.”
Though animal-cruelty laws protect the rights of all animals, there seems to be an unspoken understanding that rats don’t count. The hunting groups say that they have never been stopped by a cop. They conduct their activities late at night (because rats are nocturnal) but in the open. They have Facebook pages. They are hailed as heroes by some pedestrians who encounter their dogs on the streets.
“They’re catching the rats! Yay, good job, guys!” says one woman who spots them on 18th Street NW.
The Ratscallions have little nicknames for the most rat-dense spots in this other, unnamed Northwest neighborhood. The nickname for one eatery? “Ratcakes.” Another restaurant cluster is called “the Kingdom of the Rats.” On this particular hunt, after a small massacre on the same block as a restaurant famous for hosting politicians, the group’s final stop will be “Hell’s Alley.”
“You’ll never be the same” after seeing it, Freeman says.
The neighborhoods where these dogs patrol will never be the same either, she promises. Though the amount of rats they kill is small in the grand scheme of things — the Adams Morgan group holds a one-night record at 47 — fear motivates the rats to make their homes elsewhere.
“It just disrupts their breeding program,” says Freeman. “They’ll abandon their homes. We’ll see entire populations just move.” The Ratscallions don’t even go to some of the alleys they used to visit when they were starting out because, they claim, there aren’t enough rats there anymore.
“Oh, here it is,” says Freeman, shuddering. “Welcome.”
Hell’s Alley has a narrow entryway that winds around a corner and opens up into a bigger lot full of dumpsters and poorly kept backyards for commercial properties, including a cannabis shop. There is broken glass and debris and plenty of dirt for rats to burrow through. Futile rat traps can be spotted in the corners. Part of the space is covered in a green artificial carpet that reeks of urine and is pockmarked with rat burrows.
Immediately the dogs get to work. Parts of the alley are so narrow that the dogs disappear into them, their presence marked only by the sound of panting. “Get in there!” says Mtume to Barto. “Good boy, good boy.”
The rats scramble for cover, racing to their burrows. The unlucky ones hide behind pieces of trash, where Dickie the dachshund promptly finds them and sends them into six sets of eager canine jaws.
“I got one in the corner!” says Reyna.
“This is like fish in a barrel,” says Mtume.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve been here when it’s raining,” says Freeman. “The smell.”
Suddenly, a rat springs out of its hiding spot and ricochets off Freeman’s shin. Even though she has been a witness to countless rat-based horrors over the last five years, she shrieks. In the chaos, they have lost track of how many rats die in Hell’s Alley, but a cursory count reveals at least 10. As they walk back — after they’ve collected the bodies, which necessitate a second bag — she realizes that the flying rat scratched her skin, and she cleans her shin with antiseptic.
“It was nothing compared to the incident at Kingdom of the Rats,” she says, where a rat once bit her hand.
Once the dogs go home, all of them will be vigorously bathed and their teeth will be brushed.
“For the first 12 hours, I don’t let him lick me,” Mtume says of Barto, who still gets to sleep in the bed.
Back at the parking lot that serves as home base, two bags of rat carcasses are dumped out on the pavement. It’s time for the trophy shot and, because it’s the fifth anniversary of when they started to hunt together, they’ve decided to arrange the rats in the shape of a 5. The first attempt looks more like an S, though, so Reyna gets in there — sans gloves — and reshapes the bodies. The final count is 33.
The Ratscallions all pile behind the rat carnage. The well-trained dogs sit patiently for the picture. No one says “Cheese.”