The Rat Lady By Mort Laitner
It was another humid, scorching Miami August day in 1985, and Mort sat in his air-conditioned office, thinking about how lucky he was to be inside. After reviewing his schedule, he noticed he had a meeting with a family in the community who had some environmental health concerns. Ronnie & Maria had a complaint about their eighty-two year old neighbor, Grandmother Mary. Mary lived alone for the last forty years in a home surrounded by fruit trees and a chain link fence.
Ronnie and Maria introduced themselves to Mort and promptly presented him with photographs of Grandma Mary’s fence. These photographs unmistakably showed the fence shared with Mary and numerous well fed, one and a half foot long Norwegian rats. From his work with Environmental Health, Mort was acutely aware that the Norwegian rat is one of the best known and common rats, and also one of the largest. This type of rat typically lives wherever humans live, particularly in urban areas. Although many rats are beneficial in biological research, Mort knew that wild rats can be extremely dangerous and are directly responsible for the spread of many diseases.
Ronnie & Maria were concerned that their children would be bitten by these huge rodents. They wanted them exterminated immediately. Mort was in agreement. These worried parents were not being overprotective. Rat’s teeth that are constantly growing, which causes rats to gnaw any items they come in contact with, keeping their teeth sharp and ready for their next meal. Rats contaminate 10 times as much food as they eat, with urine, droppings and hair. Rats are carriers of at least 10 different kinds of diseases including bubonic plague, murine typhus, spirochetal jaundice, leptospirosis, rabies, rat bite fever, and bacterial food poisoning. A rat bite from even domesticated rats can cause “Rat Bite Fever” which has been fatal in 7-10% of cases. Many times rats bite sleeping children while trying to get bits of food on the child that were not washed off before going to bed. These parents were acting for the good of their children. Mort wondered about the health of the elderly woman living in the home.
Mort knew rats are statutorily considered a sanitary nuisance and the Health Department can take steps ensure the nuisance is abated. He wanted to act quickly on this pressing matter. He developed an action plan. First, he would send out the Health Department photographer to take photos of the house and fence at twilight. Second, he would draft his lawsuit to seek an injunction to eradicate the rodent infestation.
The next day, the Department’s crack photographer, Michael Rybolowik, delivered unbelievably graphic photos of numerous rats hanging out in Mary’s window sills and at other locations at the property. While Mort studied the
photos, he began to picture the worst case scenario:
A process server delivers the lawsuit to Mary. As the elderly woman has the lawsuit read to her, she has a heart attack, and despite great efforts for resuscitation, she dies from shock. The local press is contacted, and Mort is criticized for their improper handling of this case and for the killing of this wonderful cookie-baking grandmother.
This was not an outcome Mort could live with. He decided there must be a better way. He decided before filing a lawsuit, he would instead visit Mary to see if she would cooperate and leave the house while the rats were being eradicated. Mort ventured into the direct sunlight, heat and humidity to see if Mary and he could work out this problem.
As Mort approached Mary’s home, he was confronted with his greatest fear of rats. Although his mind was focused on forgetting, with every approaching step to Mary’s door, a scene creepy Orwellian scene from the movie, “1984”, was on constant replay: A prisoner’s greatest fear of rats is successfully exploited as he is tortured in a room full of caged rats. Each time he is not compliant with the torturer’s requests, the angry vermin are moved closer and closer to his face. Mort shivered with the memory as he knocked on Mary’s door. There was no answer at first; Mort was ready to leave. As he raised his hand to knock on the door a second time, he felt his whole body wanting to run down the steps to the sidewalk and to the safety of the street. Mort pounded his knuckles into the heavy wooden door. The door opened slowly. Before him stood Mary, an extremely frail elderly lady that reminded Mort of his own grandmother. Mort quickly noticed that both of Mary’s ankles were wrapped in gauze. He wondered if this gauze was covering the bites from the ever nibbling rats.
Looking beyond the opened door, Mort saw multiple rats scampering across Mary’s living room. On the floor was a pan filled with water for the rats to drink, an antique coca cola platter with white bread for the rats to eat. There were rat droppings covering every inch of the floor and furniture.
Mary invited Mort inside her home. The vision of the 1984 tortured prisoner again flashed in Mort’s mind. Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw next. As he looked at the living room couch he noticed Mary used the couch as her bed, her pillows resting on one end of the couch. He was disturbed by an oily contour of Mary’s head rested as she slept. This oily stain was a “rat run”. Rats leave an oily trail in areas they frequent. This rat run showed the rats had pushed their oily body between Mary’s head and the wall next to the couch.
Mort now had to make a legal-moral decision.
The legal decision, try to convince Mary to leave her house voluntarily, and if she did not leave voluntary, seek a court order to get her out of this rats nest (which would take at least eight hours). Or order her out of her home without any legal authority.
The moral decision, if Mort waited the eight hours to obtain the injunction, and Mary died of rat bites, he would never be able to sleep peacefully again.
Mort ordered mary out of her house.
She said she would move into a local motel. Now Mort had to act fast, find a pest control company that would kill the vermin. Hire exterminators, who would tent the house and pump it full of a rodenticide.
After the tent was removed, the exterminators filled eight Hefty bags with dead rats. Mort calculated that each bag was filled with fifty rats. Ergo, four hundred rats had been living with Mary. The smell of 400 dead rats in 90 degrees Fahrenheit
temperature was more than Mort could handle. His mustache was filled with the noisome odor. He went to Burdines (now Macy’s) and got some paper strips soaked with perfume which he held under his nose for days on end to kill the smell of the dead rats1.
Now that the house had been made rat free, a troop of Boy Scouts came in swept, mopped, polished and disposed of the litter and garbage through out the house. Then the Scouts went the extra mile, and painted every room. Mary was able to move back into her house one week after she moved into the motel.
But, the story does not end here.
One of the Health Department’s Environmental Inspectors, Jack Freidan, decided to adopt Mary; he would visit her at least once a week, bring her flowers, drink coffee with her, and constantly insure that the rats did not return. Mary lived in the house for another five years. Until her death, Mort received updates from Jack about Mary’s health and safety.
The question Mort get asked most often when he tells this story is, why didn’t you commit Mary, and have her placed in a nursing home? Mort answers, that having inspected nursing homes during his career, he thought of them as a place of last resort. He would give his own grandmother another chance to live in her home, and Mary was his grandmother for that hot, humid and scorching August week in 1985.
1 ” Perfumes were used to counter putrescence s early as Hippocrates and Galen. Indeed, as Roy Porter observed in the introduction to Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Frgrant…pre Pasteurian orthodoxy helad that “stench was, in fact, disease.”. In the 17th century, aromatics such as civet, must, and ambergris were enlisted to increase resistance to infection, reduce exposure, and correct affected humours. People also turned to perfume for protection during epidemics.” Giselle Weiss, ScienceDirect – The Lancet: Scents and Sensibility, http://www.sciencedirect.com.
A long time ago, 1986 to be specific, I learned a life lesson. Here it is: no matter how carefully a project is planned, something will go wrong.
It was a cold December morning, at 9:00 a.m. as we met on the tenth floor of the old courthouse. I, Mort, the Health Department attorney with a team of expert environmental specialists, Wally Livingstone, Dick Strait and Mike Rybolowik, were preparing for our big day in court. We were fighting a slum-lord by seeking an injunction to have him either repair and clean up his building or have it shut down. Mr. Slum-Lord owned a forty-unit apartment complex in downtown Miami. He was a skinny hallow-faced sixty year old and looked like he didn’t care how his tenants lived as long as he got his rent money. Mr. Slum-Lord’s poverty-stricken tenants were living in a building with piles of rubbish throughout the complex, which of course lead to a mouse problem.
Wally, the head of the Environmental Health Unit, was prepared to testify that mice can be harmful pests spreading diseases through their parasites and feces. Wally would testify that mice carry and cause the following diseases: rickettsial pox, rat bite fever, food poisoning (namely salmonellosis which is spread to people when food is contaminated by saliva, urine or feces from the mouse). Mice can spread parasites to people such as trichinosis and tapeworm. We not only had photographs taken by Mike Rybolowik of the mouse infestation, but also Dick Strait had caught a live mouse, caged it, and named it Stuart Little. Mort excitedly said, “This would be the best demonstrative evidence to convince the judge to rule in our favor.” And after introducing Stuart Little into evidence, the Clerk would have an interesting time keeping Stuart alive.
Mort knew that his witnesses were well prepared for the 9:30 a.m. hearing. While we waited in the Judge’s chambers for the trial to commence, we admired Stuart Little in his make-shift home. Little did we know that Stuart was laying his own plans.
The Health Department hadn’t bought a professionally-made hamster or gerbil cage or purchased a small aquarium with a mesh top. But, instead, we made our own sturdy-looking wire-mesh cage with removable top. We were all admiring our cute little three-inch common house mouse, when the cage fell out of Wally’s hands; the lid flipped open and Stuart Little made a mad dash for freedom.
We scurried around the Judge’s chambers trying to look inconspicuous while attempting to find and catch Stuart. Sadly to say for us, Stuart had escaped. Mort then whispered to Wally, Dick and Mike to get the mouse cage out of the courthouse and not mention what happened that fateful morning.
We won the case. Mr. Slum-lord fixed up the apartment complex and eliminated the mouse problem.
As Mort enters the old courthouse twenty-one years later, he wonders if any Stuart Little’s relatives are still living on the tenth floor. He smiles and remembers the life lesson: the best laid plans of men, (not always mice), often go awry.
” The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/gang aft a-gley”
To a Mouse by Robert Burns