PORTLAND, Me. — When the woman called in hysterics and said a huge rat had crawled out of her toilet and run up her back, health officer John Vandoloski went looking for the tell-tale signs he knows so well.
He grew skeptical when he found no nibble marks, no trail of food or any other sign of a rodent at the woman's home.
Then he poked the clothes hamper.
A 10-inch rat with a stomach the size of a coffee mug burst out and raced across the room, where he cornered it and squeezed it to death with a broom handle.
'Size of Small Cats'
Vandoloski must contend with thousands of rats, some "the size of small cats," which live under wharfs and abandoned buildings on the waterfront and in the sewer system. Calls for help have declined from 700 in 1974 to about 40 last year, but Vandoloski says he sees no sign of the rat population shrinking.
"There may be 10,000, there may be 20,000," he said. "It's impossible to poison them all."
They are called Norway rats because they migrated to America from Europe with settlers 150 years ago. Generations have stayed on the waterfront, where fish processors and restaurants are sources of food.
"They're very versatile," said William Shook of the state Bureau of Health. "They can gnaw through concrete, they can swim underwater for long distances" and can survive a variety of weather conditions.
"They are able to nest in places where heat and fire can't get to them."
Other coastal cities in Maine deny having a rat problem, but Shook says it is unlikely they are without rats. Any community with a public sewer system is apt to have some, he said, but they are more common in waterfront communities because of the fishing industry and warehouses.
"You can't eliminate rats," he said. "It's impossible."
And migration is enough of a problem that the city refuses to issue a construction permit for waterfront condominiums until a pest control company submits a plan showing that the rats will not be driven to another area.
Vandoloski's department has turned to an arsenal of poisons in a seemingly endless battle to reduce their numbers.