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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rats Proliferate, Moscow Shudders

After seeing "The Plague", a movie about a rat-borne epidemic that features bloodcurdling scenes of rat corpses floating in underground sewer systems, Michal Sedlacek returned to his apartment to find a 20-centimeter rat in the bathroom.

The recent encounter almost drove him to leave Moscow, the Czech architect said.

"I didn't know what to do", said Sedlacek, 30. "It's possible to kill a cockroach, but this is huge".

Rats have always aroused strong reactions, whether because they carry disease or because something about their size and demeanor just gives people the creeps. But Muscovites have been particularly jittery this year, with articles in the Russian press warning of dangerous rat colonies infesting the metro and blaming the rodents for everything from rare illnesses to traffic jams.

In late 1992, 13. 2 percent of Moscow's buildings and parks were "populated" with rats, well below the 20 percent considered the threshold of danger, according to Aliya Batrshina, a biologist at the Moscow City Disinfection Station, which handles much of the city's pest control.

But the density of individual rat colonies was found to have surged above the mandated level, she said, which is why "more rats are running around where people are".

"Usually people barely see them, and only we know where the colonies are", she said. "But when a rat in the street goes straight for someone, they find that menacing".

Batrshina believes it is political change that has brought rats out into the open. As she sees it, unregulated street markets, lapsed trash collection, absent landlords and administrative reforms which disrupted pest control for several months meant a bonanza in rat reproduction - alongside a boom in major renovations which have sent swollen rat colonies looking for new homes.

Raising fines for improper trash disposal and stepping up the use of anticoagulant poisons and other traditional rat-killing methods have brought the situation largely under control, Batrshina said, adding that any rat that approaches a person is "probably in the last stages of death by poison".

Some rats may have been up to more mischief than simply frightening people on the street. The daily newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta earlier this month quoted a traffic police officer, Capt. Ivan Bedykh, saying that "rats are to blame" for many traffic jams, because they chew on the electric cables that power traffic lights.

It could be, according to Batrshina. Rats chew "anything that crosses their path", she said, because otherwise "their teeth will get so big that it is impossible for them to close their mouths".

As she flipped through tomes of rat statistics Monday afternoon, Batrshina, 55, said she had spent the last 14 years in what the city terms "the fight against rats". But her bright orange pen shaped like a fat, smiling rat and her wealth of anecdotes about rats, cannibalistic and murderous, clever and clanlike, betrayed a certain affection for the creatures.

"We have never tried to completely annihilate them", she said. "They occupy a distinct ecological niche that must be occupied".

According to Batrshina, most of Moscow's rats are grey rats, which range in length from 15 to 24 centimeters and can weigh as much as 600 grams. The average weight is 250 grams.

Tatyana Dobrovolskaya, head doctor at the Center for Sanitary and Epidemiological Control for the Moscow metro, said recent reports about rat colonies in the metro "do not agree with reality". Rats shun the metro because of high voltages, loud noises and lack of food, she Said.