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Rat Catcher's Day Eludes Pest Control Industry

John Roach
for National Geographic News
Updated July 21, 2004
 
Mothers, fathers, secretaries, and teachers all have a special day of
the year set aside just for them. Calendars remind us of the occasions
in time to send our parents cards, treat our secretaries to lunch, or
bring our teachers an apple.

So what is one supposed to do tomorrow on rat catcher's day?

Faced with the question, Sue Porter, the associate publisher and executive editor of the Cleveland, Ohio-based Pest Control magazine, which keeps tabs on the industry of things like catching rats, said, "I've never heard of it before."



Similarly, Sara Knilans, a technical representative for Madison, Wisconsin-based Bell Laboratories, which bills itself as "the world leader in rodent control technology," said, "Rat catcher's day is something new to us."

When asked about the day, the gentleman who answered the phone at Liberty Pest Control in Brooklyn, New York, said, "Do me a favor. Stop pulling my leg." He then hung up.

But on those calendars that note a reason to celebrate just about every day of the year, July 22 is often marked as rat catcher's day. (July 21 is national tug-of-war tournament day; July 23 is national vanilla ice cream day.)

To confuse matters, some of these specialized calendars, especially those in non-English speaking European countries, mark June 26 as rat catcher's day.

Both the July 22 and June 26 dates, it turns out, are linked to the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

German Folktale

In the folktale, a colorfully-dressed stranger arrives in the vermin-infested town of Hamelin, Germany, and for a promised fee lures the town's rats away by playing a tune on his pipe. When the town refuses to pay the stranger for his services, however, the man lures the town's children away, too.

"Almost every version of the Pied Piper story ends with a paragraph saying the people of Hamelin remembered the day when they lost their children, and that they counted the years after the event," said Jonas Kuhn, a linguist at the University of Texas, Austin, who as a hobby maintains a Web site on the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The legend, as told by the late German fairytale publishers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm (the Brothers Grimm), notes June 26, 1284, as the day the Pied Piper led the children away.

Robert Browning, the 19th-century British poet, wrote the most well-known English version of the legend in 1849. In his rendition, a poem, Browning pegs the date of the lost children tragedy to July 22, 1376.

"This date seems to be chosen by exterminators as their own special holiday just [like] secretary's day," said Michael Boyer, who is employed as the official Pied Piper of Hamelin by the German town. "I'm not sure how it is celebrated," he added.

Hamelin itself acknowledges the June 26 date, which Boyer said is corroborated by a few historical notes. And for lack of any other documents by which to date the town, June 26 is celebrated in lieu of a founding date.

Every 25 years, Hamelin celebrates its founding with a large festival. On other years celebrations are smaller. Sometimes Boyer—the Pied Piper—leads children on a walk through town. Hamelin will mark its 720th anniversary next week.

Rats

Past legends aside, rat infestations today can be a serious problem.

According to Porter, of Pest Control magazine, rodent control, as the industry terms their dealings with rat infestations, continues to be a hot topic of conversation at industry meetings.

"[Rodents] are very smart as far as pests go, and they continue to be a challenge," she said. "We do an annual survey on insects and pests and rodents are always up there."

Porter added, however, that rodents "are not the most difficult pest to manage. Ants are the most difficult; cockroaches come second; rodents are usually third."

Bell Laboratories' Knilans said rodent control strategies depend on the type of infestation and environment. She noted that so-called block baits (rat poison shaped like a block) secured into a tamper-resistant bait station are effective in most situations.

"Toxic bait is not always the preferred choice in more sensitive accounts—schools, hospitals, food processing areas, etc.," she said. "In these situations, rodents can be controlled with snap traps, mechanical traps and/or glue boards."

For now, Boyer, the Pied Piper Hamelin, appears secure in his job. He said rats continue to thrive in Hamelin's sewers, but "we keep them under control." Boyer's more immediate concern is the 65 gigantic rats that have been painted by artists and scattered around town.

"The Pied Piper will get rid of them by the end of the year," he said. "He's planning to sell them at E-Bay."

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