Mall rats: Does the Downtown Mall have a rodent problem?

Yes, Virginia, there are rats on the Downtown Mall. Yes, Virginia, there are rats on the Downtown Mall.

Many Charlottesvillians spent the last few weeks enjoying a festive holiday season on the Downtown Mall. But have we been strolling, shopping, and dining in the company of species Rattus?

No question the mall has rats—the place is packed with restaurants, which means food waste, which means rat heaven. And just so you know, the term for a group of rats is a “mischief.”

Are mall rodents on the rise?

“We receive on average less than one report a year to the city manager’s office regarding rats,” says city spokesperson Brian Wheeler. A very unscientific survey of mall vendors, restaurants, and others garnered responses ranging from “no” to “not really” to “not anymore” to “OMG yes” and “cat-sized.” Commonly mentioned problem areas include restaurant patios, tree grates, and garbage pick-up sites along Water and Market streets.

Kim Malone, a manager at Chaps, was emphatic: “I see rats outside in the morning when I come in. They’re all along the alley behind the store, next to the Paramount. And they’re in the outdoor cafés—it’s worse in the summertime.”

According to Malone, last year the mall merchants complained, and the city’s parks and recreation department, which handles animal control, responded. “They poured something down into the tree grates. The smell was horrible—people wouldn’t eat out there.” She shares an exterminator with Sal’s Caffe Italia next door.

A mall shop manager, who asked not to be identified, saw signs of rats in her store about a year ago. “We sell some food products, and they had chewed into the bags—and into one of our blankets to make a little nest,” she says. “We have a basement, and we’re in between two restaurants. And people just pile trash in the alley behind the stores.” She bought plastic bins to store her food products, and hired an exterminator to plug every possible hole.

Realistically, no city is vermin-free. Wheeler says a third-party contractor manages bait traps at “numerous locations on and around the Downtown Mall.”

But can those bait traps make a difference, given great hiding places, humans who litter and drop food, and garbage buffets? And then there’s the biggest rodent bonanza of all—the Landmark Hotel, aka the Dewberry. Most people view the derelict eyesore as a veritable Rats-Carlton.

David McNair, a journalist and publicist, says late at night a few months ago he was walking along Water Street behind the Landmark, “and I saw rats pouring out of the hotel, swarming the garbage cans there…it looked like the bins were covered with flies.”

Heather, who works at a mall restaurant and didn’t want to give her last name, says she was headed home one night past that same spot. She saw what she first thought, in the dark, was “a herd of rabbits, because they were leaping around. Then one of them brushed against my leg—it was a rat, a large one, with a roll in its mouth. The rats were so busy feasting they were literally bouncing up and down.”

Joan Fenton, chairman of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville and owner of Quilts Unlimited, minces no words. “The Landmark Hotel is a problem, and the city should address that. They have a responsibility to finish that deal.” But she says all restaurants face this problem and downtown business owners have been responsible in addressing it.

Brandon Butler has perhaps the worst story. He and his family were on the mall one recent Saturday morning for a Christmas parade. Afterwards, his 8-year-old daughter and her fellow Girl Scouts were hanging around near the Jefferson, when they started giggling and crowding around a large gray plastic garbage bin. Then “my wife screams, and I hear this high-pitched squealing coming out of the bin. I walked over and looked in, and there were two or three huge rats, live ones.”

“The size of cats,” his wife contributes.

Seth Wispelwey, who lives about two blocks from the mall’s Market Street side, has put traps inside his closed outdoor shed and checks them daily. He’s now up to 20 rats. He recalls walking to Live Arts one night last January. “There were two massive rats right there on the sidewalk, rather boldly walking along.” He told his spouse and friends—but he didn’t contact the city. Neither did any of the other rat-sighters we talked to.

Store owners and managers know they can call the city with rat complaints, but mall workers and residents who have seen rats seem clueless. Wheeler says Charlottesville Parks & Rec got fewer mall rat complaints in 2018 than in 2017. And without complaints, there’s no reason to step up efforts to “eraticate.”

“In total, in our MyCville database for 2018, there are six reports related to rats this year,” Wheeler says. MyCville, an online and smartphone application to request services and report issues, was just launched this year. No one interviewed for this story knew about it.

Proposed New Year’s Resolution: Get the city’s rat stats in line with actual rat sightings. In the meantime, when it comes to rats on the mall—or anywhere else—if you see something, say something.


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