In the fairy tale, the Pied Piper played his flute to drive the rats away.
In reality, the Pied Piper works for the Erie County Health Department, and his instrument of choice has two wheels and a lid. But the results are the same: The rats leave town.
Peter Tripi, a supervising public health sanitarian in the Health Department, can look around Western New York now and see that years of work -- and warnings in the form of intricately detailed maps -- have paid off: The villages of Williamsville and Kenmore and the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda now require their residents to put their garbage at the curb in covered garbage totes. The City of Tonawanda is about to join them.
"I'm pretty proud of the fact that these towns are doing the right thing," Tripi said.
By now, the story is a familiar one to residents of the county's first-ring suburbs: When the City of Buffalo required its residents to put garbage at the curb in totes -- large garbage cans with attached, hinged lids -- the number of rat complaints fell in the city and rose in the suburbs.
That's when Tripi started making his pitch for totes, at first to no avail. Local governments didn't want to invest in the garbage totes, and some officials thought the problem was being overblown.
"You know how difficult it is to get people to spend money. It's not easy. I have to try and convince them by using science and technology, by showing the trends," Tripi said.
Kenmore and Tonawanda finally listened, and this is their trend: Comparing the period of January to May of this year with totes with the same period last year without them, the number of reported rat complaints fell by 54 percent. That came after it was common to see the number of complaints rise by 50 percent.
"We're not just pulling numbers out of the air," Tripi said. "We're taking true numbers, true complaints, plotting them on maps and watching them."
It was easier to convince local governments what they needed to do once the rats were there, once he could project his maps onto a screen and show the dots that represented rat complaints and then listen for the gasps. The tougher part of the job for Tripi is to get them to listen before the rats get there.
"If we get enough municipalities lined up, it has to stop somewhere. If we can just get someone to be proactive . . .," he said.
He points to West Seneca as an example. The town does not yet have a problem on the same scale of Tonawanda and Amherst, two towns where rats were threatening to become the fastest growing segment of the population. But West Seneca was willing to listen. So was the Village of Lancaster. Neither is going to require garbage totes -- yet -- but both communities have passed laws requiring residents to put garbage in cans with lids.
"If we can get to these bordering towns now, the second-ring suburbs, to take action I think we can stop it," Tripi said.
The rats are not disappearing; they are on the run, headed for the next town over, the one not controlling its garbage.
So Tripi's mission continues.
Wherever there are rats, he will be there. And wherever people are putting too much stuff in their totes and otherwise misusing them, he will be there, too.
"If you're going to start a program with totes and spend all that money, you need to back the program up. You need to do the enforcement. You need to maintain the program," he said. "If the totes are getting cracked or broken, you need to replace them. If the people are overfilling them, and they're breaking, you need to issue the notices to get them to stop doing that."
If there's one thing the Pied Piper knows, it's getting rats to face the music.