Rat Patrol

OffBeat recently experienced a small, manageable — well, okay, flagrant, Technicolor — er — rodent problem at the family compound in Echo Park. While not technically vegans, we like animals, and put off dealing with the rats until they began gnawing their way into our Tupperware oats container. The first rat guy seemed skeptical of the neighborhood. "Do you live by the lake?" he asked. "Because if you do, we’re not going to be able to do a thing about it." Luckily we were far enough from the septic pond that our rats (a family of seven, it turned out) were dispatched with ease.

But we were aghast that here in L.A. — the City for the 21st Century, as Mayor Riordan so wistfully puts it — there are places where the rodents have won the war. So we decided to inquire with our friendly rat man, Marco Rojas of Arnold’s Pest Control.

We weren’t surprised to learn that rats are tough to root out in urban slaughterhouses and feedlots. But Beverly Hills, with its abundant fruit trees and luxuriant garbage, also has a big rat problem, he said. And Rojas was just full of handy rat stats:

Most rats he’s caught in a single location: 27. The infestation occurred at the Santa Paula spread of a wealthy Hollywood stunt pilot with lots of fruit trees and water.

Most unusual infestation: a Mercedes-Benz sedan. The rats got in through the firewall.

Most difficult infestation to dislodge: a duck ranch in La Puente. Poison was out because it would have killed the ducklings, and the rats had taught themselves to use the nipple feeding system set up for the baby ducks in their brooder hatches.

Most diabolical point of entry: phone lines. "Rats are like acrobats, and they can squeeze their bodies through very tight holes," Rojas said.

Best self-preservation strategy: Rats love avocados, which just happen to contain vitamin K-1, an antidote to the active ingredient in common rat poisons.

Rojas pooh-poohed the idea that rats climb into cribs to bite babies, or have their own communication network that sends out alerts on trap locations and poisons. Hey, after Rojas’ cheery tutorial, we have to admit we almost miss the little guys!

THINGS GO BETTER WITH . . .

 

If Coca-Cola’s marketing gurus are looking for a new slogan, here’s one possibility — wherever there is Coke, there’s always a racial-discrimination lawsuit. Just two weeks ago, four African-American professionals filed a class-action complaint in Georgia federal court claiming racial discrimination in pay, promotions and performance evaluations at the soft-drink multinational’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Then, last Friday, Robert Molett — an African-American financial analyst for Coke’s L.A. corporate branch on Central Avenue — filed his own discrimination suit, echoing many of the same allegations. Molett’s lawyers think the dual suits suggest an endemic problem. "For one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast to be going on . . . it looks like there’s a big problem for African-Americans in that organization," said Tim Greene, a spokesman for the lawyers.

How big a problem? Both lawsuits allege that management maintains a glass ceiling keeping upper-management positions out of the reach of African-Americans. The Georgia lawsuit described an Atlanta meeting at which an executive from an Alabama bottling company referred to himself by the Ku Klux Klan title "The Grand Cyclops" — without any reaction from mostly white Coke executives. The suit also alleges an ethnic-marketing meeting in April 1998 at which a Coke manager "showed a picture of a rundown inner-city neighborhood and said words to the effect that ‘This is where black people live.’"

The Coca-Cola Four on the East Coast have recruited the attorney who won a record $176 million settlement from Texaco in 1996, when top execs were caught on tape making racial slurs. They also hope to include an additional 1,500 past and current employees of the company in their suit. But don’t count the West Coast out just yet — since Molett filed his suit last Friday, his attorneys have heard from four more employees considering suits of their own. Could it be another Texaco? Coke’s legal department said it had not heard about the lawsuits yet, but that in any case "we’ve made every effort to abide by the law."

—Lou Rutigliano

BULLET BAN BUST?

 

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, OffBeat decided to see how young Niko and Theo Milonopoulos of Los Angeles were faring with their campaign to ban bullet sales in the city. Alarmed by the Ennis Cosby killing, the sixth-graders started their kids-only petition drive a year ago so that children, in the words of their mother, Constantina, "could feel empowered." OffBeat assumed the 15 deaths at Columbine would lend the media-savvy twins’ cause new urgency. But the topic barely came up during our sit-down at a Studio City coffee shop. Apparently, Los Angeles has more than enough homegrown violence to keep the flame burning; Constantina was appalled by an August L.A. Times article listing 10 young children killed by guns — seven of them in gang crossfire. "Kids think that adults should be the ones protecting them," she said, waving the article.

Elsewhere in L.A., the Columbine shootings threw local children into an uproar. After an e-mailed shooting threat to Portola Middle School in Tarzana, authorities conducted a locker-by-locker metal-detector search, sixth-grader Robin Zhou said. Kathleen Glaudini, a sixth-grader at Bancroft Performing Arts Magnet in Hollywood, said she cried the night after a school assembly on how to inform on peers who planned to "get violent."

The Milonopouloses have collected signatures from more than 6,000 kids, but their petition appears to be on the fast track to nowhere. Mark Chekal, consultant to the Select Committee on Gun Violence in the state Assembly, says, "As long as guns are legal, it’s going to be hard to restrict the sale of bullets."

"I don’t know how you can ban ammunition," adds Scott Wetch, spokesperson for pro-gun-control Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Pasadena). "You can mail-order ammunition."

Children face violence on a daily basis — in school-yard fights, gang shootouts and angry homes — not just when it erupts in headlines. And they haven’t given up on the hope for peace. The Milonopouloses are slated to submit their signatures to the City Council in June. A spokesman for one council member said privately that he expected the proposal to be buried.

—Ronnie Cohen

JUVENILE SLAVE TRADE

 

Students at Hollingworth Elementary School in West Covina are saving their pennies to buy back slaves from the East African country of Sudan. At principal Catherine Carter’s instigation, K-through-sixth-grade students have donated $2,100 in cash and checks, plus jars of coins, to purchase black women and children abducted from southern Sudan in that country’s civil war. One third-grader has already pitched in $105 in birthday and holiday money. "That’s like you or me donating $10,000," said Carter, who first learned of the program from TV.

Laudable objective, freedom, OffBeat thought. But do we want our schoolchildren trafficking in human flesh, however noble the impulse? We decided to investigate.

Since Sudan’s independence in 1956, southern rebels, mainly black Christians and followers of tribal religions, have fought for autonomy from the Khartoum government, which is dominated by northern Arabs. Local militias fighting for the Arab government are not salaried, and often take their payment in black slaves. While the government denies it condones slavery, the U.S. and United Nations say it encourages the practice. The Muslim enslavement of mostly Christian villagers has become a cause célèbre on the Christian evangelical circuit, inspiring a number of buy-back programs by religious organizations and broadcasters.

The Hollingworth schoolchildren’s money will be sent to a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, the American Anti-Slavery Group, which in turn funnels the funds to Christian Solidarity International. That Swiss-based charity, according to published reports, has made more than a dozen risky, clandestine flights to southern Sudan to redeem slaves since 1995. The slaves are bought from middlemen called slave "retrievers," and presumably returned to their families and villages.

Many groups, however, including Human Rights Watch and UNICEF, have condemned slave buy-backs. UNICEF this year warned that the humanitarians with their foreign dollars were fuel-ing the arms trade in the impoverished region. In a one-week period, they poured close to $90,000 into a village with an average annual income of $200. Alex de Waal of the London-based group African Rights told the Christian Science Monitor that by paying large sums to free slaves, the Swiss charity was undercutting local villagers who do the same work for a fraction of the cost. Christian Solidarity, which has no permanent staff on the ground in the Sudan, concedes that its members do not follow up to see if the villagers are recaptured.

"It was the best of intentions gone awry," warned executive director Jim Jacobson of Christian Freedom International, which ended its own slave buy-back program.

Charles Jacobs, president of the American Anti-Slavery Group, said that certain groups did an about-face on slave purchases because they blew their own buy-backs. "They spent money and risked lives and didn’t buy slaves back from the right people. They were not authorized slave retrievers," Jacobs charged. OffBeat asked Jacobs when he had last examined the situation firsthand. "I have never been to Sudan," Jacobs said.

Carter was undeterred by the criticism. "They are kids. They see kids as slaves and they want to put an end to it," Carter said. "They deserve our praise, not our criticism."

—Sara Dunn

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