The first time they mowed the wheat behind our house I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the secret life of rats. Upon losing their shelter and food supply, my hedge became a refugee camp of sorts.
Prior to then, my only real acquaintance with rats came in the form of a.) Literary rats, i.e. the indomitable Templeton of “Charlotte’s Web” fame, b.) Film rats (“Rescuers Down Under”), c.) Pet store rats, which I mistakenly thought were kind of cute with their clever hands and soft whiskers, and d) the humongous river rat that frightened the life out of me once upon a time in Paris. Mind, I had just been contemplating the horror of the buttress gargoyles hanging open-mouthed off of Notre Dame, so my brain was feeling a bit Sleepy Hollow anyway. But, let me tell you, when you spot a rat every bit the size of a Cocker Spaniel galloping along in your fairly immediate proximity, it is nothing short of surreal. Creepy, even.
Prior to these gray neighbors moving into the hedge within 3 feet of my back door, my familiarity with their species was, therefore, fairly limited. However, I have now become something of an expert on all things rat, whether I like it or not. (You’re jealous, right? Don’t be.) Here is how such an education is gained.
Day 1: Within hours of the wheat straw being baled up, I had a single, large rat sitting in my birdseed tray. I figured, well, it’s pretty big, about the size of a wood pigeon, but these are hardly Notre Dame proportions, so not the end of the world. It drives all the robins away. The seed tray is a mere 8 feet from my kitchen window, but hey, live and let live. Rats have to eat too.
Day 2: Rats don’t believe in eating alone, apparently. I now have a pair of rats. They have chased away (or eaten) the 2 sweet little water voles who used to dart out from under the hedge and pinch bits of bird food that fell from the tray above. Water voles are sort of like wild hamsters – I add this so you know I am not anti-rodent by any means. The voles were adorable and welcome to stay; now, they are gone. They have been replaced by Ratzilla and Ratzilla Jr. Oh well. Two rats aren’t so bad, even though they do tend to put me off my breakfast a bit. I watch them scrap over sunflower seeds and begin to harbor the sincere wish they will fight to their mutual deaths. It is a macabre thought, but I’m enjoying my fantasy.
Day 3: Party in the house! Now we have 5 rats vying for birdseed at my feeder. They appeared to be setting up housekeeping, now the wheat was gone, in a hole under the shed near my chicken run. One particularly large doe looked as if she was carrying a couple dozen buns in the oven. Oh dear. Probably going to have to do something about these stinking rats (they do, by the way, stink). And soon.
Day 4: I come down to the kitchen to make coffee and look out the back window. Overnight, my birdfeeder has been transformed into Spring Break at Ft. Lauderdale. We now have 16 rats. Or at least that is how many I am able to count – they are in constant motion. It is a scene out of “Willard”.
Now, I am no squeamish miss about Rodentia, snakes, bugs or creepy crawlies. In our house, I am generally the one who will grab the shoe and go for the spider while the rest of the family is climbing the tapestry to get away from it.
When my neighbor back in Tulsa came knocking on my door in a panic because there was a HUGE SNAKE in her kitchen, I am the one who went in and tackled that 5-inch garter snake. Speaking of which, when my nephew brought that beautiful coral snake into our house, did I scream? Did I faint? No. (It was NOT a milk snake, so don’t even ask. I lived in Texas. I KNOW the difference). It was only potentially deadly to my children, no biggie… I calmly had him take that banded little beauty well away from the house and let the poor thing go before it hurt anybody. Corals are shy creatures and, poisonous though they are, their main aim is just to get away. Live and let live. So no, I am not squeamish or missish.
But 16+ rats? Hey, even my inner Steve Irwin has her limits.
So, parting the sea of rats with my rubber boot, I went out to feed my chickens and collect the eggs as usual. And this is when I discovered, to my horror, that rats possess another rare and unusual skill I had heretofore been unaware of: They are excellent climbers, right on par with squirrels. In fact, I looked up to find one hanging from the branch over my head by his front paw, allowing me the rare opportunity to make a thorough, anatomical inspection of its underbelly. His tackle dangled mere inches above my eyelashes. It was clearly awaiting my proctologic exam, though lucky for him, I had left my rubber glove inside. I now know more about the anatomy of the male rat than any human ought to. Oh, how I wish I could UN-know it!
As interesting and educational as all this was, I decided then and there that the rats were just going to have to go.
Oh, you can handle rats in any number of ways. We discovered there are humane traps that can be set. However, rats, being dolphin-intelligent, don’t take long to suss things out and avoid humane traps like the plague. Besides – to export them from my hedge would only be to import them to someone else’s. And then, there was the very real likelihood they would only follow the scent back to mine. Any animal that can smell a box of Frosted Flakes from 20 miles out can find his own pee in the same county.
There was a battery operated electric mechanism baited with peanut butter that was meant to be wildly successful, though I had serious doubts from the outset. I feel fairly certain this device, which only ever killed 2 very small mice and one robin, served as more or less the electroshock therapy ward of my ever-expanding rat colony. The rats would enter for the peanut butter, get a quick zap, and then back out of the ward feeling suddenly freed of all previous anxiety and harmful thought patterns. They could be seen wandering dazedly back to the hedge, clearly more at peace with themselves, their mental health improved greatly.
There were poison bait boxes, which, while effective, were a pretty gruesome way for any animal to die (is there a good way?), and then there was the added risk to our local ecology. I have a great love of owls, hawks and red kites, and though I don’t fancy Mr. Fox taking any of my hens, I am quite pleased to see he makes such a healthy living off our pheasant population. He has thus far been a good neighbor and I wish him no lasting harm. Circle of life and all that.
So this, my friends, is why we adopted the cats. Cats with claws. My beautiful cats have sorted our rat problem completely.
Of course, we also live with hairballs, litter box, early morning feed-the-pretty-kitty wake-up calls, that decorative faux pas that is the scratching post, and the “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” horror story of dead mice/moles/rats/voles/squirrels/rabbits/birds on the mat every morning, hair everywhere and the inability to ever, EVER use the bathroom alone.
Is it worth it?
Well, my friends, let me just say this: When you’ve seen a well-hung rat dangling 2 inches in front of your nose before you’ve even had coffee, your life will never be the same. Give me hairballs any day.
feature photo: Shutterstock
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