a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: A Crisis of Conscience

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Crisis of Conscience

SUMMARY: I don't know what I'll do next time. Rats.

First Story

Cursed vermin! A plague of rodents invaded my attic sometime last winter and I didn't deal with them right away this time. The vile things could be heard gnawing inside my expensive-to-maintain real estate and it seemed like only a matter of time until they'd gnaw a hole in my roof, or through my electrical wiring, or even into my living quarters or cabinets in my kitchen.

Gross horrible beasts, peeing and defecating profusely everywhere in my attic, tearing up the insulation for nesting, and if you don't think that replacing that is miserably uncomfortable--and expensive--work, then you've never been in a 100-degree attic covered with protective clothing and gear and breathing through a filter mask, hunkering down beneath the low roof, balancing on the beams and trying not to fall through the ceiling into your living room. S**t.

Hate them. Why can't they stay out in the fields where they belong? Tika will hunt them down in my yard between episodes of agility training; the problem is that she tears apart everything that stands in her way--flower beds, hot tubs, you name it. More destruction to blame on the rodents.

They are just bad news. As the Santa Clara County web site says, "these rodents can infect humans directly with diseases such as tularemia, leptospirosis, arenavirus, Hantavirus, ratbite fever, lymphocytic choriomeningitis and salmonellosis (food poisoning). They also may serve as reservoirs for diseases transmitted by ectoparasites, such as tick-borne relapsing fever, Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, plague, murine typhus, rickettsial pox, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis and tularemia." Jeez, you don't want to be breathing their waste or having it come anywhere near you, and heaven forfend they don't have plague-carrying fleas. Remember the Black Death? Rats with fleas. Gah.

Damned things are too smart for their own good, too. Put up traps with bait. Caught nothing. Called rat guy and paid him money to set traps in a professional manner. Set several; caught one. One afternoon I counted 8--eight!--damned rats scrambling to escape when I opened the attic door. And those are only the ones I saw. So they're breeding like--rats--and I hope they don't run at me when I open the door. Gah, yuck, awful, I suppose they could carry rabies, too.

Put in poison bait blocks. Not my favorite method because I worry about the dogs getting poisoned rats, although I've never known any of my dogs to eat dead rodents. Carry them around, yes; eat, no. Still. Anyway, they nibbled at them some and then left the bait alone. The hellspawned creatures learn about traps and become trap shy, and they'll sample bait, wait a while, get sick, and never go near it again. Curse them all!

But finally we thought we were making progress. Saw many fewer rats. Rat guy came back again to close up the hole in the roof they were going through (I suspected as much) and we didn't see any rats at all beforehand, so hopefully they were all already dead or had scrammed when we started mucking around in the attic.

But at least one was still in there, curse it! Gnawing away. Finally got caught in a trap. Had to clean out the mess. Good riddance.

Second Story

I had hamsters when I was a kid. And various friends all my life have had rats as pets. They're very smart, very curious. So warm and delicate, sitting in your hand, their teeny little toenails skittering around. The way they sit up and look at you with cute little faces, bright eyes-- And smart, too. Can learn tricks. You can start seeing different personalities, just like you can with any other pets--cat, dogs, whatever.

And I hate killing things if I see an alternative. I'll carry spiders outside and let them go. Rats--challenging. If I catch them live and turn them loose outside, they'll be back in my house or someone else's house or breeding like crazy to spawn more invaders. Dead is probably better. The thing I always preferred about snap traps is that it's really quick. Usually. So I set out a bunch of traps.

I crawled up into the attic a few weeks back to check the traps, and my perspective made a 90-degree turn: I pulled back a massed-up mess of insulation--and there was a nest of baby rats, still mostly pinkish, barely any fur, just innocent, tiny, living infants, all clambering around on top of each other to get away from the light, nowhere to go, not understanding what was happening to them, probably frightened half to death.

Which meant that somewhere there was a mother taking care of them. Mother dies, babies starve slowly to death. Or ther rats will kill them and/or eat them. OK, rats might be cute, but this isn't so much. Of course, male lions do that to other male's cubs and we still like lions.

But, anyway, all of a sudden they were no longer foul vermin. They were like my pet hamsters, like my friends' pet rats, like my dogs. They were families of smart, soft, cute, active, feeling animals.

I felt like crying. What was I doing? How could I contribute to this? Could I scoop up the nest and do the whole litter in? How, for crying out loud, drown them? Given that that's one of my phobias (possiblity of drowning), how could I do that to another critter? Stomp on them? You've got to be kidding. Wring their little necks? I'm afraid I'd just hurt the hell out of them long before dispatching them.

I still felt like crying. I backed out of the attic and called the rat guy. He said, "Awww, babies, gee, I hate doing that! But that's what I do for a living, I guess I have to deal with it." He came over, but we couldn't find the babies again. They were moved or dead. I didn't ask what he'd have done with them if he had found them.

A week or so later, I went up to check the traps again. Pulled aside another lump of insulation, and there were the babies--still really too small to be leaving their nest, still struggling against the light, but now definitely furry with that soft, downy fur common to all young mammals--puppies, kittens, rats.


I backout out of there again really fast.

The rats just weren't going for the traps. As i understand it, if one gets caught in a trap, the others figure out that traps are bad and just stay away. Traps worked for me in the past, but apparently these were geniuses among rats. Nothing. And still a half dozen or more rats every time I went up there. And gnawing away at my house still.

I finally put up a bunch of rat bait, seeing no other alternative. You don't want to close up the holes in the house until the rats are taken care of, or then you have rats inside looking for other ways out. So we have to make sure there are no rats.

The rats barely touched the bait. I kept checking. And the traps were getting set off but not catching anything. How do they do that? But eventually there were fewer and fewer rats and then I didn't hear any for a couple of days, and so called the rat guy to close up the hole in the roof. It was a bear to do--way down at the base of the roof, very difficult to get to. But I hoped that meant no more rats coming in, so I wouldn't have to kill any more.

And then--the final sea change in my emotions. Because there was apparently at least one rat left, maybe two, because that evening when he woke up and tried to get out, he became frantic. I sat in my kitchen and listened to him overhead, smashing and thrashing and banging and grabbing and gnawing and clawing to get out. I thought he was going to come down through the light fixtures or dig or gnaw right through the drywall ceiling. I'd never heard activity so desperate.

And that's what I heard--the desperate attempts of a living being, shut off from food, shut off from water. Maybe shut off from family. Do rats have a sense of family? I don't know--certainly the young rats huddling together in the nest and the mother caring for them have strong affinity for each other. And how would I feel, trapped, no food, no water, not understanding what had happened, wanting desperately to get out?

I hardly slept that night. I heard him all night long, trying everything everywhere to find a way out. Desperate. Scared. Frantic. Gnawing at anything, even the solid wire mesh sealing the old entryway, I could hear the metal reverberate. And it wasn't the noise so much as the guilt--what have I done? What have I done?

It continued well into the morning, then silent as the day brightened and things warmed up.

Midmorning, I stepped out into the garage for some reason, and a movement caught my eye. I turned and looked. A young rat--not an infant, maybe half grown--hesitated in the walkspace near the back door, sat up, paws tucked in, and looked up at me, nose twitching to catch my scent. Just like the little guy in the photo. "Are you my mother? Are you a friend? I can't get into my home and now I'm here and I'm alone and not sure what I'm doing." Jeez, how can a damned rat break my heart like that?

Then I moved towards him, and he moved briskly, not terrified, matter-of factly, back behind some boxes. I peered back there. I had left a mouse trap set from a mouse infestation, oh, maybe 3 years ago, and there was another young rat, same size, probably a sibling, dead with his head caught in the trap. I could hear the other one hovering nearby. Were they companions in this strange world that they'd been forced into, and one had been caught and the other hanging nearby, not knowing what to do, alone for maybe the first time in his life?

Am I anthropomorphizing?

After dark the noise in the attic started in again; not so desperate, but now determined and with a plan. Gnawing very very hard, very persistently, not in random places and small occasional bits like normal, but solid, determined, constant, very hard, very loud gnawing in one place.

Not only have I trapped a living creature in a sure-death situation, I have forced him into a position where he is destroying my property even more. But really foremost in my mind was a moving story I read years ago, "The House on Cemetery Street" by Cherry Wilder--in the attic, tiny scratchings and scratchings and tappings, trapped, slowly starving to death, running out of water, dying of thirst--

Again, I had trouble sleeping, listening to the persistent, determined, constant gnawing. Knowing that he did have things to eat in the attic: The bait blocks. The bait in the traps. And him knowing, knowing, KNOWING that those things were dangerous.

The next day, I inadvertently left the door to the garage open, and found that Tika had dispatched the other young rat.

The third night, persistent gnawing, still, but with breaks. As of desperate exhaustion. Must rest. Must keep going.

Sometime during the day, found another dead rat on the lawn, obviously had been dog-carried. Tika has been going overtime the last week or so as if the yard is suddenly full of rodents. Probably is, now that they can't get back into my attic.

The fourth night, very light, very weak gnawing. Not much at all. You could tell it was weak, weaker than all the normal gnawings and sounds from an attic full of vibrant mammalian life. Quiet. You could almost not hear it.

The next day, another young rat, even younger, dead on the lawn.

Then, that night, from the attic, nothing. And a day or two later, oh, a not so pleasant smell.

I donned my gear, hauled plastic bags and things up to the attic. Found a recently deceased rat in a trap. He had gotten desperate, needed to eat. Needed something. No matter how dangerous. Afloat in the ocean in a raft, desperate for something to drink. You know that if you drink the seawater, it will kill you. And yet--after a while--it seems like the only alternative.

I started hauling out the damaged insulation. Found another rat under the insulation. Poisoned? Don't know. Gone. Found a nest with two young, fully furred babies, curled up, so tiny, so sweet. Gone.

Don't cry into your filter mask. Harder to breathe.

Pulled out a lot of badly damaged insulation, but not nearly all of it. How many more families are up there, dead? Individuals, dead? Not dying cleanly.

How did I get to be this age, and dealt with invasive vermin several times through the decades, and only now have been so torn up by everything? If only I hadn't SEEN them alive and cute and close up.

Next time, it's live traps and I'm setting them loose in the field. I just don't care whether they come back. I'm still having trouble sleeping, thinking about it. I'm crying right now.

Damned rats.

Photo credits:
Evil rat, cute rat


  1. well, that was a cheerful read first thing in the morning!!! poor ratties!!! but, you did what you had to do! you need a jack russell, one of those wouldn't have felt guilty at all.....

  2. I get the guilt, but what are you going to do, provide them with a rent-free residence for the rest of their lives? Feel good about the fact that they got to enjoy much time in your attic in a safe place with warm bedding and plentiful food... now they can take their diseases and their destruction with them.

    Well-written, as usual :-)

  3. Yeah, I know, I should've put a "this is a downer" warning up front. Hmm, jack russel, didn't think about that. I know that Tika would have been perfectly happy up there chasing down the rats, but she'd not only have torn up the insulation herself, but I'm afraid that her 45 pounds would be way too heavy for the drywall and I'd have had ceiling pieces raining down throughout my house. Maybe a small terrier would've been light enough. Hmm.

    Yeah, OK, I keep trying to purge myself of the "these are cute things that I'm hurting" feelings and go back to the "these are dangerous things that can hurt or kill me cleverly disguised as cute things" feeling.

  4. Ugh, what a nightmare all the way around.

    My aunt used to borrow my badass street cat when she had mouse problems. He got right up into the rafters no problem. Not sure if I would have wanted him tackling a rat though.

    I've got a live trap for mice but yuck I can't imagine dealing with a big live rat. It's an unfortunate situation for the rats and I totally understand why you felt bad but I can't see what other choice you had.

  5. When we had mice we used some sort of electric shock trap that seemed pretty humane (quick and painless). I'm assuming they probably wouldn't work with rats and the rats wouldn't go in them anyway.

    I feel your pain, once upon a time I let a colony of ants have their little highway through my bathroom. I think since I heard that all worker ants were female somehow it made the whole thing more like female empowerment.

  6. Ants! Well, they're not nearly so cute and cuddly.

    I also just dislike poisons in general. Somewhere I read that putting cream of tatar down, the ant's wouldn't cross it. So, the last time I had ants in my house, I tracked back to where they were coming in, dumped a pile of cream of tatar, and voila, it worked.

  7. I was just thinking about rats. My mom recently bought a commercially made dog food and you guessed it, she dumped the bag into her feed bucket and a dead rat fell out! Yuck!

    I have a mouse in my chemical storage at school. It's probably mutated into something that looks like the picture you posted. The first one. Why would a mouse want to live in a chemical storage room? I have no idea...........ML

  8. I get your angst. I have the same issue, and have been known to take spiders, flys, and anything aside from mosquitos outside rather than kill them. Am even having trouble watching Obama kill the famous white house fly. Yet your options are slim, and you can't let them destroy your home or harm your dogs, even if you selflessly risk yourself. So, the best thing is to try to keep them out in the first place, which you're doing. And to jump on the problem instantly when you hear them again. As I'm sure you will. Hopefully you're rat free for a long time into the future now!

    Thanks for the insights on my blog. You're right. I should research the Grand Canyon thing now and just do it.

  9. ML: When I was young, my dad told us stories about the mouse that lived in their computer at work. (Of course in 1962 computers were a little bigger than they are now...)

    Dawn: I'd be glad to give any of the skimpy useful info I have about GC if you want. Email me if you get to a point where you're interested. elf (at) finchester (dot) org.

    Elayne: These are roofrats, not the big Norwegians, so they're a perfectly good size for badass cats. And someone on facebooks suggested his jack russell. Yeah, some small, lightweight animal might be good up there, unlike Tika's 45 pounds of antirodent enthusiasm.

  10. Aw, that was a tough situation for sure. But your options were really limited -- couldn't just leave them be given the health and fire risks.

    As hard as it was, your compassion for these little creatures is highly admirable IMHO.