Thursday, January 13, 2011


Most people I know have war stories about rats. When I think back, I have quite a few myself.

Not just stories about plumped-up rodents seen scurrying alongside buildings in Washington, DC, or skinny rats scampering across the sidewalks of New York's Alphabet City, or rats nosing around the ruins in Rome or the metro tracks between BART trains in San Francisco. I'm not even talking about rats scampering along telephone wires outside the house, or through the ivy outside one's workplace, or eerily squeaking in packs across the back yard in spring, which I've gathered over the years is rat-baby season.

I'm talking about rats inside the places one lives and works. Actual cohabitation, see?

Oddly, this month seems to be generating a lot of rodent stories, at least in my circles. A friend posted to Facebook a photo of the hilarious warning sign her daughter taped to a bathroom door after seeing an elusive but long-present mouse run in. She shut the cat in as well, hoping ... for resolution, I suppose you'd say. Then a near neighbor, author Leslie Larson (Breaking out of Bedlam, Slipstream) blogged a fabulous thread of e-correspondence last week in which she and author Spring Warren trade rat stories. I began to draft this post just before taking a break for the holidays, and seeing Leslie's post kicked it to the head of the queue.

My earliest rat stories are science stories. The very earliest is actually about a bat that my dad found clinging to the mailboxes in our apartment building's lobby when I was in second or third grade. Dad trapped it in a glass jar and punched holes in the lid. The bat was pretty out of it. Maybe it was rabid. Anyway, that's science, right, showing little kids what a bat is? The critter died a day or two later. But a bat isn't a rat at all, so it doesn't quite fit this post. The next earliest is about my brother and an etherized mouse, which is also not a rat, so we'll save that for another time.

My first real war story about rats is not very flattering. Actually, none of my rat stories are very flattering, but this one involves my attenuated career as a neuroscience research dude & rat executioner.

In short: there were rats, there were experiments, I was trained to "sacrifice" rats raised as experimental subjects, it wasn't pretty, and that was even before the part about slitting open rat abdomens and digging through warm rat guts to cut out the adrenal glands. Did you know that rats' adrenal glands are very very small? Even if the rats are pretty big, and these fellows were hefty. I don't think you really want to know much about the method we used to "sacrifice" the rats in question; I have little stomach for describing it graphically. Clinically speaking? Well, the papers published in Molecular Pharmacology say "Animals were killed by cervical dislocation."

Use your imagination.

I was nineteen when I killed more than a few rats by cervical dislocation, and -- not counting the rat that drowned in a toilet trying to enter our house through the sewer pipes -- I didn't have much in the way of rat stories until I was in my thirties, living on 54th Street in Oakland, California.

I suppose I was carrying a fair bit of rat-killer-karma from those dark days in the Stanford University Medical Center, so it shouldn't have been a surprise that I nearly dropped my teeth when a rat jumped out of a pile of backpacking equipment that I was sorting through in a dark, under-the-stairway closet. I screamed like a fifteen year old debutante; smacked my head on the closet's low ceiling; and ran upstairs in a fright, babbling about our rodent invasion to my bemused housemates.

They weren't so bemused when one of them opened a kitchen drawer looking for candles or matches or some such thing a week or two later, and a rat jumped out. Not bemusing. At that point, it was war.

We put snap-traps out, baiting them with cheese and peanut butter, and it didn't take long to snap that kitchen-drawer rat. I was hugely unhappy that it fell to me to retrieve the trap and very dead rodent from under the sink. I couldn't even look at the thing without whimpering.

What to do? Abstraction was clearly going to be essential. Torque, I was thinking. An abstraction of weight.

I found a long pair of slip-joint pliers in the garage, opened a paper grocery bag beside the sink and -- without looking at the dead thing except out of the furthest corner of my eye, I used the pliers to pick up the trap by its long tongue of a trigger. The idea was to have only an indirect sense of the meaty weight of the very very dead rat. Memories of those chunky rodents I "sacrificed" by cervical dislocation ... ugh ... those memories made a torment of even the brief seconds of rat-weight dangling from the end of my pliers. I dropped the contraption-plus-rat into the paper bag, then picked up the bag with the pliers and walked it at arms length to the trash cans outside.


But that was nothing compared to the rat we found a couple months later rotting underneath the table out in said garage, a table that we used to fold laundry. Now that rat was dead. Hella dead. In fact, he must have been dead for weeks because he was bloated and leaking dead rat juice all over the dank concrete floor. I screamed and squealed over that one too, and flat out refused to deal with it. My housemate Susan, who wore the pants on 54th Street, picked the festering thing up with a shovel and dumped it in those same trash cans.

I didn't watch.

Then there was the time I took out a cutting board, set it on a kitchen counter, and reached for a pear. I was about to make a pear tart, I think. Or a pear salad. In any case, someone had taken a very big bite out of the lovely, ripe Comice pear perched at the top of our fruit bowl. No. Not someone. Something. And not a very big bite. A very many little bites.

Eeeeeek! Rats! Crawling around our kitchen and eating from our fruit bowl!

I began lying awake nights, listening. I heard them all right. But by the time I worked up the nerve to turn on the light, the rodents were gone, out of sight.

Until the night I saw them arrive. Sitting up in bed as soon as I heard them stir, shining a flashlight out the bedroom door, I spotted two of the disgusting buggers round the corner from the hallway into the kitchen. I'd latched onto a little corner of maturity by then, so I didn't squeal. Not very much, anyway. I did slam shut the bedroom door and stuff a towel into the space between it and the floor. Damned if I wanted those bubonic beasts scuttling under the bed. I didn't sleep much more that night, I can tell you that.

The next day I bought glue traps.

I was thinking, heck, the apartment we live in is way smaller than that sprawling house on 54th Street. There, if a trap set in the kitchen snapped in the middle of the night you might not even hear it. Here you'd practically be sleeping on top of the thing. There was no way I was going to go rock-a-bye if I feared at any moment that a rat was about to trip a trap that would sound off like a shotgun in the night's tranquility. A glue trap, I imagined, would be a quieter affair. Rat runs across trap, gets mired in glue, and quietly drowns. Peaceful. Like the La Brea tar pits.


We woke to the sound of flexing plastic.

I sat up in bed soon enough to see the trapped rat's best rat-friend scurrying back out of the kitchen and into the hallway. But there was no doubt that one of the little bastards had been caught. Unfortunately, I hadn't considered the ratio of rat to glue trap.

Thrashing and flailing and literally tearing its fur out to extricate itself from a trap laid between the sink and the refrigerator, that stuck rat made a racket that would have woken a woolly mammoth. I got up. I put on my biggest, thickest, highest pair of boots. I tiptoed into the kitchen. The thrashing was constant. That rat wanted out. That rat wanted out badly. I waited. What was I going to do, club the thing? No effing way, man. Let nature take its course. The rat would eventually suffocate in the glue, according to optimistic scenarios outlined on the glue trap packaging. And then I'd have to rustle up that ding dang slip-joint pliers again.

But no.

In point of fact, the rat won. Sort of. Won out over the glue trap, anyway.

It thrashed and flailed and tore its fur out, and eventually ran the trap dry, sopped up all the glue, I guess, or enough to detach itself at any rate. Next thing I knew the thrashing stopped. Silence. I slowly, oh so slowly, peeked into the space between the sink and the refrigerator. Nothing. An empty glue trap. Dry. Glueless. Flecked with rat fur. And where was the rat? I shone my flashlight into the space between the sink and the refrigerator. Nada. I stood on a chair, and climbed onto the counter. I shone my flashlight downward. There, among the refrigerator coils, a pair of beady red Houdini eyes stared back at me. I felt sick. Sick. There was a freakin' rat in my freakin' kitchen, I knew right where it was, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it but go back into the bedroom, close the door, and pile up major fortifications against rat intrusion. Not, I suppose, that the critter wanted anything more to do with me that night! In the morning, the refrigerator coils were rat-free.

That story ended reasonably well, anyway. We finally realized -- having seen rat #2 flee back into the hallway that (doh!) the critters were getting in through a foot-square hole into the core of the building that our landlord left open when he replaced our wall heater a couple months before. Silly landlord. We closed off the opening with heavy-duty wire screening and that was the end of the pear-nibbling rats.

Which brings me to the rat story that inspired this looooooooooooong excursion down memory lane. The one that started in early December with something rotten-smelling in the little anteroom between our kitchen and the back porch. I figured -- I wanted to believe -- that something had died in the crawl-space beneath the building, and the stink of its carcass was wafting up through the drainpipes.

The smell got stronger.

Okay, I thought. Maybe it's a wee mouse that died behind all the crap we've piled up over the years in this little anteroom storage space. Another week or two and it'll be decomposed down to clean mouse bones, and we'll leave it be until we move. Right?

The smell got stronger still.

Fine, I thought. On a Tuesday morning I began to gingerly excavate. Pulled out boxes and tools and old plastic shower curtains and bags of unrecycled recycling and heavy canvas tarps ... until ... until ....

Until I caught sight of a tail.

Not a mouse tail. A long, skinny rat tail.

I didn't scream. I didn't squeal. I didn't even run away.

I also didn't look at the splayed-on-its-belly corpse except out of the corner of my eye. Some things don't change.

But the good news was that despite the stink, this rat was still intact. All inside its skin, unlike that putrescent mess in the garage on 54th Street.

I climbed down the rickety wooden stairs into the yard. I found a very long handled, heavy shovel that belongs to my upstairs neighbor. A shovel so heavy that the weight of a rat wouldn't really change the feel of it. I climbed back up the stairs. I scooped up the rat. I still wasn't looking.

I carried the shovel (and its undiscernable cargo) over to a paper grocery bag in which I'd already tossed a bunch of crap dug out of the storage space that really didn't need to be stored any longer. I dumped the dead rat and its long, skinny rat tail into the grocery bag. Then I carried the bag down to the trash bins in the side yard.

I didn't even have to use a pliers.

Do you have a rat story to share?

Thanks, sort of, to Arthaey Angosii, a braver rat killer than I'll ever be, for the photo. And to carlosfloro (Carlos Floro de Melo) for the video upload, complete with Portugese subtitles, of the late Michael Jackson singing a love song to ... a rat!


  1. My only encounter with rats was at the beginning of my first year of college. The dorm I was in had opened in the middle of the previous school year, and I was excited to be living in a building that was so new.

    My roommates had many flaws, but they kept the room quite neat and free of food debris-- probably cleaner than I would have, if left to my own inclinations. Nevertheless, it wasn't more than a week or two before we started to hear the pitter-patter of little rat feet scurrying through the room at night.

    The final straw came one night when we heard a shuffling of papers, a thunk, and some desperate scrabbling and squeaking. A rat had climbed onto one of our desks, lost its footing on some homework, and fallen into the trash can.

    Out came the sticky traps. I've never been quite clear on how getting your feet and underside unremovably attached to super-glue, as you scream and try to rip away from your own skin, is supposed to be "humane", but that's what they kept reassuring us.

    It reached the point where my roommates had sexiled me one too many times during our first quarter, and one day I threw all my belongings into a shopping cart, pushed the cart across the neighborhood, and moved into someone's closet in the run-down, falling-apart 1920's era hotel-turned-dorm, until I was assigned my own room there.

    General state of disrepair aside, I never saw a rat in my second dorm. And I'm not sure what I missed less, the rats or the roommates.

  2. Dear God, this blog entry induced heart palpations and sweaty palms, I hope you are able to return from that dark scarey place and perhaps write a blog about rainbows and puppies.

    I must have blocked out the above rat drama at 54th St, and yes, Susan did war the pants!

    But, I do have a lovely rat story.

    The setting is as follows: Sitting by my lovely fire place, reading a novel on my comfy couch, drinking a glass of wine,candles lit, enjoying a night alone, as the husband was out, I was so engrossed in my novel that I barely looked up when my jack-russell, Monty, jumped on my lap. to see that she had so proudly dropped a half dead rat, almost the size of her, into my
    lap. Half of its head bitten off, but still alive. The lovely night had come to an end with my wine glass shattering on the floor, book flying across the room,screaming at the top of my lungs, Monty chasing after the half dead rat, then catching the poor thing, and finishing the job, but she would not release it from her jaws. She was so proud of herself.I ran into the bedroom, shut the door and got under the covers, cowering until the husband came home.

    housemate circa 1980's through 1995

  3. The best thing to do would have been to club it. "Let nature take its course" - no, you are torturing the poor thing with a device. They will gnaw their own limbs off, rip off their skin and starve to death if left on for too long.

    Glue traps are anything but humane. They should be outlawed IMO.

  4. @Chuck -- I get that now. Absolutely. I'll never use a glue trap again.

  5. Our first cat here at Cedar St got wounded by something. A very neat little rectangle of pelt was missing on the cat's shoulder and the pelt started to rot. The vet was able to excise the necrotic tissue and sew up the skin; antibiotics took care of the infection. The day after the cat showed up with its wound I found a dead rat in the driveway. Could it have been the real loser in a fight with our cat? Don't know for sure. The cat was small and the rat was not.

    Our next door neighbor said she had to call in an exterminator to get rats - and a couple days after that I found a dead rat in the gutter. We haven't had rat problems ourselves - other than the cat wound thing.

    Every so often one of our current cats (the short hair mackerel tabby named Sundy) brings in a captured bird or mouse. The birds are typically dead - and usually eaten. The mice have usually been alive. We caught three over the years (Kent best at catching) and took them back outside. The last escaped late in the evening behind heavy furniture and we decided to leave any attempts at capture to the morning. Middle of the night I woke to hear the mouse screaming. I got out of bed and followed Sundy around the house as he carried the mouse in his mouth. Eventually the cat dropped the mouse, which lay on the floor, breathing laboriously. I took it outdoors to the trash can. I don't remember what I picked it up with - a rag? dustpan? plastic bag?

    More recently Kent stepped in the remains of a mouse on the floor. He got the heebie jeebies and dumped toilet tissue on it. When I lifted the tissue I saw a clump of dark damp fur and, separately, one pink foot. Maybe there won't be any more capture & release ...