Something creepy was happening in our living room. My children, huddling around me, had the circle eyes of really bad science fiction actors acting "scared."
"It's nothing," I pretended.
"It's something," insisted my 12-year-old son.
"Is it ghosts?" my daughter asked.
I didn't answer right away. That's because I was praying. Please, please, please, let it be a ghost. Let it be Aunt Minnie who promised to come back and haunt us for not visiting her enough in the nursing home. Let it be Christmas Past. Let it be anything except for what I knew it to be.
"Mom, why are your lips moving?" my son asked.
"It's not ghosts," I said. "It's rats."
We humans don't call it going "rat-fuck" without good reason. The next few days, despite my prayers that the rats would decide to just pack up and leave on their own, they continued to raise hell in our walls. One night I jolted out of bed thinking, Earthquake! Evenings were especially wild. I have since learned that early evening, the cocktail hour, is also the preferred rat nookie hour, with female rats going "into season" every four to five days and remaining hot for action 12 hours at a time.
"You know, you can't just ignore rats. You have to do something," my husband said. "Rats have babies. Lots of babies."
"We can capture the babies and make them our pets," my 9-year-old daughter, the family nurturer, interjected dreamily.
We are, in fact, a rodent family, the way some families are cat or dog families. Our current pet, Hamsterdam, lives in a swank cage with a wheel, slides and a salad bar of gourmet rodent food. He is one fat, spoiled hamster. Not long ago, we made the mistake of getting a second "male" hamster to keep him company. Before we knew it, the new friend had given birth to a litter of eight. There are never enough loving foster homes for all the world's unplanned hamsters. So, suddenly, we had another litter. (As my daughter said at the time, "Yuck, that means Hamsterdam had sex with his granddaughter. That's like me having ..." I stopped her there.)
I did some swift mathematical calculations. Rats become breeders in only two months. The Wilt Chamberlains of the animal world, rats can mate up to 20 times a day. I read somewhere that New York City has about 28 million rats running around, a rat-to-people ratio of four to one. Considering the pitter-patter in our walls, we were well on our way to matching Brooklyn.
Willard! Evil beady eyes, sharp teeth, a face that escorts you to hell. Rats who swim through the sewers and enter the finest homes via the toilet. Rats who chew through aluminum siding, concrete, electrical wires. They burn down homes! They leave their droppings in the hors d'oeuvres! Rats who climb into cribs and suck out a baby's breath! No, wait -- those are cats. But never mind. What about the Black Death!
"OK," I finally agreed, "you can't ignore rats. What do you do?"
You go to the Yellow Pages. Excavating and Exercise and Eyelets. There was Evictions, but no Exterminators. I was puzzled until I caught on to the linguistic diplomacy. The word "exterminator" exudes darkness, concentration camps, Arnold Schwarzenegger with a machine gun. Modern Americans prefer more subtlety to their pogroms. I turned to "P" for Pest Control.
In my Northern California town of 50,000, there are 10 pages devoted to pest control services. My town, like New York, is also a harbor city, which makes it a haven for rats. Clearly, our family was not alone in our little problem. But which pest control specialist to call?
I considered a full-page ad for a company offering the Nazi-esque "Complete Solution." A wholesome family of four beamed gratefully at a man holding a 30-gallon spray can of poison, enough, I figured, to mutate the genes of my children, their children and their children's children. Another ad took a more whimsical approach: the Piped Piper leading away a line of cockroaches, sow bugs, earwigs and termites. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that story didn't have such a happy ending.
For $69.95, I could purchase a Rat Zapper, "composed of a power supply and an electrocution chamber," which claimed to be clean (no blood or guts) and more merciful than snap traps and glue boards. This struck me as a peculiar boast -- like death penalty advocates alleging that fryin' 'em is more humane because it's less messy than a firing squad.
"Definitely not that one!" my daughter said, pointing to an ad with a cartoon rat dressed in a jaunty, big-city hat and wise-guy pants -- Joe Mantegna playing a rat. Looming over him, eight times the rat's size, was a cartoon relative of "Spy vs. Spy." He beckoned friendlylike to the rat, but hidden behind his back was a huge mallet.
"No fair," my son said. "The rat doesn't even have a chance."
He had a point. The rat was a rat, but the human, sneaky and poised for overkill, was obviously a rat, too.
"Yeah, you say we shouldn't hurt animals," my daughter said. "We should respect them."
I started to squirm. Why didn't they want to talk about something less complicated, like, say, my own personal drug experiences? "But the rats are in our house." I sounded lame, even to my sensible middle-aged ears.
My son, the lawyer-to-be, didn't miss a beat. "Don't you mean that our house is on their land?"
My daughter also aimed and fired with liberal rhetoric. "Yeah, is it the rat's fault that he wasn't born in a pet store like Hamsterdam?"
I had obviously taught my children well. Respect for life. No killing just to kill. Stand up for the downtrodden. After all, doesn't a rat just want what the rest of us want, a roof over his head and a little something to nosh? I had talked to them about why I'm a vegetarian and why, if they were going to eat meat, they should be grateful to the animal that sacrificed its life for their burger.
Years ago, when our vegetable garden was under siege by snails, my son and his friend decided to save our harvest by giving the culprits "snail flying lessons" (they all flunked). It was me, friend to the snails, who insisted that we hand pick them and drive the snails to a field where they could live out their lives in slimy happiness. That was the Jainist in me, the person who's perfectly willing to seek an I-Thou relationship with a rat.
But there's also the part of me that's my mother's daughter, and that part of me wants nothing to do with an urban wildlife encounter. My mother shivers involuntarily at the sight of a spider in the bathtub and actually shrieked, "Eek! A mouse!" when one dashed across the garage. I wanted to set a good example for the kids. I wanted to do right by the rats. But I also wanted them off my real estate.
I found an ad for Critter Control that boasted "exclusion, prevention and humane removal." There was hope in any place that calls vermin "critters."
- - - - - - - - - -
"Rats, rats and more rats. Boy, everyone's got 'em this year," said the
woman who picked up at Critter Control. "We are getting so many calls.
It must be El Niño."
Like males under age 18, El Niño gets the blame for everything bad.
"All that water last year," she explained. "That means rats this year."
It also meant that she couldn't "send out a man" to do an inspection
for at least a week. The inspection would cost $100.
"What do we do till then?" I asked.
"Are you squeamish? You could set traps yourself and save money. We
charge $80 for each rat we get."
"Traps?" I asked.
"Put them where you find droppings. You'll see them. Some places --
whoa! -- it gets as thick as bat guano."
"But your ad says humane," I try. I'm not sure what I expected:
eviction notices, maybe.
The Critter Control woman really wanted to be helpful. "I'll tell you
what you shouldn't do. You shouldn't use poison. It can cause all kinds
of problems when you have something dead sealed up in a wall."
Having a pest problem is like having a sexual fetish. You think you're
alone. But just mention yours and everyone wants to tell you theirs. One friend went into more detail than I wanted about an invasion of fleas. Another friend used every known synonym for "vomit" to describe
the smell of the dead possum in her chimney. A neighbor held his hands a
foot-length apart: "The rat was this big! This big!"
"I'll handle it," my husband said.
I should mention here that my husband is a writer and his father is a
minister. But his great-grandmother -- old family photos show a
craggy-faced bootlegging type -- earned her living
trapping muskrats for Sears-Roebuck company. My husband, flush with
purpose and genetic pride, hurried off to Ace Hardware and came back
with five old-fashioned rattraps, the kind that always got Moe, Larry
and Curly by the nose.
"They go crazy over peanut butter -- the crunchy kind!" my husband
reported. "Now, I have to think like a rat. Where would a rat go?"
He placed the baited traps under the deck, in the garage, by the dryer
vent. Evidently, rats can mash themselves down and squeeze in anywhere.
He found a gnawed-up sky blue crayon in the kids' secret hiding place
("Maybe not-so-secret!"). He placed the final trap by the
crawl space under the house. Rats have been known to shinny up plumbing
Over the next few days, I knew that my son and daughter were
surreptitiously setting off the traps, but I didn't call them on it. One
morning, a trap was actually missing, although the kids
swear up and down they didn't touch that one. My husband, puzzled and
increasingly respectful of rat intelligence, grew depressed about his
manhood: "If I were trapping for a living, we'd all be starving to
The children begged and pleaded for rat clemency. We went on the
Internet and sent out several group messages asking for eradication
alternatives. There's a world of rat lovers out there. The Rat and Mouse
Gazette is full of "cute and informative rat stories." On personal Web
sites, we found photos of tiny rat faces peering Anne Geddes-style out
of fields of daisies. There's the Rat and Mouse Club of America with its
We immediately heard back from Virginia, Lisa and Bill who applauded
our efforts to "think twice about killing an animal others consider
vermin ... Putting out traps or boxes of poison
just victimizes individuals -- usually an inexperienced little baby out
for its first romp."
They recommended all the preventive measures we had already taken:
removing potential food supplies (nuts, acorns, yummy snails), putting
tight lids on garbage cans, cutting back rose bushes that cling to the
side of the house, trimming the tree so rats can't go swinging
onto the roof like superheroes. "You must find where the rats are actually entering the building and
put dense hardware cloth mesh (Not window screen -- 'Ha! Ha! Ha! I eat
that for breakfast' -- Representative Rat Person)."
And then, we were let in on a dirty little secret. Don't ever bait! the message warned us. It seems that rats lay down a
urine trail that tells other rats, "Free buffet this way. Follow me." It
doesn't matter if the trail ends in death; that
information is not in the rat urine message.
The e-mail explained: "For the few that you succeed in killing, the
hordes will follow. It is a well-kept secret in the rat-kill industry.
Why? Because it is like drugs -- a little leads to a lot.
What I mean is, an exterminator who puts out bait and produces one or
two occasional dead rats is just guaranteeing a permanent customer
So what do we do with the rats in our walls? Virginia and Lisa and Bill
were a lot less clear about that. They discouraged us from making them a
part of the family. "I've heard of babies being tamed and raised as
pets, but I'm not sure if the adults could be tamed. After all,
they are wild animals. It would probably be much better to release them
somewhere far enough away from your house that they can't return."
And how do we do that?
"Peanut butter and live traps. But that's a pretty hard thing to pull
We were back to the beginning. My husband and I had a hard talk with
the kids. We didn't see any other choice. We didn't like it either, but
the rats had to die. Everything is killing something else all the time.
Something lives; something else has to die. Rats kill snails.
Vegetarians kill plants. With every breath, we kill bacteria. That's the
way life is.
My husband kept up his diligence with the traps. My son stopped
disarming them. My daughter stopped giving her father dirty looks. We had all accepted the inevitable.
One morning when the kids were in school, my husband announced, "Got
one! Come see." He was triumphant -- not a lick of sympathy, a dutiful cat
that deposits a battered bird carcass at its master's feet.
The rat's eyes were open, but it was seriously dead. The fur was
actually quite beautiful. I never knew rat pelt had an orange underbelly,
like the time I tried Sun-In on my brown hair.
We considered having a burial ceremony when the kids got home, the kind
of modern parenting event that we held when pet turtles died or when we
found a hairless baby bird fallen out of its nest. But that afternoon,
my daughter had gymnastics after school and the next day my
son had tae kwon do. Three days seemed excessive to keep a dead rat on
My husband dropped it into the garbage can and reset the trap.
When we told the kids that we had caught a rat, they were, to our
surprise, not particularly upset. At first, we were proud of their
maturity, their acceptance of what we had called the natural order of
things. Then I felt something nagging at me.
I guess I preferred their whining and outrage, their sabotage, their
impractical empathy. With their compliance, we all seemed somehow
Three days, three more dead rats. And then silence in the walls.
And that's it. The story of the rats. I suppose it would have been
nicer if everything ended with some miracle solution where rat and human
found a way to peacefully co-exist. But the truth, as truth often is,
was a lot messier.