Updated: Jul 14, 2020
Deena Metzger’s poem, “Rats,” is an ode, an apology and an elegy to a rat that was wounded, but not killed, by a spring trap she set in her closet. She follows the rat’s painful struggle and ends with these lines:
she brought me to my knees,
that great rat mother, wounded
in the house,
on the land,
I had declared
a sanctuary for all beings.
This haunting poem made me cry every time I read it. And that was before.
Now I have a story that may be hard to hear. It’s also about a rat, with all the accompanying unpleasant associations a person may harbor. This story resides in the uncomfortable terrain of ambiguity and culpability; those dilemmas where we feel forced to do something for our survival or comfort, yet which we know will cause harm.
I have my reluctance. I don’t want to tell the story, but I have to if I am going to be true to the complicated journey of attempted right living. Neither of us asked for this; I hated the role I was cast in, and the rat’s was even worse. But there we were, on land that I too intended to be a sanctuary for all beings.
The wild animals out my door are quite familiar to me. The rabbits, chipmunks and songbirds anticipate our morning ritual, gathering as I scatter seed for them each day. I knew there were rats around - how could there not be? - but things changed with the sudden and noisy presence of rats skittering around my attic and garage. I found handfuls of pink insulation – great nesting material – in all of my heating vents. It would be very expensive to replace the ductwork under the house, and I realized I needed to get serious about the infestation. I contacted a pest control company, and was reassured that they never used poison, in part because it’s not an effective long-term solution. Their strategy is trapping and killing the rats already in the house, and then comprehensive exclusion - filling every tiny hole where they could enter.
What I didn’t realize is that this plan to seal off all entrances also excluded exiting. One rat, too alert to trigger their strategically placed spring traps, got caught inside somewhere. Did she descend from the attic or climb up from the crawl space? And how did she choose the linen closet’s back wall, chewing an entry hole the size of an orange? I don’t think she could have known there were blankets on the other side of the wall, perfect material for the nest she built. Hungry, she then chewed away the closet carpeting until she could squeeze under the door, drawn by the aroma of my cached birdseed in my bedroom closet.
Our first encounter happened late in the evening. I was in my closet. Bending over to put on my bedroom slippers, I was perplexed by scattered seed, and noticed that the shells were cracked and empty. That’s when the nervous rat said NOW! and bolted past my feet, into the hallway. I caught a glimpse as she scurried into the guest bathroom. I was now living with a rat, trapped inside my house.
* * *
Ironically, as my infestation began in the fall of 2019, we were about to enter the Year of the Rat. In ancient times, the rat was designated the first animal in the Chinese Zodiac - one of only twelve animals chosen. Those born to the sign of the Rat were considered industrious, thrifty, devoted, diligent and social – characteristics the Chinese had observed in these animals.
In the western world, we are learning more about their traits. It is commonly known that rats are highly intelligent, have an extraordinary memory and are capable of pattern recognition, but what isn’t as well known is that recent studies have demonstrated their capacity for empathy. A free roaming rat in a cage will devote considerable effort to release a restrained rat, even foregoing prized treats to do so. These animals have feelings and intentions, like all the beings around my house.
As I quickly closed the bathroom door behind this particular rat, a profound dread took root in my gut. I immediately knew there was no good ending. The rat had no reason to trust that I would gladly transport her outside if she would only enter my Have-a-Hart Cage that I will put in the bathroom. No, this was an impasse - we were about to enter a contest of wits.
The rat proved to be smarter, more determined. I stuffed small wood kindling into the space below the door so she couldn’t squeeze out. Not to be deterred, she began chewing through the bottom of the wood door. I checked inside every few hours, finding fecal evidence that she had extensively explored while left alone, running over my sink and toilet cover. She always retired back in the small cavity she had discovered between the cabinet and the wall.
I kept hoping she would be enticed into the live cage; but she never enters it nor triggers the deadly spring traps I later add. Rats are neophobic, meaning they are initially fearful of new objects in their environment. This cautiousness has served them well, but not in this case. She was willing to do without food and water rather than enter any trap, including the one that would allow me to free her. She smelled the stench of human meddling.
The second day my out-of-town friends arrived. I discovered the hole in the hallway closet wall when I pulled out a down comforter for their bed. As I handed it to my friend, rat droppings poured out of it onto the floor. Luckily, they have a sense of humor. We discussed various strategies for reclaiming the barricaded bathroom, but made no headway in this life-sized chess game. Four intelligent humans - our problem-solving brains unequal to the task.
Everything about this was stressful, but perhaps most disturbing was the internal siege going on. I saw my hypocrisy - I had tolerated hiring people to rid my living space of rodents, but lost sleep when I became the active agent. Most painful was being in the role of someone who spends time plotting how to capture or kill another being. I felt conflicted each time I opened the bathroom door to check, simultaneously dreading and hoping to find a dead rat, killed in one clean swoop by the trap. How does this fit with my identity as a person devoted to the welfare of animals, someone who is deeply moved, not just by the “charismatic mega fauna,” but equally by animals often seen as ordinary or unappealing?
And yet, this is my home. Rats and humans don’t make good housemates. I was plagued by visions of this rat mother escaping the bathroom, birthing a dozen babies who eventually nest in every room. Where would this end?
After three days of stalemate, I decided the most humane thing was to use sticky traps, a tactic I’ve never succumbed to before. I’ve hated the thought of any rodent frantically flailing around after getting stuck on the tacky cardboard. But at this point I didn’t want her to go through the protracted agony of starving or dying of thirst; and I also didn’t want her to die in the woodwork. I placed the traps in strategic positions and then listened from the hallway. Soon I heard flopping sounds. I opened the door to see a miserable rat, her tail stuck to the yellow sticky square. Somehow she had maneuvered her body successfully past the cardboard but her tail betrayed her.
I confess, I took the coward’s way out. It had become too personal; I just couldn't deal with the final act of killing her. My neighbor came over in heavy leather gloves, scooping the now thoroughly stuck rat into his protected hands.
At my front door, before they left, I blurted out, “I’m so sorry.” No longer struggling, the rat looked at me.
* * *
It did not make your ordeal any less horrible, dear rat, that I sobbed for an hour after my neighbor took you away. Perhaps my tears were partly from relief, as this standoff had felt interminable. But mostly, I was undone because I looked back at you. You were not the first rat I killed with a trap; but you were the first rat I engaged with, the first one I looked in the eye while still alive.
You reminded me of an orphaned ground squirrel I fostered for Native Animal Rescue prior to release back into the wild. Your head shape and facial features are somewhat similar, but the outcome so utterly different. My efforts with the squirrel were for his eventual freedom. My final efforts with you were for my release from our painful standoff. I saw no other way out.
Supposedly I won. I have my bathroom back, the holes in the closet and bathroom door are repaired, the floor scrubbed and disinfected. I brought you down, but you brought me down with you, to my hands and knees, to nose level. You no longer live in the bathroom, but you do live inside of me. Our eyes met. I saw your face.
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