One of the things that come with living on a farm is the presence of rats. Let me clarify this before my New York City readers faint in horror -- these are not the giant, aggressive rats of urban legend, who bully Rottweilers and carry switchblades. These are brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), smaller, a bit timid, the close cousins of the "fancy rats" that are kept as pets. If you live in the country and have a barn, especially if you have grain in it, you will have some rats. This is why most farmers keep barn cats.
Last summer, after we'd gotten the sheep and started storing grain, we began noticing a few rats in the barn. If we came upon them suddenly, we could occasionally catch them perched on the edge of the water tub, leaning in and drinking. It was cute -- like a rat bar. Think of Charlotte's Web and Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIHM . Those kind of rats. I immediately named them Templeton, Nicodemus, and Rizzo.
Most people shudder at the thought of a rat, but let me confess -- I really like rats. They have bright button eyes and inquisitive noses and whiskers. They are intelligent, affectionate, and social. They are also altruistic, not only to other rats, but they have given their lives for hundreds of years in the name of medical research. I think they are cool. (I know they harbor diseases, but so do lots of animals, including humans.) If I didn't have six cats, I might have one or two as pets.
The problem is, as I soon discovered, if you see one rat, you have three; if you see three, you probably have more than even a rat-lover would feel comfortable cohabiting with. They are kind of like people that way.
We started noticing holes around the front porch, then the holes got bigger and bigger. Still, I was reluctant to take action; it was getting colder, and the rats were just doing their rat-thing and trying to get by. Rick kept saying that it was all my fault: if I hadn't named them, they wouldn't be hanging around the house. (I still don't see how they made the connection, but with rats, anything is possible.) Every time we found another hole, he would hiss things like, "Hanta virus," under his breath at me, but I was obdurate. These were living, feeling creatures. I was willing to live-trap them and take them down the road to the woods, but I would not slay them.
Until the chilly November evening when, while I was doing dishes, I heard suspicious noises coming from one of the lower kitchen cabinets. I was familiar with the faint scritch-scritch of the occasional field mouse (another given with a 150-year-old farmhouse), but this was different. This sounded like the tramp of storm troopers marching into Paris. My elderly orange cat froze in front of the cabinet, his fur and whiskers bristling as if he'd stuck his tail into an electrical outlet. I opened the cabinet door.
Rats! RATS! RATS!!!! They were scrambling over each other, scurrying behind the tupperware, literally dripping from the upper drawers onto the lower shelves. Think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Harrison Ford is trapped in the sewers of Venice with several thousand of them, and you'll get the idea. (There were probably about twenty in the cabinet. Okay, maybe ten.) To this day, I don't understand why my neighbors didn't call 911 when they heard me screaming. The cat disappeared up the stairs, whether from the rats or the noise, I'm not sure. When Rick came into the kitchen to see whether I had caught fire, I did something I've never done before -- I dithered. Nothing came out of my mouth but hysterical, high-pitched gibberish. It was not my finest hour as an animal lover or a sentient being.
Unfortunately, the rats were not about to listen to my reasoning that, while I didn't mind them in my barn, I drew the line at hosting them in my kitchen. We called my brother, who is a pest-control consultant, and he recommended rat traps as the best, most humane way to get rid of them. So Rick set some traps, baited with peanut butter, in all the places we thought they might get in and where the cats, who once in a while would catch one but were neither enthusiastic nor efficient at it, wouldn't get their paws caught in the mechanism by accident. It was horrible. I couldn't bring myself to either set the traps or, worse, dispose of the dead bodies, and for several weeks I felt like the Madame Dufarge of the rodent world as the traps would go off with a resonating snap!, and I knew another Templeton had met his Maker.
The upshot of all this is that, after a few weeks, the rats had vacated the premises. We still have a few in the barn (I fished a drowned one out of the horse's water tub just this morning -- sometimes even rats lose their balance), but no evidence of them inside the house. Rick slapped cement around any possible opening he could find in the basement, but we are braced for another incursion this winter. If there is a way to get in, the rats will find it.
But I still hate killing them. It seems so unjust. If rats were just cuter, like chipmunks, their lives would be easier, and people would write poems about them.
There is one poem, by Hayden Carruth, about a rat; it's the only one I've ever found that is respectful to them, and I've loved it since the first time I encountered it. Here it is. I still love it, but now I feel guilty when I read it.
"Little Citizen, Little Survivor"
A brown rat has taken up residence with me.
A little brown rat with pinkish ears and lovely
almond-shaped eyes. He and his wife live
in the woodpile by my back door, and they are
so equal I cannot tell which is which when they
poke their noses out of the crevices amoung
the sticks of firewood and then venture farther
in search of sunflower seeds spilled from the feeder.
I can't tell you, my friend, how glad I am to see them.
I haven't seen a fox for years, or a mink, or
a fisher cat, or an eagle, or a porcupine, I haven't
seen any of my old company of the woods
and the fields, we who used to live in such
close affection and admiration. Well, I remember
when the coons would tap on my window, when
the ravens would speak to me from the edge of their
little precipice. Where are they now? Everyone knows.
Gone. Scattered in this terrible dispersal. But at least
the brown rat that most people so revile and fear
and castigate has brought his wife to live with me
again. Welcome, little citizen, little survivor.
Lend me your presence, and I will lend you mine.
Hayden Carruth. Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Copper Canyon Press, 1996