Wednesday, January 23, 2013


A while back, in the midst of a remodel that left lots of holes in our kitchen walls, we had an uninvited guest--a dark-brown Norway rat who, on the first night alone, helped himself to a pretty impressive chunk of watermelon and also carried off the rubberized lids of my toddler’s sippy cups.

Taking the easy way out, we decided to move all the edibles into the dining room for the duration of the project. That worked for a while, until one day we noticed some big holes gnawed in a bunch of bananas.  Somehow, our friend had invited himself in.

On double checking the room, I found a rat-worthy opening high on one wall, and confidently covered it over with plywood, Still, the next morning my wife found that her tote bag had been rifled, with her stash of crackers and an apple carried away whole to who knows where.

Reluctantly, I went to the drugstore and bought a rat trap and--in case all else failed--a box of rat poison. I baited the trap with cheese as I learned to do from cartoons, and then set it in the dining room.  The next morning, it was sprung but empty, the cheese lying beside it.  The following night I tried again with some raisin bread.  Again I found the trap sprung but empty, though this time the raisin bread was gone. A third try brought similar non-results.

Defeated, I finally reached for the rat poison, setting out the little tray of deadly kibble where the rat would find it most tempting. Poisoning a rat, mind you, is not a speedy proposition. Rodenticides now use an active ingredient called brodifacoum which, without getting into the unpleasant details, works by interfering with the body’s production of vitamin K. This slowly prevents the blood from clotting and eventually makes the capillary walls permeable, with ghastly results I’ll leave to your imagination.

According to the product label, dead rats “will begin appearing” four or five days after eating the pellets. Sure enough, we didn’t hear from our unwelcome lodger again until midnight on the fifth day, when I was awakened by thumping noises coming from the dining room. As I approached, I heard little rat-feet padding away quickly in retreat. Creeping inside and switching on the light, I found a scarlet bloodstain at each doorway where the rat had tried to escape despite his failing body. Now he was hiding beneath a cabinet, making quiet gurgling and whimpering noises so pitiable I couldn’t stand to hear them. I went back to bed, feeling a little bit poisoned myself.

The next morning, I was prepared for the revolting sight you’d expect when you consign such an unloved creature to a slow death by hemorrhage.  But I wasn’t prepared for what I actually found.  In his last long miserable hours, the rat had sought out the most comforting thing he could find--a small stuffed bear my son had left lying under the table, with fur a color close to his own.  Now he lay still on his side pressed against it, looking not revolting as a rat is supposed to, but as silent, soft, and harmless as the little toy he clung to.

As for me, the nominal victor in this lopsided battle, I felt not triumph, but only burning shame for having made a fellow creature suffer so horribly, simply for being too good at the things Mother Nature designed him for.  

We humans like to think that we control our built environment, and perhaps we do--briefly.  Brodifacoum is now widely used in rat poison because rats have become resistant to the previous common rodenticide, called warfarin. No doubt they'll still be nimbly adapting to their world, long after we’ve destroyed our own.

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