Thursday, September 4, 2014

I Don’t Smell a Rat


What is this expression “I smell a rat”? It’s weak on two levels. In the strictly olfactory sense, it makes no sense: I’ve never smelled a rat, even when in close proximity to one. (“I smell a skunk” makes perfect sense, but not rat.) Two, in the figurative sense, why does a rat connote something unsavory? Why is it, when someone commits a treacherous act, we call him a rat? I can find no zoological basis for this. Why not pick on the cuckoo? It parasitically lays its eggs in another bird’s nest, and then the cuckoo chick, soon after hatching, pushes the host’s eggs out of the nest. Now that’s treachery.

I’ve been thinking about rats lately because I have one. Not a pet, but an interloper, hanging out in my backyard eating seeds and/or their shells which fall from the bird feeder. I am deeply conflicted about what I should do, if anything, about this rat, and how I ought to feel about it. This post explores those feelings in an effort to make you (and me) laugh, think, and feel uncomfortable.

Why we hate rats

If you look closely at a rat, you’ll see that—wait, probably you won’t see much because you’ll have this automatic gross-out response and won’t really look that carefully. But if you look closely at a photo of a rat, or at a rat that’s securely confined, you may conclude that it’s almost cute. It’s just that long, thick tail that is so unpleasant. On top of this we equate rats with the bubonic plague. (Rat lovers point out that the disease wasn’t the fault of the rats, exactly, but of the fleas that bit them; I’m reminded of the NRA slogan, “Guns don’t kill people—people do,” and Eddie Izzard’s rejoinder, “Yeah, but I think the gun helps, you know?”)

I’ve done a cursory Google search on why people hate rats, and the only unexpected thing I turned up was this conspiracy theory: the scientific community teaches us to hate rats so we won’t mind when cruel experiments are done on them. I’m not sure I buy this; I don’t think that the Animal Testing Industrial Complex has influenced me much at all. I’m aware that a) this research saves human lives, and b) lab rats really are cute. So, it’s a toss-up whether or not it’s okay with me. Given world enough and time, I might think harder about the ethical implications, but I instead I just lump animal testing into the same category as “ugly, hairy people having sex.” That is, I’m aware that it goes on, but it’s not happening right in front of me, and I don’t have anything to do with it, so I’m fine shoving the fact of it into a dark corner of my brain and forgetting about it.

Lots of amateur Internet pundits decry the poor treatment rats have in movies, TV, and other media, and I think that’s a fair criticism. Even E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, while making the death of a pig and even a spider seem unthinkably tragic, reinforces the image of a rat as gross, greedy, and opportunistic. There are limits to how persuasive such media are, though, because I really do think the typical human response to a rat is more visceral than rational. We’re not taught to hate rats … it’s instinctive.

Being a homeowner, of course, gives me particular sensitivities. As a renter I thought earthquakes were kind of fun; now I find them horrifying. Similarly, when I see a rat in my backyard, I’m not just responding to the rat itself. I’m responding to the idea of an infestation—after all, rats breed like, well, rats. Whereas one rat might be aesthetically tolerable, a dozen or two would bring on abject terror, like something out of Hitchcock.

People keep rats as pets, and I’ll bet I could find somebody’s pet rat cute. Rats are known to groom themselves, just like cats. But the big difference, I think, is domestic versus feral. A rat in your backyard is not the equivalent of the neighbor kid; it’s the equivalent of a finding a filthy homeless dude sprawling in your deck chair.

Is it okay to kill rats?

I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind to knock off this rat.  The first time I saw it, I threw a shoe at it.  There was no moral dilemma here, because I knew full well I had no chance of actually hitting it—my arm isn’t that good.  I just hoped to scare it off.  Well, it scurried out of the way, but didn’t even leave the yard.  I fetched the shoe and tried again, and this time it left, but only for awhile.  This technique may work on housecats, but only because they have very little to gain from being in your yard.  A rat is of course totally unfazed, which is just one more reason we don’t like them.  We humans are accustomed to striking terror into the hearts of lesser beasts, and when we don’t, it’s natural to feel offended.

I’m disinclined to make sweeping moral statements about man’s right to kill animals, because I eat meat and wear leather shoes.  (Though a vegan can claim higher ground, he may be a bit of a hypocrite if he puts flea medicine on his cat, allows countless insects to splat on his windshield, or subsists on an agriculture that surely disrupts habitats, displacing all manner of wildlife.)  Obviously I have no problem with killing animals, but I also don’t believe it’s okay to be cruel.  (This means, of course, that I have to eat organic eggs,  organic chicken, and grass-fed beef.  The package of some beef I bought recently said not only that it was organic, local, and grass-fed, but that the cows were encouraged to socialize.  Hell, I was never encouraged to socialize.  Those cows may have had a better life than I have!)

I have killed one rodent in my life.  This was back in the ‘90s.  I was sharing a tiny apartment in San Francisco with my wife.  Upon discovering a mouse, she jumped up on a chair, shrieking and flapping her arms.  After I recovered from my laughing fit, I went to the hardware store and bought a trap.  I think it was marketed as a non-cruel trap, as it had no spring.  But it worked by trapping the mouse’s feet in goo.  This ended up being cruel because the mouse would have worked itself to death trying to escape.  Its piteous squeaking got to me, and I put it out of its misery via swift, blunt force.

Cruelty, ethics, and affectation

I took a trip to Boulder, my hometown, recently and while I was there I fell into conversation with a very interesting blue-collar guy.  (I’ll call him G—.)  G— has a friend who runs a coffee shop.  This friend (I’ll call her F—) is dog-friendly—she even has a water dish on the premises for dogs—but she freaked out when a rat showed up.  So she poisoned it.  Per the directions on the poison, she removed the doggie dish, because if a poisoned rat can find water, it’ll drink enough to dilute the poison and will live.  This rat staggered out into an alley, where some college kids found it. 

For the sake of the story, let’s assume—because it’s how this was described to me—that these were silly trust fund kids taking a break from their drum circle.  They gathered around trying to rescue the rat, but weren’t sure what to do, other than blow the smoke from their medicinal marijuana in its face.  (Okay, I made that part up.)  F— was afraid they’d bring the rat into her shop and ask for water, which would put her in an awkward position.  So she called G—.  He showed up and wasn’t sure what to do either.  Fortunately for him, the rat soon entered its death throes, at which point G— went into the shop and fetched a broom and dustpan.  When he returned to the alley the rat was dead, and the trustafarians were standing over it looking grief-stricken.  G— asked, “Are you guys done with that rat?” and then, getting no response, swept it into the dustpan and chucked it in the dumpster.  Whether or not G— was callous enough to poison a rat himself, he evidently couldn’t resist the temptation to tweak the do-gooders.

It’s the kind of story I laughed hard at, but then felt sheepish about enjoying so much. After all, the concerned citizens were just trying to be good, just like I do. But they were getting all worked up about an individual member of the species, whereas it’s not at all clear they care much about rodent welfare in general. They have to know that in countless urban environments rats are killed by spring traps and poisoned as a matter of course. How much of their concern in this case was ideological, vs. a cozy, brief indulgence in a warm bath of virtue and magnanimity?

I try to be good, but I also try not to be sanctimonious.  For example, I quietly forego pâté de foie gras, because I’ve heard horror stories of how its producers force-feed geese to enlarge their livers—but I acknowledge inwardly that, pâté being expensive and not that tasty anyway, it’s an easy enough thing to boycott.  And I haven’t joined any campaign against pâté, because a) I’m a busy guy and can’t chase down every societal ill I come across, and b) given the widespread knowledge of the hellish conditions facing factory-farmed cows, pigs, and chickens—which everybody eats—doesn’t it seem odd that there’s such an outcry against a food so expensive that practically nobody eats it?

Rationalizing rat-icide

Getting back to whether or not to kill this rat:  if I decided to let it be, might I not feel pretty stupid if it bit one of my kids and gave her a terrible disease?  Perhaps.  But before using my kids as an excuse to rid my home of vermin, I should really do some research.  After all, many a Marin County parent would look pretty stupid applying such rationale, because so many of them are creating a much larger risk by refusing to vaccinate their kids against terrible diseases that—far more recently than the bubonic plague—have been epidemics.

I could argue that, my own kids having been vaccinated, killing this rat is just taking the next step to prevent the spread of disease.  But then I’d have to admit that I know nothing about the rate of disease in rats versus squirrels, and can’t be bothered to research it.  A squirrel has been raiding our bird feeder for months, but he’s a cute fellow with a big bushy tail, and it’s fun to watch him climb straight down the string toward the feeder, and we wouldn’t dream of killing him.  The fact is, squirrel and rat behaviors are roughly the same, whereas the rat alone is icky—and that’s highly questionable justification for rubbing him out.

The elegant solution

Of course there’s a very simple solution to this problem:  the cat.  Except in the case of toxoplasmosis, a rat will generally avoid a cat’s hunting ground, and our cat is probably why our backyard has been rat-free for so long.  But perhaps this rat is smart enough to realize, having had hundreds of opportunities to witness our cat’s laziness, that she doesn’t pose the slightest threat.

So the last time I saw the rat, I ran inside and grabbed Misha.  I brought her outside, hoping the rat would still be there.  It was.  I set Misha down about four feet away and she’s either totally blind and unable to smell, or simply has zero interest in hunting.  She didn’t make a single move toward that rat, which trotted away with what seemed like an annoying air of joie-de-vivre.  Misha then plopped herself down on the warm flagstones to relax.  I snapped this photo moments later.

So, as far as removing pests, Misha is worthless.  Many argue that all cats are useless.  Of course I disagree; a cat is very elegant, and nice to have on your lap or in your bed.  But as easy as cats are to keep, their companionship has a price.  As I sit here typing, Misha is meowing her head off for her dinner.  Plus, I have the ongoing ritual of fishing her turds and clumped-up urine balls out of the cat box.  At night she sometimes scratches at the door.  When we go  on vacation we have to get somebody to look after her.

The rat, meanwhile, is utterly self-sufficient and quiet.  If I can get past that tail, and its classification as filthy vermin, and start to look upon it as a pet, maybe my problem will be solved.


Do you smell a rat?  Because I don’t.  All I smell is the cat box.

Epilogue:  Our hero!

Well, less than a day after I originally posted this, the rat ordeal is over.  It seems I have greatly underestimated Misha, our 14-year-old cat, and I owe her an apology.  Her finest hour came this afternoon:

She was so proud.  She paraded the rat around, bringing it to every door hoping to be let in so she could take a victory lap around the house.  Honestly, I didn't think she had it in her!  I guess that rat didn’t either....

No comments:

Post a Comment