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Diary of a Rat Killer

[whitespace] rats

One man's journey to the violent side

By Broos Campbell

When we left our cramped Japantown apartment for a rundown but comfortable duplex in Willow Glen, my wife and I thought we had it made. There were roses, a small lawn and a prolific orange tree out back; the rent was right; and I'd known the next-door neighbor since high school. We threw barbecue parties, made jokes about having come full circle back to the 'burbs and tried not to be too smug about our good fortune. Two years passed without incident. But then we discovered a small problem.

A small, furry problem.

With a few name changes, I recall it this way:

Sun., Oct. 26
Having seen several rats on the power lines up and down the block, and one on the awning over the back bedroom window, we tell each other that the late-night scampering noises in the attic are probably caused by the neighbor's cat.

Mon., Oct. 27
We wake up at 4am, sure that someone--or something--is in the house. I hope it's something easy to deal with, like a burglar. I'm yawning in the hallway in my bare feet, clutching a nine-iron, when I hear it again: the snap of breaking wood.

Something in the wall between the kitchen and the bathroom is eating our house. Worse, there's a steady squeaking when I put my ear to the wall--whatever it is, it has babies.

Knocking on the wall makes the noises stop.

Sat., Nov. 1
Again we're awakened in the middle of the night, and again the noises stop when I knock. But within an hour they're at it again.

Sun., Nov. 2
I'm standing in the kitchen glaring at the wall when the landlord calls. He had been traveling around the country in a Winnebago the past four months, he says, and is just checking to make sure everything's OK. I'm too ashamed to blurt out that we've let the house his parents used to live in be invaded by rats, but finally, cautiously, I admit that we've been hearing some sort of noises in the attic.

"Oh, those darn squirrels!" he says. "I haven't had a problem with them in 10 years."

"Squirrels? Are you sure?"

"Oh, yeah. They get in the attic and run around up there. Don't worry, I'll just throw a bunch of d-Con around, and the little guys'll gorge themselves to death."

I'm not so sure that leaving dead bodies in the walls is such a hot idea, but he reassures me that the bait will "mummify" them and they won't stink.

I hang up, chuckling in relief--squirrels, not rats!

"Squirrels, right," winks our friend Karen.

"Sure, squirrels. Why not squirrels?"

"Squirrels aren't nocturnal."

Oh.

They Call My Bluff

FRI., NOV. 7
The "squirrels" have become indifferent to pounding. Kicking and cussing doesn't faze them, either. Worse, they've begun working their way around to the kitchen cabinets.

Chewing on her knuckles, my wife says maybe we shouldn't wait for the landlord to take care of our little problem.

"That's all right, I'll deal with it," I say, taking the hint. I work at home, so I'm the designated do-it guy. I use my deepest voice--there, there, little lady--hoping I sound more confident than I feel.

Sat., Nov. 8
The hardware store has an evil-smelling aisle lined with poisoned bait, canisters of nerve gas, mouse motels, green gopher traps with wicked wire claws, and plastic mouse traps that look like oversized clothespins that Itchy might use to torment Scratchy.

I buy a pair of the Victor company's old-fashioned snap traps, but I'm not sure what to do with them--they're useless until the animals leave the walls and actually come into the house.

Thu., Nov. 13
In my pajamas, I lurk in the kitchen until I hear it again--an aerosol can falling over in the cabinet under the sink. I get a flashlight and the broom and sneak up on the cabinet.

I smell a rat, literally. It smells like cigar butts and wet dog, a primal spoor that raises my hackles and fills me with loathing.

I yank open the cabinet doors.

A pair of eyes glow in the bull's-eye of the flashlight. I succeed in knocking over every can and bottle under the sink with the broom and waking up my wife, but the last I see of the rat is a saucy flick of his tail as he slips over the panel in the back of the cabinet. Making a mental note to tell the landlord that his squirrels are not the bushy-tailed kind, I bait my two traps with--I swear--Swiss cheese and go back to bed.

Within an hour, I hear a loud snap. I lie there staring at the ceiling, trying to remember what kind of plague rats carry.

Fri., Nov. 14
In the morning, I procrastinate checking the trap. As I'm eating my Puffins corn crisps I hear another snap, this time accompanied by anguished squeaking. I open the cabinet to see what I've caught.

One trap contains last night's kill. He's smaller than I expected, maybe twice the size of a mouse. The other one, a bit larger, writhes and scrabbles in the iron grip of the snap bar. Unprepared for this, I rummage a hammer out of the utility drawer and start bopping him on the head.

He bounces. The plywood floor of the cabinet is damp and springy with age, and it absorbs most of the force of the blows. I decide to revisit the hardware store and come back when he's stopped screaming.

The mummy stuff has been illegal for years, says a clerk. He points out that, obviously, I don't want them dying inside the walls; best to use snap traps. For bait, he recommends walnuts smeared with peanut butter or honey. He also suggests wire mesh to block off entrances to the house.

I hurry home to add the mesh and six more traps to my rat-killer outfit: leather work gloves; large screwdriver for getting dead rats out of traps and for prodding them to make sure they're dead; flashlight; peanut butter. Walnuts, I decide, seem a bit extreme.

It's only midafternoon, but I decide to have a drink, anyway. It's good whiskey, but it tastes lousy. I keep thinking about rats scampering happily about in the stenchy darkness till all of a sudden, WHAM!--trapped like rats.

In the evening I meet my wife and two of her friends at a wine bar downtown and joke about what a mighty hunter I am. You'd think that would be a real conversation-killer, but it isn't. From roaches to raccoons, everyone has a war story. One says it seems as if rats are taking over the Santa Clara Valley and tells us about her neighbor doing a Wyatt Earp number on them with a .38. Another's eyes fill with tears when I tell a story about a friend who gave his ailing pet rat a pile of peanut M&M's to eat while he euthanized it on his engine block. I'm not sure if she's laughing or crying; both, I think.

I check my traps when we get home. They're still set, but every trace of peanut butter has been licked off the triggers.

I decide to add walnuts and thread to my outfit: bits of walnut to supply a tempting morsel to snatch, the thread to secure it to the trigger to make sure it gets pulled. I can hear rats skulking behind the cabinet doors as I work.

The Rat Who Came in From the Cold

THU., NOV. 20
Shortly after dinner I hear a trap go off. I fetch my screwdriver, put on my gloves and have a look. Too soon: One trap holds a dead rat, but the other is still loaded. A half-grown rat hunkers next to it, looking at me curiously.

I challenge him to a game of screwdriver mumbletypeg. He squeaks as I poke him. I think I've got him, but he bumbles toward me onto the floor.

I jump.

He slips under the refrigerator before I can step on him. Wondering if this is how Rommel felt at Normandy--mein Gott, der invasion ist shpreadingk!--I put a trap along the path he'll have to take back to the sink and carry his ex-buddy by the tail out to the garbage can.

Late in the evening I hear the now-familiar snap. But it's not the trap by the refrigerator. From under the sink comes a scratching and thumping that gradually fades, like a rubber-band motor winding down.

The rat hiding under the refrigerator is keening, almost pleading, as if he knows he's in trouble but doesn't know why. After all, I tell myself, it's not his fault he's a rat. I snap myself out of it. If I allow myself to sympathize with him, I'll never get rid of him. I wonder if he's crying for his mama.

Around midnight, as I'm working in the study, he zips silently past me across the open floor. He scrunches up against the wall between the couch and the filing cabinet and wiggles his nose at me. Suddenly we're in Disneyland--he puts his ears back like Thumper, and I stomp around like the giant trying to squash Mickey in "Jack and the Beanstalk." He takes cover under the couch, clucking nervously.

I feel like a big bully. Temporarily defeated, I slip a saucer of water under the couch, close the study door and go to bed.

Fri., Nov. 21
Killing small animals, I realize, is a nasty, lonely job. I don't want my wife to have to deal with it. But I don't want her to know that I've allowed a wild rat into our living space, either. With difficulty I keep my mouth shut the next morning when she goes into the study to fetch a coat out of the closet, but luckily there's no shriek, and no rat beating a hasty exit.

As soon as I get back from dropping her off, I kneel down and look under the couch. No rat. It's kind of a lonely morning.

My pal lies low till lunch time. Looking up from my sandwich at the kitchen table, I see him making a beeline for the cabinet under the sink, scrabbling madly at the closed doors and throwing worried looks over his shoulder at me. I open the cabinet, trying to let him go back home, wherever the hell that is, but he scoots under the refrigerator again. I set a trap on one side and open the back door on the other, hoping he'll just go away.

Darkness and rain begin to fall, and he's still under the refrigerator. Reluctantly, I close the door and set another trap. As I'm leaving to run an errand, I hear it snap shut.

I realize that I really don't want to look. For some reason, I'm sorry it had to end like this. He was a game little guy.

But the trap has only stunned him. He shrieks when he sees me coming and starts running frantically in place, his front end trying to get away from his back end held in the trap.

While my human brain is paralyzed with pity, my reptile brain takes over. We leap toward our prey, screwdriver in hand.

"Perhaps it's not too late," thinks my human brain. "Look, just his tail is caught. Maybe we can take him someplace and let him go."

"No! We kill! Kill with own hands!" hoots my reptile brain. I watch as if from a distance as we slap the screwdriver across the rat's throat and lean on it. There's a soft crunch of bone breaking. I hope it's his neck so the end will come soon, but he's still struggling, pushing feebly with his paws at the steel bar pressing down on his throat. I hold it down until he stops moving.

I feel like a monster. I'm not ready for the awful finality of what I've just done, and the realization that I can never undo it.

I've become too attached to this one to just throw his body in the garbage. I owe him. Furtively, angry at myself for wanting to weep, I dig a grave in the garden and roll him into it.

The Cavalry Arrives

MON., NOV. 24
In response to a phone call, Santa Clara County Vector Control sends Isabel out to visit us. She doesn't come right out and say it, but she makes it clear that our house is practically a case study in how to attract rats. She keeps checking things off on her clipboard: bird feeders (rats love grain); fallen fruit under the orange tree (ditto); a thicket of yard waste in a back corner, where rats could nest. They can even climb down the chimney. I half-expect a mongrel horde to come pouring over the back fence at any minute.

Isabel explains where to set traps, and that the trigger part has to be flush against a wall because rats travel along walls. She says I've placed the traps under the sink improperly, but she grudgingly praises the way I've wired the crawl-space vents shut.

She points out gaps around the pipes leading into the walls, saying that that's where the little guys most likely are getting in. She makes a small circle with her thumb and index finger: that's all the space a rat needs to get into your house.

We ask if we should call an exterminator. Don't bother, says Isabel; they won't do anything the county doesn't do for free, except maybe pick up the dead rats.

Isabel says to leave a hole open for the rats to get out--you don't want 'em getting trapped indoors and dying inside the walls, she warns. She tells us to keep trapping for several weeks until we don't catch any more, then finish sealing up the house.

Sun., Nov. 30
We do this, netting a few more kills. We leave for a weekend and return to find the traps empty. I sigh in relief. After a dozen kills, my pity has changed to resentment. I don't want to kill anymore. We congratulate ourselves that it's over.

It's been more than a month now, and I haven't seen or heard any rats in the house. But I found a curious thing yesterday while sealing up the last hole in the outside wall. One of the traps I'd set there had been dragged halfway across the backyard and was decorated with a bright blob of fresh blood and a wad of gray hair. A few feet away from it was a string of innards. No skeleton, no fur, no rat even--just the guts laid out like a biology experiment, and the long gray tail lying alongside.

Serves the bastard right, I thought, whistling as I worked.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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