Friday, May 11, 2012

Furry Friends, and Neighbours

deawiTh  tHe  raToR  thE couNcil  wiLL  Be  callED

The note in the letterbox didn’t look quite like that. I’ve taken liberties with the type, and in fact it was handwritten. It’s tempting, though, to think of it as above: akin to a blackmailer’s threat or a kidnapper’s ransom demand. The senders hadn’t splashed out on stationery, and the note wasn’t signed. It didn’t need to be: we knew who it was from.

Plenty of people have neighbours with whom they don’t get on; I just never thought I’d be one of them. Our neighbours, the ones whose bane we are, are neat and tidy and concerned about home security — they called the police when, during our absence, our home suffered a break-in — so it stands to reason that WE must be the problem. Their gazillion calls to Dog Control over the years suggest it. The rats simply confirm it.

We were already dealing with these rodents, as it happened, by trapping and poisoning. It’s just that good things take time, as the man on the Mainland Cheese ad says. Eventually we eliminated the colony. To be absolutely sure, we maintained our assault even after the body count stopped increasing.

That was two years ago. Recently the rats came back, so I’ve been leaving poison-laced baits in all their favourite places.

New Zealander Gavin Bishop
produced a wonderful picturebook
about a rat problem.
Animal behaviourist Anne Hanson, on her extensive website about Norway rats — the kind we have in our backyard — says that “Today the natural habitat of the wild Norway rats is wherever we are. Human settlements are now the ecological niche of the wild rat.” But though they’re far from being the only creature that hitches a ride on our civilisation, people have a particular dislike of them. On the net, they feature in pest disposal discussions much more often than they do in fan sites.

Have hens, and it’s quite possible you’ll also have rats (just Google “rats” and “chickens” in a single search), though the two can be mutually exclusive. My first awareness of rats moving in came more than a decade ago when our first hens were in residence.

As our flock dwindled, with its remaining members aged and frail, rodents intent on the great grain robbery took to scampering about the chicken run in great numbers. When you’re a householder pondering health, hygiene and neighbourly ill-will, any more than two in plain view seems like a multitude.

We “dealt with the rats” then, too. Dispatching the feral ones is a civic duty — the city council distributes a brochure saying so; the regional council used to give out free rat poison. Killing anything larger than a mosquito is not nice, especially when you’re a city-dweller who seldom stumbles upon death, but I’m quite good at doing it in cold blood,* not to mention disposing of the bodies. People express surprise at this, as I’m a vegetarian, but it’s not as if I eat them.

It turns out that I’m also good at cornering live rats. Last Friday I caught one of the latest arrivals by the tail as it attempted to escape from Colditz, which is what our chicken run has become. (Getting in is easy; it’s getting out that’s the problem.) Soon afterwards, I caught another the same way.

I drowned them. That’s the part where I always start to wonder if I’m really an undiagnosed psychopath. Then I put them in bags — one with the Living and Giving store’s distinctive branding; another that of a petfood business called Dog’s Breakfast — and put them in the bin outside.

Four more dead or dying have appeared since then, thanks to the poison. Its ingestion probably causes as much discomfort as drowning, if not more. By laying it, I place death at one remove, but I am probably just as guilty of murder. 

This hole in a corner of the
chicken run is a doorway
to an extensive rat tunnel.
My last rat discovery was yesterday, curled up in its death nest of dry kikuyu grass in the top of the compost bin. I’m hoping, now the rubbish has been collected, that that’s the end of the matter. 

We’ll see. By my count I used 28 poison baits. I found and disposed of six fairly small rats. Are there more dead bodies, or did those six gorge themselves in a great Last Supper? Perhaps they stashed some leftovers away for later: a nice tunnel-warming present for the next new arrivals.

The rats come and go. Our neighbours are stuck with us.

*It’s interesting that doing something in “cold blood” is bad while having “sangfroid” — from the French for “cold” and “blood” — is admirable. Compare the “composure or coolness shown in danger or under trying circumstances” of sangfroid (Oxford Dictionary of English) with the ruthlessness and absence of feeling or mercy that we associate with “in cold blood”. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that in medieval physiology “blood was naturally hot, so this phrase refers to an unnatural state in which someone can do a (hot-blooded) deed of passion or violence without the normal heating of the blood.”

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