Man vs. Rat

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2004, Tom Bentley

It began with a slightly unpleasant smell. It was faint but foul, a turn in the hallway air that I would run into, pause, sniff and shake my head at when no source surfaced. But it was faint and inconsistent, so like an optimistic homeowner, I ignored it.

But as bad smells do, this one worsened. Hallway journeys now had a constant companion, an edge of rottenness that curled my nostrils. What was it? Hallway trips had me sniffing wildly into the air, running my nose against the length of the walls, crawling on my knees, a bloodhound with only an offended nose, not a talented one.

I became convinced that there was a broken pipe underneath the hallway bathroom, seeping scum under the house. Nope. Then I thought that something had died within the walls—wretched thought, that—but though the smell seemed to hover, I couldn’t track it to a specific place. After a week of nasal nervousness, it hit me: the attic.

I pulled down the folding staircase and climbed up, and all it took was my nose breeching the attic opening to emphatically tell me that my search was over. In a minute, I found it, though sensible instinct tells you to move away from death, rather than towards it. A good-sized rat had come to its rank end between some roof framing, and its smell was profoundly foul, gaggingly so.

It’s the kind of moment when you wish you could tell your parents and have them deal with it, but my eighty-seven year-old father wouldn’t do well with that attic staircase, and I waited in vain for my consort Alice to volunteer. I marshaled every cleanser in the house, put on long rubber gloves, and wishing I had a gas mask, went to it. The corpse went into a plastic sack, followed by about ten other plastic sacks, and followed by paper sacks. Then came the application of the spray-on toxins. It’s a wonder I didn’t start some extreme chemical reaction. Death is powerful stuff—even after that onslaught, the smell rose faintly through the chemical mask. And when I saw that my rodent friend had been gnawing on some clad wiring up there, even exposing some conductive wire, I was even more appalled, thinking he could have taken the whole house down in a fire.

I spent some time checking all the attic and foundation vents and the crawl space to ensure there wasn’t any easy rat entry. Imagine how displeased I was a month later when I began hearing rustling sounds in the attic and confirmed by droppings that Rodent Redux was making hay high above our heads.

I must preface my account of the militant measures I took by saying that I love the creatures of this world, spiders to snakes to sharks, marvels all. But the charm of the wire-chewing roof rodent, in life and in death, was lost on me. Cruel it may be, but it was off to the hardware store to procure big snap traps, plastic jaws with no mercy. You bait the triggers with peanut butter, a lure that could lead me into a trap. Two traps placed, and wait.

I checked the next day, presuming they’d be untouched, because I’d heard nothing. Everything was as I’d left it—except for the peanut butter. Gone, and cleanly, both traps. Wow. Maybe the triggers caught, so that the rat could clean his plate, though the traps seemed fine when I almost lost a finger reloading them. I did an attic check two days later. Same result: licked clean, trap undisturbed, all clear—except for the growing pile of rodent droppings in the area.

Again with the trigger check. Again the traps working as they should. This is a devious rat: Must escalate. The Internet, specialist in all things rat, gave me a tip: tie an apple slice by a thread to the trigger. No more could this rat use his light sword or box cutter or whatever he was using to swipe that peanut butter clean. Just to sweeten the catch, I covered the secured apple slice (on both traps) with peanut butter. I had a moment of sympathy for my prey—probably at the same time he told his friends what the nightly special was at the Attic Restaurant.

That night we slept through my PhD rat’s deft removal of both buttered apple slices, perhaps with tiny tools he’d ordered over RatNet. I took those traps out of the attic and just stared at them. One still had a thread tied through the trigger hole. My rat had considerable survival skills, and perhaps a sense of humor. I figured this rat didn’t need to chew wires—he could probably use matches.

My admiration, though real, only went so far. Back on the Net, I ordered a RatZapper, a small electrocution chamber for rats. But before that ugliness arrived, Alice brought home a different, more vicious kind of snap trap, praised by the rodent-killers at the food plant where she worked. I was almost embarrassed to try it, thinking Professor Rat would just laugh. But I loaded it up and put it in place.

Alice heard an attic noise that same day. I went up and saw that the trap had been snapped, but of course there was no rat to be had. But looking closely, I could see that there was a little blood near the trap. Wounded—definitely not a good thing. I envisioned another nose-clenching encounter days later after he’d given up the ghost, but left the stench. I figured it was useless to look for him amid all the insulation and dark recesses of the attic, but as I was about to go down, I saw him.

He was only a few feet away, crouched over one of the attic floor’s 2x4s, leaning into some insulation, breathing hard. That froze me. What to do? I didn’t want to try to grab him, fearing biting, but I couldn’t just let him go. I stood on the stairs staring for a full three minutes, both of us eying the other. That’s when I called out to Alice to bring me a hammer, and the horror began.

Hitting a living creature over the head with a hammer is a brutal act, but I couldn’t come up with an alternative. Fifteen minutes before, I would have denied I was capable of such an act. I wanted it to be swift and clean, but it wasn’t to be. I took a breath and popped him on the head, with force. I should have known better. Instead of dying quietly, my rat sprung a full two feet into the air, and came down almost in the same spot, breathing rapidly.

Shocked, I hit him again, and was more shocked when the results were nearly the same. Again, springing into the air, again returning—wounded but alive—to the attic floor. He was visibly bleeding now, and I was visibly shaken. I would have liked nothing better than to have never started, but now we were both in too deep. Hard as it is to believe, I hit that rat a full five times, hard, with a heavy ball-peen hammer, and it took all of those blows to dispatch his spirit to Rodent Elysium. It was Ratageddon. The last couple of times I hit him I involuntarily let out a hell-fed yell. I took deep breaths and cleaned up the carnage, but I spent the next hour shuddering.

I thought it was over, except for an indelible memory of horror, but I should have known I had a spiritual debt to pay. A week later, Alice and I were cleaning up a big brush pile in the corner of our yard, feeding branches into a gas-powered chipper. We got to the lowest part of the pile, and I was disheartened to see a small rat dash a short distance away near the edge of some bushes. I shook my head and started feeding brush into the chipper, which has a long angled bed that funnels debris down into its whirling blade.

I was pushing leaves and branches down when I saw something. No! A little pink creature, two inches long, going down. I grabbed him up in my glove, and saw it was a baby rat, mewling piteously. I held him for a moment, and then put him just over the fence, in the high weeds of the neighbor’s big field. I tried not to think about that too much, and I scratched around in the rest of the brush, seeing nothing unusual. Another load in—and again, a tiny pink form. Arrgghh! I snatched him up as he too was going toward the Jaws of Death, and again put him over the fence. That was too much. I shut off the chipper and really searched the remaining rubble. Four more baby rats. Four more placements in the weedy field.

Sure, nothing made up for killing that rat in the attic, and perhaps those infants wouldn’t be found and saved by their mother. But anything was better than them going through that chipper. I didn’t even want to address the irony of rat murder one day and rat salvation the next, but that’s how it worked out. Maybe I’ll bring them some peanut-butter sandwiches when they get a little older.