Vermin, Revisited

A revised recollection of rodents-in-residence.

When I was in six, I caught a tiny mouse at my grandparent’s farm. I put it in a jar, poked airholes in the lid, added some leaves so it should feel comfortable, and took it back to my school for show and tell. By recess, it was dead.

When I was twelve, I pulled what looked like a twig from a hole in the high bank of the Red River. It was a bird’s nest, and two closed-eyed baby swallows fell against my shoe. Horrified, I carefully tucked them and their nest back into the hole, hoping that they wouldn’t smell like a boy and be destroyed by their mother.

I haven’t a taste for killing things. At the farm I’ve dispatched ducks, chickens and turkeys, but I’ve always felt slightly uneasy about it. As the doomed critter and I catch each other’s gaze at the moment before the axe falls on the neck, or the knife opens the jugular, I usually experience a very brief moment of mild nausea. Some might see this as a weakness, but I’m pleased that I feel this way. No one should enjoy killing.

Several years ago, I moved into a house in East Vancouver with a foundation that is much more porous than a concrete barrier ought to be. One winter day I went down to the basement and discovered that something had found the freeze-dried meals in my camping gear and had had a big picnic. Crumbs, shredded packaging, and a hole chewed in a good backpack. Rats!

I didn’t panic. Much. Remove the attractants, I thought, and you remove the problem. I cleaned up the mess, and then scoured the entire basement for anything that might provide an attractive scent to rodents. Then I waited for them to leave.

They left, all right. They left droppings all over the basement. They left chew holes in table linens that were waiting to be laundered. They even chewed the toe out of one of my old shoes. I could hear rustling in the basement wall and imagined that they would soon work their way to the upper floors of the house.

The next morning, I opened the basement door and saw a rat jump off of the bottom step and waddle away. I ran down the stairs and grabbed the first object I saw – a hatchet – and pursued the beast with violent swings. The rat evaded me, however, and I had nothing to show for my effort but a chipped concrete floor and a surplus of adrenaline-tainted testosterone.

By sundown I had the basement filled with heavy duty traps, each loaded with a different bait. I made a spreadsheet on which to itemise the location and bait type so that I could track my success rate and maximise my killing efficiency. Each day, outfitted with steel-toed boots, leather gloves, and a headlamp, I walked my traplines. I’d never before felt so Canadian. Three carcasses later, the problem seemed to be solved, and things have been relatively quiet since.

Perhaps it’s one of those almanac-y sort of signs that the coming winter is going to be a cold one, or maybe it’s because there’s a construction site behind my house, or because the crack house tenants across the street cleaned out all their overgrown shrubbery and abandoned vehicles, but there seems to be an early bloom in rodent life this year. I get up at 6:30am, and twice last week I spotted mice racing across the kitchen floor when I switched on the light.

I’ve been reluctant to put mouse traps in the basement because if a rat trips one, it will probably just get a minor pinch. At worst, it might be dragging around the basement a trap stuck to one leg. Having rats is bad enough. Having pissed off rats sounds like bigger trouble. I saw Ben. The trouble is, rat traps won’t catch mice. I have numerous rat traps in the basement, but the mice tend to eat the bait off of them without tripping them. I may as well build them a buffet table.

This year, however, with the apparent boom in the mouse population, I decided to try both types of traps. The results so far have not been encouraging.

On my daily rounds the other day, I noticed that one of my mouse traps was missing. I assumed that a rat had, as I predicted, been snagged, and looked for wherever the trap had eventually been discarded. I found it about six feet away, behind some boxes. It was not empty, however. Something small and grey was stuck under the bar.

At first I thought a rat had chewed off its own leg in order to disengage itself. I looked around, but as there was no evidence of bloodied stump prints across the floor, I looked more closely at the trap. What it did contain was the head of a mouse. The legs – and most of the torso, save a small fringe of moist-looking innards – were gone. Clearly, not only was I feeding the mice, but now I was feeding the mice to the rats.

I couldn’t imagine things getting much grosser than that, so I doubled down on rat traps. I brought the count of the snap variety up to an even dozen, and added an electronic zapper that is supposed to kill rodents of any size. For good measure, I also threw a couple of sticky pads down there too, though I generally feel that these are unnecessarily cruel devices.

Today, on my trapline check, I noticed that the rat trap I’d placed behind the furnace had been tripped. Oddly, though, it was four feet away from its original position, and empty. After inspecting that briefly, I continued around the other side of the furnace, intending to check the traps in the back room. And then I stopped.

In middle of the floor I found streaks of blood. Beyond this lay a rat, looking very much alive, but for its stillness. I poked it with a stick, but it was already rigid. I assume, given the absence of obvious physical trauma, and the rat’s upright position, that the trap had merely grazed its head, opening up a serious wound from which it soon expired.

Now, if you’re like most you’re perhaps feeling slightly squeamish while reading this. Count your blessings, however, that you’re over there, experiencing this in the distant form of reconstituted pixels rather than an actual lump of bloody lifeless fur that you’re actually going to have to pick up and dispose of. Be grateful that each visit to your basement isn’t like stepping into Dawn of the Dead. You just can’t burn enough sage to make up for this shit!

I know what you’re thinking: why don’t you get a cat, Hedley? Why don’t you move?

I know what cats are like. Unless I throw it in the basement and lock the door, and refrain from feeding it much, it’s not going to hang out down there catching rats. It’s going to be sleeping on the bed upstairs, waking up only to scratch the furniture and cry for a more expensive variety of gourmet, enamel-whitening cat chow. In the unlikely event that it does catch something, it will probably just bring it upstairs to use as a toy. My uncle’s cat catches bats and brings them in to fly around the house.

Moving is certainly an option, and one that I’m leaning more enthusiastically toward with each new bloodbath. My enthusiasm wanes quickly, however, when I remember how many tons of books there are in this house. Unless I’m going to learn how to enjoy death and dismemberment, though, perhaps I’d better start to think about packing.