Wednesday, February 10, 2010

It's a Wild, Wild Life

Gentle whitecaps cresting on a sandy shore. Beautiful birds of prey—eagles, hawks, falcons—diving in and out of the murky depths to catch fish. River glass scattered along the shoreline, waiting to be picked up and dusted off. Kayaking on a tranquil summer’s day, the sound of your oars hitting the water the only thing you hear.

Oh, and rats. I forgot about the rats.

I live close to the Hudson River and enjoy everything about river town living. Except one thing: the rats.

Let me back up. It was a peaceful Wednesday night a few weeks back, all of us settling in to watch our new favorite show, “Modern Family,” when child #1 announced that she had no clean clothes and needed to do laundry. She was barely on the top step of the basement when I heard her scream and retreat into the kitchen, dropping her laundry basket and fleeing for the safety of the living room. Once there, she stood before me, shaking, and recounted the mouse that she saw flitting across the basement floor. As she was demonstrating how big it was—the distance between her hands indicated that it was a mouse the size of a newborn baby—I heard Jim call, “It’s not a mouse! It’s a rat!”

And so began a weeklong journey into rodent hell.

Jim frantically paged through the local phone book looking for a 24-hour wildlife service because I assured him that if the rat wasn’t gone by midnight, I was checking into a hotel. He managed to find a service who directed him to a private contractor of rat extermination, who I have dubbed, “Tom, the rat whisperer,” the kindest man I have ever encountered. He couldn’t come that night but promised to be at the house by one o’clock the next afternoon. He explained to Jim that rats can chew through old foundations to escape the cold and that was probably what had happened. He also admitted to being somewhat dubious to our contention that there was only one rat. Rats, it seems, do not travel alone.

My blood ran cold.

We all slept somewhat uncomfortably that night, tossing and turning, imagining that the sounds in our almost one-hundred-year old house were rats in the wall, rather than the sounds of old pipes and settling. I ceased eating. So by the time Tom, the rat whisperer, arrived, I was starving, sleep-deprived, and anxious beyond belief. He took one look at my haggard, exhausted expression, and set off to the basement.

He came up several minutes later and said, “Yep. You’ve got rats.”

“How many?” I asked.

“No telling,” he said, “but I do detect droppings and the smell of rat urine.”

And all this time, I thought it was the scent of my laundry detergent.

He led me around the house, pointing out all of the possible points of ingress. After a few minutes of this, I said, “I have to sit down.”

He lugged up the twenty-pound bag of dog food that we keep down there because there’s nowhere else to store it. “See this?” he asked, pointing to a small hole in the bottom. “Rats.”

I got it. We had rats. They had come in from the cold and were eating our needy Westie’s “Sensitive Systems” dog food. The one that promised a shiny coat and easy digestion. There were some well-fed, not to mention shiny-coated, rats living among us. Tom spent a few more minutes laying some rat poison in the basement—the one that makes them thirsty and yearn for the cold outdoors where there is a water supply—handed me a bill for far less than I would have anticipated and promised to be back in two weeks.

Because I am a “public sharer,” I posed this travail on Facebook (to Jim’s chagrin), and to my amazement, found more than a few friends had had the same problem. My friend, Susan, had one in her garbage shed. Two doors down, Ingrid and Bob wrestled three in two years, finding one beneath their dishwasher only the week before the still-surviving members of the rat population moved into my basement. Seems that our proximity to the river, in addition to wooded areas in close proximity, bring out our rodent friends. I had no idea. We’ve lived here for twenty years and have not seen a rat outside of the confines of the riverside park where we hang out in the summer. The thought of an extended family in our basement was just too much to bear.

It took me a week of living in complete paranoia—as well as lugging everyone’s clothes to the Laundromat—to conquer my fear and descend to the basement. Jim, brave soul that he is, had been down several times, only to report that there was no corpse in a trap, and no trace of anyone with whiskers and a long tail. I have since done several loads of laundry—the maiden load done with a hearty dose of liquid courage—and haven’t seen anything myself.

But if I do see anything that resembles a rat, you can rest assured that there will be a “For Sale” sign on the front lawn and we will be moving to a dee-lux apartment in the sky.

Tell me your wildlife stories, Stiletto faithful.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Hi Maggie,
    I went through a "mouse" problem last fall. Big snap traps baited with peanut butter (smooth is easier to handle) did the trick. I couldn't get them to eat the poison, they would just kick it around and make a mess. Got one using a "sticky" trap. But then you have the issue of how to deal with a live, extremely irritated, mouse with its feet and/or tail stuck to a piece of glue-backed cardboard. I tried to use a hammer to put the furry creature out of both our misery, but missed and then my hammer was stuck to the glue trap. I stepped on the edge of the sticky cardboard, holding the cardboard down while pulling up on the hammer. Hammer came loose but then my shoe was stuck. You were smart to hire someone!

    (currently mouse free but with all food stored in plastic containers with sealed lids.)

  2. My mom called me the other day and said, "I had the worst night's sleep ever! Mo the Cat jumped on me all night, like a kid too excited about opening Christmas presents to sleep. I finally got up, and he led me into my sitting room where there was A MOUSE!!!" I can't believe the cat didn't kill it, but I guess 13 years of living inside and getting spoiled had turned off its "must kill food" instinct. My mom was freaked out. She made my dad get those traps that don't kill the mouse but box them in so you can release them into the wild (of another neighbor's yard). I've called a few times to ask how "Mickey" is, but no one's seen him. I have a feeling he's made friends with Mo, and they play chase at night and then Mickey hides before my mom and dad get up in the morning. ;-)

    I hope Ben & Kate Plus Eight have left for real, Maggie!

    Susan (who had a trail of ants going through the living room this morning, and I serial killed them all with a Kleenex and my slipper)

  3. We experienced the rat problem too when we were having a bathroom redone. The workers left the backdoor open near the bathroom and rats managed to take up residence in a hall closet. Yuk! It was horrible. Husband and grandson used poison and other ghastly means to get rid of them.

    We also had cats and only one managed to snag one of the rats, killed it and carried it out to the kitchen and left it in front of the sick. I stepped on it when I got up in the morning. Not a wonderful feeling.

    They are all gone now thank goodness.