I saw my first rat at the head of a troop of four rodents galumphing along with a humpbacked, rhythmic lurch from a strip of woods toward a dumpster in back of a Red Lobster. I felt some fear about opening the lid as I dragged some garbage bags to the same destination. The rats could be mistaken for small raccoons in the dim light, and they looked very determined to get their teeth into the same kind of crud that I was hauling. Trash duty, what the manager called “a cigarette break”, apparently came with the added bonus of risking rabies from a rat bite.
My second encounter happened 30 years later as I stood in the shade outside my warehouse studio near downtown Orlando. This rat was sleeker and could have been mistaken for a squirrel except for his stripped down tail, laid back ears, and long, bounding gait. He crossed a parking lot and the street in front of me and headed for a hole in the wall near the foundation. He stopped when he saw me looking at him and froze for a second. His eyes were wide with fear. I was too stunned to do anything but let him pass. A month later I noticed holes in the bottom of my plastic waste can and gnaw marks. Inside the can were a few torn up baggies that had once held peanut butter sandwiches.
We began to see more signs of rat activity in the building. One day a bold rat charged Rose, a fellow painter, while she sat and ate a sandwich. I heard that she screamed and dropped the sandwich, and that the rat got away with the booty. The artists held a meeting and decided to ban food in the building and to call Florida Hospital, our landlord, to ask for help. A few maintenance men eventually came and sealed some of the holes around the foundation and put down glue traps at the base of the pipes and conduits on the inside walls. Folks had seen rats using them to travel from an open storage loft down to the floor.
I found more gnaw marks and holes in my waste cans. I set out spring traps baited with peanut butter in my studio. I killed one rat, but then the rest of them got wise. I’d find sprung traps stripped clean of bait several feet from their original position. The little bastards had figured out that if they nudged the base of a trap the kill bar would spring harmlessly. They chowed down in safety and then sharpened their teeth by gnawing on the wooden edges of the traps. I went to Miller’s Hardware in Winter Park and bought something more newfangled. It was a plastic box with one open end. A small metal tray near the back wall could be baited. A battery pack delivered an electric shock if a rat ventured far enough inside to eat the bait. I killed three rats before the rest of the colony figured out that it was a death machine. At that point I began to wonder which species was smarter, humans or rats.
I had two unfortunate rat disposal moments at the warehouse. I made the mistake of leaving a baited trap in my studio during a three day absence. When I returned I could smell rot and death from the moment I entered the front door of the building. The aroma and the partially liquefied remains made me gag several times as I scraped my victim up and carried him out to a nearby dumpster. I had to scrub the kill zone over and over and leave my windows open for the rest of the day. A few weeks later I heard a woman scream. I ran out of my studio and found Kathy and another woman by the bathroom. They pointed to something odd on the floor. It twisted and flopped. I came closer and saw a rat caught on one of the glue traps. The ladies nominated me to take care of the ugly mess, and I got a broom and a dust pan. The little guy looked terrified as I picked him up on the pan and carried him out. His chest bellowed in and out, and while he continued to try to break free his efforts were feeble. I paused for a moment and tried to decide what to do. I had seen my father kill a mouse caught in a trap by crushing its head with his heel, but couldn’t bring myself to do that. Instead I laid him under a bush and left him to his fate. I assumed a bird or cat would finish him off, and that he might have a few moments of peace in the open air before he met his fate.
Shortly after our rat problem became manageable at the studio I began to hear odd noises late at night in the walls of my home. I could hear scrabbling, scratching and gnawing sounds. Pink tufts of insulation fell from our air conditioning vents at odd intervals, and I decided to call in a pro. I didn’t want to crawl around in the dark of our attic in search of prey. Crazy Eddy drove up our driveway in an old, dented pick up truck. He was a wiry man of average height with three day old whiskers. He wore dirty overalls, a long sleeved tee shirt with holes in the arms, and a sweat stained baseball cap. He knew just what to do. He put chicken wire over the ventilation vents on the roof and around the base of the hose that ran from the air conditioner up through a conduit and into the attic. He checked all the ventilation holes around the bottom edge of the attic, but noted with approval that I had already chicken wired them shut. Then he set spring traps in the attic near the trapdoor in the bedroom hall. He said the sealed in rats couldn’t go out to forage and would take the bait when their hunger overcame their natural caution. We heard a trap snap a few days later. Crazy Eddy came by, cheerfully cleared the trap, wrapped the mangled body in a plastic bag, and reset. We only had to call him once more. Most of the rats must have been outside the house when Eddy sealed up all the entry points.
Last night I heard a scraping noise at 3 a.m. Then I heard a thump and scrabbling sounds above my bed. I got up and followed the noise out to the bedroom hall and heard something passing over the wooden trap door to the attic. I tapped gently on the ceiling, but whatever was up there ignored me until I rattled the door hard. Silence for a few minutes, and then the scrabbling noises began again. I gave up and went back to bed, but couldn’t get to sleep until nearly dawn.
This afternoon I found chicken wire eaten through on three ventilation holes and a small gap in the eaves on the east side. A vine grew up and into the half inch wide space between two boards. I stripped the vine off, stapled new squares of chicken wire over the open ventilation holes and the gap in the boards, attached sticky glue traps to outside wires leading from the ground up to the attic, and set glue and spring traps in the attic.
My wife recalled how much Crazy Eddy had charged for his services and said that I had just saved us $750. I disagreed and said, “That’ll come true when I clear a dead rat out of the attic.”