Between June 2006 and August 2007 tree rats entered my house. My (ultimately successful) quest to achieve peaceful coexistence with them was very much of a learning process. It seems that we have achieved not only peaceful coexistence but also a symbiotic relationship.
The following story is based on a journal I kept during this period.
In early 2006, my then-girlriend and I moved into a house located in a secluded, hilly area overlooking Los Angeles. Over the years, the home had gone through long periods of disuse, and thus (as a previous occupant explained to me) the local tree rats had become accustomed to living in it.
Although the previous (human) residence had sealed off many point-of-entries with expandable foam, the rats returned a few months after my arrival (having chewed through some of the expandable foam). We quickly put all our non-refrigerated food into a large bin that could be sealed tightly. Nevertheless, the rats had other reasons to keep coming: they chewed on clothes, the phone chord connected to my computer, a plastic vitamin jar (and the ancients pills within), and an umbrella.
The rats left feces throughout the house. These remains were carefully collected and deposited outside beneath trees where these rats were known to hang out. Some were also placed in compost piles which, of course, were not going to be used for growing food plants.
My first attempt to drive away the rats (one of whom, I started calling Frosty) was to put dry cat food out in the yard, encouraging neighborhood cats to come around. Getting a cat of my own was not a possibility since I had a cockatiel with free reign of the house 24/7.
I definitely wanted to drive the rats away rather than kill them. Many years earlier, I had used a lethal wire trap on mice and have remained upset and disturbed by the anguished look on their dead faces. Rat poison was out of the question, too: I read that toxins in rat poison get passed on in the ecosystem after a rat's (most likely excruciating) death.
Also, I considered we human with our modern civilization the intruders, not the rats(1).
Before too long, Frosty was killed thoroughly by a local predator, perhaps a coyote.
However, other rats were still around, and their numbers increased. One of them was named Snaggletooth by my girlfriend.
I tried to drive them away with a high-frequency generator (see: http://www.justbuyonline.co.uk/mouse-repeller-4pack-o-73.htm
). It failed miserably.
Then I tried another type of high-frequency generator, the Transonic Pro Pest Repeller (see: http://www.bird-x.com/products/trans.html
). The manufacturer claimed that it would not be a problem for human ears. However, the pitch it emitted was very audible for humans. In fact, it was much better at driving away humans than rats(2).
Actually, I found that walking towards the rats and singing a peace song in a shrill voice to be vastly more effective than the above-mentioned device.
Next, I purchased a product called Shake Away (see:. http://www.critter-repellent.com/rats/rats-in-my-house-attic.php
). The ingredients in this powder included bobcat and fox urine, which were supposed to detour rats.
As I waited for the powder to be delivered, I decided to make the best of the situation. I had an almost-empty peanut butter jar with some hard-to-reach glop still stuck inside. One night I left the jar outdoors in an area where Snaggletooth was known to go. The next morning the jar was all cleaned out and ready for the recycling bin. I next repeated the same process with a mayonnaise jar.
The powder arrived, but it failed utterly (as illustrated in the picture below).
I then set about finding a live rat trap. If I could catch the rats in it, I would turn them loose hundreds of feet away from the house (and anybody else's house). I couldn’t find one at PETA’s website (I’d had great success with their Humane Mousetrap years earlier), but I found one made by Cooper Seeds (see: http://www.cooperseeds.com/pages/traps/rats.html
I felt triumphant when the first rat was trapped. I turned it loose first thing the next morning hundreds of feet away from the house. I began to catch rats almost every night. However, it soon became evident that they could easily find their way back, even though there was a lot of hilly terrain, trees, and other foliage between them and the house.
Indeed, oftentimes I would set them free, and shortly after I returned to my house, I could see the rat outside my office window, climbing a tree and leaping back up onto the roof. They returned to my house almost as quickly as I did(3).
My girlfriend suggested turning them loose in a place far away known as “The Enchanted Forest” (a hiking area in Pasadena at the top of North Lake) or up in the Angeles Crest. However, I was reluctant to take them out of their habitat and away from their families.
It appeared that the rats were now thinking of me as their friend because of the large quantities of peanut butter they were getting from the live trap. One day, I saw Unsub (another rat named by my girlfriend) scurrying across the living room—and s/he stopped and stared at me for a few seconds with its tiny, round black eyes. It looked at me as if I was a new friend. (It obviously really liked all the peanut butter I was giving it.)
My girlfriend was still scared of Unsub, but she began to get more attached to him/her. The thought of me catching it and turning it loose outside made her sad. She suggested perhaps getting a large cage for Unsub with an exercise wheel and keeping it as a pet.
One night, while she was standing in the kitchen, the rat ran over her feet, and she felt the soft fur against her skin. On another occasion, she again entered the kitchen and heard Unsub rustling under a plastic bag. She said, ”I know you’re in there, Unsub.” At that moment, Unsub peeked out and looked at her for a few seconds.
She speculated that word was spreading to rat communities throughout the city about all the peanut butter available at this house.
Meanwhile, I continued to try and make the best of the situation. I started putting items into the trap which needed to be broken down, including champagne/wine corks (which regularly come into my yard from my a house uphill from me)(3). The rats chewed on the cork, thoroughly grinding it down, and I deposited it onto a compost pile. Cork is supposed to be biodegradable, but I’ve seen bottle corks sitting around for years without breaking down However the rats expedited the process. (This site talks about a way to recycle cork: http://www.thegreenguide.com/blog/tow/829
The rats also began to shred up my old bank statements for me. I had a huge accumulation of them and had been reluctant to buy a shredder—I’ve been trying to use less electric devices, not more.
Trapping the rats and releasing them outside obviously wasn’t working (for the adult rats, anyway. Younger rats didn’t seem to return). Nevertheless, I decided I would continue trapping them just to restrain them during the night. This made it easier or my girlfriend and I to sleep.
After a while, the rats started getting better about entering and leaving the trap—and eating the food—without being caught. And they acted increasingly friendly towards me.
At the same time, they got increasingly noisy, destructive, nervy, and scary. One rat, who my girlfriend named Crazy-Ass Unsub, Jr. would run up and down one of the walls like Spider-Man climbs up and down buildings. Other times this rat would run around eratically like a maniac and bang into things.
My partner wondered if he was a kangaroo rat. After a particularly noisy night, she spoke of catching Crazy-Ass Unsub, Jr. and giving him to Cirque du Soleil, where he’d “ have to wear a French moustache and a tutu.”
As bad as the rat situation was, I reminded myself how much better off I was with them than the human neighbors I had at my previous residence or my last few landlords. There was no contest in that regard.
I turned my attention to finding places where the rats were entering the house. I sealed off suspect areas with expanding foam and reinforced it with wire mesh. However, they were obviously finding other ways in.
A major turning point occurred one night when I was awakened by a baby rat crawling on my hand. I realized it was time to get a cat. (By this time, the cockatiel I had for 15 years had died.) I took in a cat who had been de-clawed by a previous guardian. However, he was extremely effective at driving the rats away. They were gone within 24 hours. I don't believe the cat ever caught one.
In all this time, the only rat that died to my knowledge was Frosty, who apparently was killed by a local predator.
At the time of this writing, the rats have been out of the house for six months. However, as noted earlier, I’ve established and maintained a symbiotic relationship with them. Several weeks ago, I came into possession of a chocolate eclair. In lieu of a toxic waste disposal facility, I left it in an area outside where the rats frequent. I also continue to have them clean out my peanut butter jars before I put them into the recycling bin, and I empty the numerous ketchup packets, that restaurants deluge me with, in the same area.
If only human neighbors were this easy to get along with.
(1)According to a friend of mine, who attended a presentation about Tongva dwellings at Baldwin Park’s Arboretum, Native Americans apparently were able to avoid these problems by storing food away from living areas.
(2)This Transonic Pro Pest Repeller wasn’t totally ineffective. Sometimes when I turned it on, I could see a rat run out of hiding and scurrying out of the house. The problem, again, was, this device produced a high pitch which is very audible to humans. Sometimes I could leave it on all night and sleep, but I could not do this every night. And my girlfriend could not stand to hear it for even a few seconds.
Once, a rat entered my living room and was being especially noisy and nervy. I tried throwing things at it, but it didn’t give a damn. Finally, I turned on the Pro Pest Repeller and put it on” high” (it’s supposed to be set on ”medium”). This caused the rodent to flee the house.
(3)PETA’s website describes the intelligence of rats and their keen sense of direction:
"Highly intelligent rodents, rats and mice are natural students who excel at learning and understanding concepts. Rats are considerably smaller than dogs but are at least as capable of thinking about things and figuring them out! And, while rats are much smaller than elephants, they have excellent memories. Although their eyesight is poor, once rats learn a navigation route, they never forget it." (From: http://www.peta.org/feat/PETCOAgreement/rats.asp
The damage to this cord caused $68 worth of damage to my computer. Some of my best clothes were wrecked, too. However, humans often make worse roommates (as far as I'm concerned).
Usually the babies were trapped at the same time as adults. When they were caught by themselves, I released them carefully in an area where rats hung out. I watched them until they moved out of the clearings.
Expandable foam can effectively block off entry ways for rats, but in this case, they chewed through it. I began to reinforce the foam with wire mesh, which I affixed to it before it dried. Initially I bought the foam at Home Depot, but I found it cheaper at Orchard.
I agreed to take Jabba in from a friend. With a name like Jabba, I expected a rather large cat with a somewhat unpleasant disposition. However, Jabba's personality was anything but unpleasant.
I never knew where he was going to turn up next.