The humble pack rat is an adversary to be reckoned with


The pack rat, more properly known as the bushy-tailed wood rat, can be an irritating house guest.

Stumbling around my kitchen preparing my doxies’ breakfast (crunchy dog food, vitamins, medicine and yogurt), I noticed that the peaches on the counter top had funny marks on them. My first thought was that my cat Bud had decided to add some citrus to her diet, as I noticed the marks in not just one peach but three.

But the marks didn’t fit either Bud’s much smaller teeth or her sharp, fine claws. I examined some plums nearby and found one had been half eaten. Not the cat, not the doxies, with marks too big for mice. It had to be a damn pack rat.

I’ve known they are around as I’ve seen their scat in the barn. Once, when I opened a door, there one was sitting on some lumber, looking at me with “What do you want?” attitude. I didn’t bother it, since it wasn’t bothering me in the house.

Unlike my neighbor who loves killing things, I hate to kill anything—anything except mosquitoes and biting buffalo flies; the latter are black and smaller than the normal house fly. They tend to flit around exposed skin, and, unless you succeed in killing them, they are relentless. Must be related to the freakin’ mosquitoes! Finding a resident pack rat would be cause for my neighbor to lock and load one of his store of firearms and safari the barn.

I did Google the pack rat. It’s correctly called a bushy-tailed wood rat (Neotoma cinerea) and its conservation status rates it as a rodent of least concern. Duh. Somewhere it was also noted that rodents make up 40 percent of the mammal species.

I identified mine by its large, rounded ears, long, bushy tail, and brown fur peppered with black hairs above, with white undersides and feet. The tail is supposedly squirrel-like but flattened and used for balance and warmth. Good climbers with sharp claws, the males are about half-again as big as the females, 11 to 18 inches long as an adult with half of that being tail; they weigh up to 1.3 pounds.

Wikipedia noted they are very territorial. Well, apparently this one—I hope only one—is attempting to expand his territory. Females have one to two litters a year of up to six pups. They don’t hibernate, and rattlesnakes, which will eat pack rats, often take up winter residence in the latter’s home. When alarmed, it will drum its hind foot, or, when it’s bored, just for the hell of it—but slower. Now I’m paranoid. Is that tapping noise I’ve heard the damn pack rat?

Well, I don’t need a pack rat in my house and especially not on my kitchen counter, and am not sure what to do. Like I said, I hate killing things, so I procrastinate. I clean up the counter with anti-bacterial wipes guaranteed to kill flu germs, grudgingly toss the nibbled fruit, try to figure out where the little shit came from.

It probably got on my counter by climbing up an adjacent couch, but how’d he get in in the first place? Opening the shelf doors beneath the counter, I see another plum sitting by a hole in the floor where some plumbing comes up. The hole’s been gnawed to enlarge it (rodent means “to gnaw” in Latin), but the pack rat still couldn’t get the large plum and himself through the hole. A classic case of one’s eyes being bigger than the stomach; the plum probably weighs as much as he does.

Well, now I’m sure of who the culprit is and how he got into my personal space, and I spend the next hour using the flue wipes and kitchen bleach-based spray cleaner to wipe up the whole area. I also jam steel wool tightly around the hole.

About 3 the next morning, I hear a grinding sound coming from the kitchen and figure he’s still trying to enlarge his entrance hole. If he’s working on that steel wool, he’s going to have a hell of a dental bill. I go back to sleep. The next morning there is no sign of the little bastard. I think I’m gaining.

The next night, about the same time, I hear an ominous thumping in the direction of the kitchen. I get out of bed as silently as I can. My doxies continue to softly snore. They wouldn’t hear a SWAT team breaking down the door, but if a dog barks a mile away, they get very upset—as, subsequently, do I.

I crack open the bedroom door and shine a flashlight into the kitchen. There on the floor looking at me is the little smart aleck. He looks at me like, “Yeah? What?” He also looks so damn cute—big dark eyes and whiskers around a twitching nose, and a long, distinct tail with a flattened pattern that almost looks like it’s been braided dragging behind him on the floor. He turns around to leave and his profile reminds me of a PT Cruiser—small forward with a big butt behind.

I need to deal with this guy; we can’t cohabitate. The next day I explore the washer room to which he had gone last night. Turns out there’s an old lint tube that comes up through the floor behind the washer and his personal doorway to all things mine. It gets plugged with steel wool also. I’m hoping this will be effective enough, so I can avoid more drastic measures.

I don’t want to use poison because it spreads into the ecosystem via whatever may eat the rat, ad nauseum. I ask my brother-in-law, a neighboring farmer, how to catch pack rats, and he suggests filling a five-gallon bucket one quarter full of water and oats and then providing a pathway to the top, like a board or something similar for pack rat him to walk on. He gets to the top, wants the food, falls in, can’t get out and drowns. Voila!

Since my kitchen seems to be his destination, I put my improvised rat killer in the middle of the floor and hope that I don’t meet it inadvertently in the middle of a nocturnal pee run. Nothing pisses me off more than my own stupidity.

In the middle of the next night, my third ear is tuned to the sound of splashing. Never hear it, and after five nights I remove the water trap. I buy a rat trap—a real nefarious looking killing machine. It’s just like the old mousetrap with a piece of cheese on a trigger which releases a spring-loaded wire that slams down on the head, killing the small victim. Only the rat trap is about 10 times larger, like going from a BB gun to 12-gauge. It looks ominous as hell sitting on my counter, and I definitely don’t want to forget it’s there; I treat it gingerly, like an armed IED, as it’d probably take my arm off if I inadvertently tripped it.

Finally, I hear the big bang in the night. I get up. The doxies continue to snore. The trap is empty of the cheese and the pack rat. How did he do that? He must know some trick. He can’t be that fast! But he’s definitely not in attendance.

I keep trying. I catch him eventually and the process, of course, kills him, so it’s a Pyrrhic victory for me. They don’t come back to my kitchen, but I know they are in the attached garage and it’s only a matter of time.

It is because of their ability to produce multiple times and multiple babies that they, as a fed-upon species, survive. But it’s the same maternal instinct our mothers had for us that their mothers bestow on their young. We ignore this reality and just treat these small mammals as rodents.

For a good example of maternal and familial feelings in rodents, look at the scenario around a road-killed raccoon. When one of a family is killed, other members tend to stay with their dead, try to protect them, probably grieve for them until, more often than not, these big emotions in their small owners are also smashed by the next on-rushing car.

I finally buy some poison. It comes in what looks like small ears of corn and is guaranteed to kill rats. I put it near a small opening in the garage wall. It stays there totally undisturbed until one day my littlest mutt Muki comes inside with it proudly in her mouth, having found it by going in through a garage cat door. So, that ends that.

Next I buy commercial grade, anti-rodent sonar which is supposed to be such a sound irritant to small things that it keeps them away. I put one on the floor in the corner of the kitchen thinking it will cover that area. I put the other on the garage floor outside the back door to try to block that passageway. Both seem to work for  a while, then one morning I again notice rat and mice scat on my counter. I re-read the instructions and note that it operates line of sight only, and anything can block beam from the corner of the counter to a water glass.

Back out comes the poison cob, but I place it on the counter where the scat was and in a butter dish to provide separation from the counter—and where the doxies can’t reach it. I haven’t seen any sign of the rat, but the mice like to come nightly and dine on the poison. I can tell, as the cob is slowly being eaten away and there are mouse turds nearby.

Then one morning the whole cob’s gone. Had to be the damn pack rat. I know the big boy’s still in the garage, and I kid you not, I think he’s trying to work around the sensor there. I keep picking up mouthful-size chunks of fiberglass insulation put around the sensor, like he’s trying to cover it up or block it, like he understands what it does and is trying to mute the signal.

Go figure. I’m not sure who’s going to win this.

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