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Ramblings: Rats

March 2, 1997
WARNING: If descriptions of the (sometimes) violent extermination of rats is offensive to you, do not read the following article.

"We had rat killin's in them days..." --Jerry Clower

A Holstein cow lifted her head from the water trough, water and saliva dripping from her mouth as her rough tongue flicked out and licked her nose. After twisting her head backward and fluffing her breath at some pesky flies, she ambled away from the pens, stepping on a green rubber garden hose that was connected to an extra faucet next to the trough. Out she went through the pens and into the pasture for the night, to rest beneath an oak tree and thoughtfully chew her cud. Having served her purpose to introduce us to the garden hose, she is no longer a part of our story.

The hose snaked through the close-cropped bermuda grass, climbed over a hogwire fence and stretched across the bare sandy ground beyond, finally reaching an open area beyond the empty pigpens where it looped around one end of a fallen railroad tie and disappeared into a small hole in the ground.

Nearby stood two teenage boys, one already almost six feet tall and beginning to show the heavy musculature that would come on with young manhood. The other, a few years older but a few inches shorter and much skinnier, with a large air pistol in a holster on his belt rigged for a left-handed draw and a quart jar about half full of iced tea in his left hand.

"How long you reckon that water's gonna run in there?" said the taller one.

"Oh," I replied, "until it's full, I reckon."

Earlier that summer, Tim and I had realized that my father's barn was infested with rats. The barn, and the accompanying grain storage bins, with their stock of corn, ground milo, and peanut hay made a perfect haven for these rodents. At first, the only signs we had were occasional droppings they left behind during their nocturnal excursions, and the odd bit of corn left lying where it couldn't have gotten to on its own. Gradually, the rats had become more and more bold, even coming out late in the day, skittering around behind the grain bins and dashing across the electrical line that ran between the barn and cow pens. I had taken to carrying my air pistol with me for my daily chore of feeding the pigs and taking potshots at them when the opportunity arose. More often than not, I would miss, having only a split-second window to shoot as one poked its nose out of a crack between hay bales, or flashed across a tiny opening between hiding places. I had told Tim about the problem and soon we were going after the rats by more extravagant means.

With a Havahart "catch-'em-alive" trap that was made for squirrels we begin making small inroads into the rat population. Baited with protein meal, and with the doors weighted with fishing weights to make them fall closed faster, we regularly caught at least one rat every night, sometimes even catching two or three at once as they swarmed over the protein meal on the pan in the center of the trap. Every morning I would dispatch the rats with well-placed pellets, or just turn them loose among the dogs, who made short work of them. We both realized, however, that the rats were propagating themselves much faster than the rate of two or three per day, and we wouldn't be able to keep up with them. Even more drastic methods were called for, say, a repeating trap.

Of course, neither of us had the money to actually buy a repeating trap, and my dad didn't consider the problem serious enough to buy one either. Besides, it would have hurt our pride to just go out and buy one. We had to build one.

Perhaps I should take a moment to explain what a repeating trap is, for those readers who are not familiar with animal traps of any kind. Most traps are designed to be set, then sprung by the animal it catches, and not work again until the animal is removed and the trap reset--you can consider the conventional trap to be a "single shot." The repeater, however, is designed to allow a small animal (usually rat or mouse) to get inside but then not get back out--but still allow ingress for other animals. This gives the potential of catching many rats at once, just depending on how large the "reservoir" for the caught animals is. Figuring that a 55-gallon drum would provide a reservoir to hold quite a few rats, this gave us our starting point.

It was a rather ingenious trap, if I do say so myself. The entryway was formed from what appeared to be the bell of a tuba that we found in a junkyard. Our theory was that the rat would climb onto the bell's rim, and being somewhat slippery, it would scramble for footing and, finding none, would fall into the barrel. A small platform upon which was placed a bait of protein meal was centered in the opening of the bell, deep enough so that the rat would be unable to climb back out. The theory was brilliant. Unfortunately, it never caught a single rat.

Another brilliant idea came to me when I came across a length of threaded pipe which, it seemed to me, would almost exactly fit into the exhaust port of a lawn mower, screwing in where one would normally screw in the muffler. It fit perfectly, so we parked the mower next to the barn, ran the pipe behind the grain bins, started the mower and pumped carbon monoxide into the space behind the bins for about an hour. This also failed to produce any noticeable results.

We resorted to brute force, with Tim climbing onto the bins and banging on things or thrashing behind the bins with said length of pipe while I kept a lookout for fleeing rodents. As before, we had zero results from this method.

Meanwhile, we kept our usual schedule of spotlighting rats at night while they were active, usually succeeding in eliminating two or three per episode. We were about to despair of exterminating the rats on any kind of wholesale basis until, at our wits end, we decided as a last resort to use said wits. The problem: the rats were going somewhere. They would frequently scramble out of the barn into the cowpens, and from the cowpens they were either running back to the barn, or perhaps escaping to the pigpens. This led us, after an exhaustive daylight search, to the discovery of the small hole almost hidden beneath the end of the railroad tie, and the garden hose going down into the hole pumping it full of water.

We had prepared well for this all-out assault on the rat population. Besides the Crosman .177-caliber bb/pellet pistol that I was carrying on my belt, I also had my dad's old pump-action .22 loaded with CCI shotshells. The extractor of the rifle was worn out, so I had clipped a small pocketknife to the trigger guard with a key ring, giving me quick access to the blade which I would use to pull out the empty shell after each shot. Tim was armed with a Benjamin .22-caliber pellet rifle, which after only 2 or 3 pumps, was capable of putting its pellet completely through the body of a rat. In addition, as a last resort, we both carried large fixed-bladed knives which we figured we could throw if we couldn't reload fast enough. Loaded down with guns, knives, and ammunition, in addition to our headlights which ran from heavy rectangular 6-volt batteries which also hung in pouches from our belts, my dad had asked us earlier that day what we were up to. "Hunting rats," I said. "Well," he replied after a moment's silence, "it's a good thing you aren't going after bear."

We had started well before sundown, the hot Texas sun casting long slanting shadows across the bare ground just south of the pigpens where we stood. The two rifles were propped across the railroad tie to keep their actions out of the sand. We watched the water run into the hole.

Both of us had recently read a collection of Stephen King short stories entitled Nightshift. The title story is about a warehouse basement that had become infested with giant, winged, semi-intelligent man-killing rats.

"What if there's a big cavern down there full of them rats like in that story?" I said.

"That's just what I was thinking." Tim pulled a can of Copenhagen from his pocket and wedged a big dip of snuff into his lower lip. The pungeant smell of the tobacco wasn't disagreeable to me, but I never used the stuff myself. I just took another swallow of tea. My dog Rex was lying next to my feet, panting in the heat. Half Australian Shepherd and half Border Collie, he had never been a very good herd dog, but had proven himself quite adept at hunting varmints like squirrels, raccoons, and of course, rats.

Right about then--as we say in polite company--all heck busted loose.

In my imagination I had envisioned the hole eventually filling up and bubbling out onto the sand around the hole, perhaps with a few sputtering, partially drowned rats clambering out into the air for safety, where they would be met by a hail of pellets and ratshot. That isn't quite how it happened. In fact, what happened was this: a roughly circular area about three feet in diameter near the end of the railroad tie suddenly caved in, turning immediately into a miniature sinkhole that erupted with rats.

I dropped my tea and we both leaped for our rifles, both to begin nailing rats and to save them from falling into the watery hole that had appeared right before our feet. The sharp crack of the .22 broke the early evening quiet, followed soon by the muted thrunch of Tim's Benjamin, and then the softer poomph of my air pistol. Rex turned into a blur of black and brown fur as he bolted toward the nearest rat.

There were rats going everywhere. There must have been at least 30 or 40 rats that came scrambling up out of that hole, and they ran in as many directions, their lair destroyed, searching desperately for a place to hide. There was no time to reload. I threw my knife. Missed. Tim threw his knife. Rex grabbed another one. I scrambled for the pocketknife and scraped the empty shell out of the .22's chamber. Racked in another one. Sent another rat to rat heaven. Then everything went still again.

The sun was going down seriously now, darkness beginning to fall and the temperature slipping into the low 90's. Rex was snuffling around the pigpens, hot on the trail of the rodents. We both took time to repump and load our air guns. I turned the water off. Then we began the assault on the pigpens.

Angling around so we wouldn't shoot each other, Tim begin going down the row of pens, banging on the tin wall to scare the rats out of hiding--one pen at a time. We left a trail of dead rats behind us, with Rex cleaning up the extra ones that we didn't have enough firepower to shoot when they came out several at a time. By the time we got to the last pen, darkness had fallen and we had to turn on our headlights. Perhaps a description of our lights would be appropriate at this time. They resembled the old-fashioned doctor's reflector, except instead of only reflecting light they had a flashlight bulb in the center of a funnel-shaped reflector. Wires ran down from the light to the batteries on our belts, and the lenses covering the lights had been painted with red fingernail polish. Most animals, you see, are incapable of seeing red light, therefore they don't know that they're in danger when the light hits them. They are designed less for providing real light, and more for simply making an animal's eyes shine--which provides a very nice target in the darkness.

So we turned on the lights. Dim reddish beams lanced into the shadowy pockets of the pigpens as we looked for the stray rat, but found none. Rex began barking up the trunk of a tree. Looking up, there were many tiny little pairs of red pin-points of light flittering back and forth through the branches of the trees. The rats were above us.

We learned then that the rats could still see our lights. We would only have a second or two to take a shot before the eyes would vanish as the rat skittered around to the other side of a tree limb. Again catching them in a crossfire, we took turns shining our lights and shooting, until we could see no more tiny little eyes glinting at us from up high in the oak trees. The rats made no sound except for a soft thunk when they struck the ground. The few that weren't killed by pellets, ratshot, or falling were finished off by Rex.

The second assault was made in the cowpens. These pens, being built on a larger scale than the pigpens, afforded fewer hiding places and in addition, had overhead lights installed. When I hit the switch we heard the rats scrambling for deeper hiding places as the pens were illuminated. There really weren't many places to hide in the cowpens, in fact, there was only one place that several rats could hide at the same time: underneath the chute.

For those readers who do not know what a chute is, an explanation follows. Usually built only wide enough for one cow to move through at a time, it has a sloping floor which the cow is made to walk up into the back of a trailer for transporting. The floor of this chute was made from several heavy wooden planks, and was moveable, though heavy. Tim grabbed the end of the chute floor, lifted, and dropped it.

This, of course, meant more rats scrambled desperately for a safer hiding place. Several of them ran along the 1-by-4 planks which the tin was nailed to to make the north wall. I fired a blast of ratshot into them, knocking two from the plank at once. They bounced back against the tin wall and fell. Again there was a fatal thrunch as Tim fired his Benjamin. The impact of the heavy pellet bounced another rat against the wall before it fell. By this time operating more on instinct than anything else, Tim threw his heavy knife and I drew the Crosman. With its 10-inch barrel, it wasn't designed for quick drawing. Nevertheless, I managed to pull it out and shoot without really aiming, by sheer luck nailing yet another rat which fell and squealed as Rex pounced on it. Tim's knife, hurtling end-over-end, struck another rat with its heavy grips, the impact stunning the rat and making it easy prey for Rex. Two more rats made it to the end of the plank and vanished through a hole in the wall to the outside. All of this took no more than 10 seconds.

We knew now there was only one place to hide: under--or in--the old tractor tire that lay on the ground near the west end of the cowpens. Somewhat overgrown with weeds, we approached it carefully, our air guns once again primed and the .22 loaded with another shotshell. Even with our headlights visibility was very bad, with the bunchgrass growing up through the center of the tire and a bullnettle curling around the outer treads. Quickly, I grabbed the edge of the tire and flipped it up.

Rex immediately plunged foward and seized a rat, shaking his head and yelping as it bit his lip. I saw the other rat in very close proximity to my foot, too close to shoot at. It took this opportunity to flee into the last bit of safe darkness it could see. It went up my pants leg.

I have heard stories of how some people do remarkeable things when they are pumped full of adrenaline. Things like turning over cars, or even moving a helicopter like I saw someone do once on "Real TV." In this case, I must have leaped 4 or 5 feet straight up into the air and kicked my leg frantically to dislodge the rat. Fortunately, it worked. The rat came shooting out of my pants leg and we both returned to the earth at roughly the same time. I took another jump backward to prevent it from seeking sanctuary in my pants a second time. Tim's Benjamin spoke one more time, with a decisively fatal thrunch (don't you just love these sounds effects?) and that was the end of the last rat.

And that was one of the ways we passed our time in those long, slow days of summer. The rat problem never really returned. Eventually a few semi-feral housecats made the barn their home, and I suppose they put something of a crimp in the rat population. Rex didn't get rabies from being bitten by the rat--he lived several more years and managed to reach a fairly ripe old age in dog years before he was killed by a passing car. Tim joined the Army, and I went to college, and we haven't seen each other in years. But my dad still lives in the same place, in the same house with the same barn--only the dogs are different. And every now and then, I can go back to the old home place and talk a walk down to the barn, where I can sit on a bale of peanut hay and remember the adventures and misadventures that Tim and I got into, like the time we were trying to catch pigeons or the time I discovered a den of copperhead snakes. But those, I guess, are other stories...