WilburBless the Beasts and the Children by Shirley Bassey (click to play song)

“What a night! Never have I seen such leavings! Everything well ripened, seasoned with the passage of time and the heat of the day. Oh it was rich, my friends. Rich!” crowed Templeton the Rat to his buddies Wilbur and Charlotte of the Web.

Scavengers and all, we are the keepers and protectors of this abundant planet, for without the spoils of land, air, vegetation and wildlife, we humans would cease to exist. It is a daunting responsibility, utterly overwhelming in fact, and one is inclined to throw hands up in desperate surrender. But still I try, to live at peace with my little patch of the world, to preserve nature in my own backyard that is intermingled with the wild side of life. From the day we took ownership of our property in the Bay Area, we have battled the forces of nature, seeking common ground on which we can all live together in harmonious bliss. I try to make like Albert Einstein “Our task must be to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty” and like Sitting Bull “Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.” But it’s my bad that these well-intentioned ideals are a constant source of frustration as a homeowner, gardener, and nature lover.

A meandering creek nestles up one side of our yard while oak-studded hills anchor the back. Wild life abounds. Moles and gophers tunnel under our garden beds, gnawing through tree roots and sucking down flowers as they go. Raccoons peel back the lawn, searching for midnight grubby snacks. Squirrels race around the tree branches, tearing up leaves, scarfing down berries, and generally leaving a mess in their wake. Birds insist on nesting above the outdoor speakers tucked under the eaves (despite our best efforts with wire mesh barriers), yielding their droppings on patio and furniture. Deer graze through our shrubbery, nipping off the choicest buds and blossoms. We have learned to live with all of these confounded critters and sometimes even beat them at their own games with humane tricks. But I simply can’t live with the rascally rats, and just when we think we’ve gotten the best of them, they weasel their way back into the game.

In the land of make-believe, I’ve always had a fondness for little rodents. Stuart Little, The Three Blind Mice, Templeton, Angellina Ballerina, Tom’s friend Jerry, Mickey and Minnie, Mighty Mouse, American Tale’s Fivel, Ratatouille, and the most bodaciously gnarly rodent of all: the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ sensai Splinter. If all rats were as cool as Master Splinter, I could sit in cross-legged lotus position among God’s creatures all day long.  But that’s about as far as my affinity for rodents goes. My only touchy-feely rodent interaction was decades ago with my friend’s three pet rats. As “sweet” as she claimed they were, I always got a bad case of the heeby-jeebies around them and could barely bring myself to lay a loving finger on them. So when we moved into our house “in the country” twenty-two years ago, you can imagine my chagrined surprise to find a little family already occupying our new home.

The first sign of our country mice tenants were innocuous little pellets in the kitchen cabinets. “If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” Sorry Mr. Einstein, but I just can’t be righteous with rodents in my house. After I finished having a freak-out tantrum, I scrubbed down everything and set out a series of mouse traps like that old childhood board game. The traps were relatively effective, and we had our first up-close-and-personal mouse encounter the very next morning. One of the snap traps caught a mouse by the tail, but the wily little critter had squirmed his way under the kitchen pantry door and was trying to pry the trap off his tail. When I came downstairs for breakfast with my babies toddling behind, we were greeted by a frantic mouse staring up at us, caught in his daring escape act. He really began to scramble when my little warrior son grabbed his Peter Pan sword to wage a battle with “The Rat King” a la The Nutcracker. Fearing that Mac’s parrying moves would actually aid the mouse in his escape, I grabbed a sticky mouse pad from my maze of traps and threw it on the ground in front of the rat king. The poor little fellow promptly flailed himself upon the pad like it was a life raft. There he stuck, peering up at us in a quiet frenzy, with the realization that he was now truly trapped. We solemnly ate our breakfast cereal, watching the mouse become irreparably glued to the pad with each little move. I quickly made an appointment with the Orkin Man for 2:00, packed the kids up for a day in the park, and fled the scene of the crime. That afternoon Mr. Orkin introduced us to the more humane “hotel traps” where the mice check in and can’t check out, which effectively evicted our unwanted tenants with minimal trauma.

If we thought that was the end of our problems with little squatters, we were sorely mistaken. In fact, my husband nearly suffered a panic attack at the hands of a furry scallywag. One early morning on his way to work, Tony entered the dark garage and hit the opener. The light clicked on as the garage door chain roared into motion, startling a large roof rat that was resting in the rafters. The sharp-toothed rodent hurled himself to safety – straight at Tony in a daring airborne attack. Armed with his gym bag, my rat-fearing warrior deflected the attack with his makeshift shield, and the rat fell to the floor in a tumbled heap. As the rat’s claws scrittered the ground around Tony’s feet trying to gain traction like some silly cartoon character, my fearsome giant-of-a-husband did a desperate little tap dance to avoid the dreaded beast. Somehow Tony braved his way to the shelter of his car, only to discover that his windows were rolled down. He drove to work with the nagging paranoia that rats were preparing a sneak attack from the back seat, and he called me the moment he reached his office refuge to inform me that he would not be coming home until I had a date with Mr. Orkin once again. You can be sure the garage was properly booby-trapped before dinner time.

Since then it’s been a fairly blissful, rodent-free time in our lives, aside from the occasional poor rat who tries to make his home under our house. But recently I had the gnawing feeling that we were under siege again… this time in the vegetable garden that Haley and I have toiled in for months. It began with the disappearance of a few nearly-ripe cucumbers and zucchinis. What the devil? But when I discovered a half-eaten spaghetti squash, I knew it was time for warfare once again. Out came the snap traps – no more humane Ghandi-esque live-and-let-live ideals. We worked too hard to lose our entire crop. I set the traps up high enough to spare the noses and paws of our beloved golden pups and was vindicated when we caught our first rat a couple of days later. My perverse glee was dashed the next day when we killed a sweet little bird in one of the traps. I don’t mind killing a rat, but an innocent albeit messy bird was just too cruel. It was time to get creative like real farmers. Scarecrows? Owls! After researching the subject, I learned that barn owls are an environmentally-friendly circle-of-life kind of way to help even the score and balance the prolific rodent population with the rest of the animal kingdom. I found a great website  http://www.owlpages.com/links.php?cat=Owls-Nest+Boxes  that sells barn owl nest boxes, determined the prime placement for three of these birdhouses, and made plans to install them to attract these most excellent rat catchers.

Ah, but rats aren’t the only scoundrels in the animal world. One morning when my daughter was outside enjoying her coffee over a textbook, she noticed our golden retriever Eddie nonchalantly meandering along the path to the Back Forty veggie garden. Sly as a detective, Haley gave Eddie just enough time to get into whatever mischief he had in mind, and then she crept into the guesthouse to spy on him out the back window. And there he was, that furry yellow-faced rascal, nibbling away on a perfectly ripe zucchini. Sometimes the real culprits are our own best friends. With a few adjustments like some sturdy fencing and netting, we have peace in the garden once again. But since all is fair in love and war, I still intend to install a couple of barn owl houses for good measure. You just never can trust those rats and scoundrels.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. pitch4rd@aol.com
    Aug 18, 2013 @ 23:15:05

    I just have one thing to say to you…don’t EVER stop writing you talented, talented lady!

    xxoo D


  2. carolinelongstaffe
    Aug 19, 2013 @ 15:43:17

    Jana I loved this your writing is exceptional!! Caroline x


  3. Brenda
    Aug 20, 2013 @ 03:26:21

    Love it Jana. Wonderful as always.


  4. Mia
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 18:39:46

    I remember that story when we first moved in down the street. I was complaining to Tony that there were ‘large mice’ in the neighborhood, and he told me the story of the rat attacking him from the rafters! Since then, I’ve unfortunately had a few similar stories to tell…darn that wildlife!


  5. Linda Baer
    Aug 30, 2013 @ 23:22:40

    “‘Can’t judge a book by it’s cover!”….Glad your retriever has a healthy diet!! :~)


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