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Below the Beltway

Oh, Rats

There are many tails in the naked city

By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page W36

I awoke one day recently to discover that a large box of Animal Crackers had migrated overnight from a pantry through the dining room and onto the kitchen floor, where it had been gnawed open and consumed. Instantly, my wife diagnosed the problem: A team of three or four industrious mice, standing erect like kangaroos and operating together in perfect synchrony, must have carried the box -- daintily, by its string -- a distance of 20 feet. Then, summoning friends and colleagues, they enjoyed a hearty and nutritious Animal Cracker banquet. My wife was a little disturbed to learn that we had mice, but, gosharootie, that's life!

I gazed upon her with love and understanding. There are times in a relationship when disagreeable truths must be confronted, together. Gently, I said: "We have rodents, but they are larger than mice. And I think we both know that." My wife nodded resignedly.

(Eric Shansby)

"We have rabbits," she said.

I live in a city. This involves certain sacrifices. Writer Robert Sullivan explained it best: "If you are in New York while you are reading this sentence, or even in any other major city in America, then you are in proximity of two or more rats having sex."

(This column is being published pursuant to an agreement with my editor that it contain no sentence more disturbing than the previous one. It was not easy.)

Facing the fact of a rat in one's home is a little like facing the fact of impending death. You go through stages of grief. After denial comes anger ("It's Bush's fault . . . !" ). Then, bargaining ("It says here rats won't eat alfalfa! Maybe if we live only on alfalfa . . ."). But there is never, ever acceptance. Instead, there is shame.

Shame impels you to spend several days trying to avoid having to reveal your problem to anyone else, meaning you waste time trying to catch the rats yourself, which pretty much just means feeding them peanut butter, which they seem to enjoy. (Rat traps terrify you, not the rat.) This phase lasts several days, days marked by preemptive acts of bravado, particularly each morning, stomping downstairs and loudly approaching the still-dark kitchen. ("Here I come, and I'm in a fierce rat-killin' frenzy . . .") Eventually, you give up and call an exterminator, who you hope will arrive in an unmarked truck, or better yet, a decoy truck. You are willing to pay for the required auto detailing yourself. ("Petticoats 'n' Corsages.")

Brian the exterminator solemnly told me that the best confirmation that we had rats would be to find their bathroom. I laughed, but Brian did not. He started poking around behind pieces of furniture, explaining that rats, unlike mice, are fastidious animals that will not eat where they poop. So they create a private bathroom. I was still laughing when Brian found it, behind a cabinet. At this point I stopped laughing. What I saw back there defies description. I mean that literally. Pursuant to the agreement with my editor, it may not be described.

In fact, many of the events of the ensuing four days do not permit elaboration, particularly what happened when Brian put down glue traps to snare the animals alive. I will say only this: Contrary to popular belief, rats do have vocal cords, which they use only when extremely upset.

The sounds they emit at these times could strip the paint from a car or the flesh from a corpse. Ultimately, however, the glue trap had the same effect on the rat that toilet paper has on you, when it gets caught on your shoe. The rat was inconvenienced, and possibly embarrassed when it went back to its home and faced the taunts of other rats, but that's about it.

So on his second visit, Brian informed me that the only option left was poison. Exterminators don't usually recommend poison in homes with dogs. Brian looked at me, and then at Harry, my old Labrador retriever. My wife and I considered the alternative, namely, living with rats. Then we agreed that, at 12, Harry had already lived a long and fruitful life, and was probably facing a difficult and painful senescence, anyway -- it would be a blessing, really! Brian put a poison box under the stove and squirted a lot of powdered poison into our baseboards.

Well, it worked. Harry still lives, and the rats do not. The only lingering problem is that, before squirting the poison, Brian never first ascertained what was under the baseboards. It turns out that what was under the baseboards was my basement office, which is now coated by a fine dusting of rat poison, like confectioners' sugar on a raspberry tart. My wife is fine with that, considering the alternative. After all, I, too, have lived a long and fruitful life.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.

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