Takoma Park is a pioneer town. These days, its residents struggle not with the land, but with ethical questions. Even Takoma Park's humblest inhabitants will now feel the benefits of these deliberations, for Takoma Park has decided that a better rat trap means a humane trap. It has urged residents to use "Havahart" traps, which capture rodents without harming them.
This decision makes some ordinarily not mean-spirited people nervous. They worry that Takoma Park will be overrun, not a cracker left in its corner grocery stores. Such fears, not the rats, should be put to rest.
Not that people haven't gone overboard about rats. The Romans believed rat-keeping brought good fortune. The ancient Egyptians deified rats, making them the symbol of wisdom for consistently choosing the best grains. The ancient Irish had a different idea. They thought that if people were sent out into the fields to read really horrible bits of poetry aloud, the rats would die. The rats were, apparently, bad judges of poetry and still live throughout Ireland.
In this country, we have often had to be forced to treat animals with consideration. Less than a century ago, New Yorkers stormed the dockside to prevent city officials from plunging cages full of hapless mongrels into the East River. Despite the jeers of those who thought dogs a filthy pestilence, humanitarians refused to allow the animals to be drowned.
Recently, dozens of veterinarians signed statements urging the Maryland attorney general to pronounce the cruel sticky-glue trap "in violation of Maryland's anti-cruelty statute." Wrote Dr. Diane Ferris, "I am fully aware that many people find no sympathy for rodents in their hearts, but as a veterinarian I believe I have an obligation to speak up on behalf of all animals. A mouse feels as much pain and terror as a dog or cat and unnecessary suffering does not belong in our society."
Ferris was moved to write her statement after extricating an exhausted, dehydrated mouse from a trap in which another had suffocated, his face stuck firmly in the flue. One of her clients, the Washington Humane Society, had been forced to destroy a squirrel who had tried to chew off his leg after becoming caught in a glue trap. Like all humanitarians, Ferris believes it is wrong to deny any animal the right, at least, to a merciful death.
Many people react primitively to rats, as they do to snakes. Knowing that all animals have a place in the ecosystem, that suffering is suffering no matter how odd or unattractive its recipient, makes no difference. Repulsion trumps charity, and the rats (and snakes) become monsters to be slain.
Author Gregg Levoy described his father as that sort of king-of-the-hill type who would "sometimes crouch in an upstairs window, Luger in hand, and try to pick off tomcats. . . ." His household was equipped with "pest spray or rolled-up magazine for every genus and species."
In "A Better Mousetrap," the younger Levoy wrote that, after experiencing pain firsthand, he tried to live his life without administering it:
"I don't strip the leaves off twigs anymore as I walk along the sidewalk, and I work around the ant colony when I'm clearing the back yard. Sometimes I feel so isolated from the proverbial web of things, living in the city, that a part of me is even glad to have something resembling an ecosystem about. The spider webs in the window do wondrous things with the light that slips in at sunset.
"Also, I cannot shake the feeling that somewhere there is a tally being kept of these things -- my cruelties, my compassions -- and that it will make a difference somewhere down the line when I go to cash in my chips. Besides, there is a slight question, in my mind, of relativity. Who is the pest here, me or the mouse? To a germ, I am sure, even health is a form of disease. . . .
"As I stand in the checkout line at the hardware store, an elderly man taps me on the shoulder. 'Good for you,' he says, surveying my $17.50 mousetrap. 'You'll probably come back as a mouse.' "
Rats have been here, finding things to eat, with or without our help, since the dawn of time. The problem is not that they exist; it is how to get them out of the house or the neighborhood when they appear. Killing several dozen or several thousand of them doesn't solve that problem. It never has.
Those who operate municipal rat control programs know: make a space and "new" rats will fill it. Addressing the problems that attract the rats out of the fields and pipes is more effective. In recent years Takoma Park has taken such steps, enforcing the housing code long ignored by "slum lords" who operated shanty buildings for the elderly and others on subsistence incomes. And regular trash pickups, alley clean-ups and prompt response to problems of human filth have kept most rats out of human sight.
Ingrid E. Newkirk is the national director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and former chief of Zoonotic Disease Control for the D.C. Commission on Public Health.