Until I became a homeowner, I had never had any experience with rats. That is, the actual rodents, as opposed to their human imitators, of whom I've always known a few. You would think from what you hear that, growing up in the New York City metropolitan area, I would have met up with rats back there. But no, it wasn't until I had my own slice of heaven here in squeaky-clean Portland, Oregon that I had my first close encounter of the rat kind.
When my wife and I bought our first house together, in the Buckman neighborhood, we continued a tradition of the gay couple we bought the house from -- we dutifully filled up the bird feeder on a regular basis. The birds and the neighborhood squirrels (who ran along a fence to get at the grub) shared our bounty, and it was an idyllic scene. After a while, though, we noticed a few holes in the ground under the feeder, which we thought were "moles" (there's the Jersey City genius coming out of me, I'll tell you). It wasn't until an alert friend from Cascade Locks clued us in that we realized that we had a rat problem, and that they were feeding on the seeds that the squirrels were knocking out of the feeder onto the ground.
Our solution? Withdraw the food source. The rats were after the seeds, and so, sorry, birds and squirrels, no more seeds. The birds and squirrels left. The rats didn't. Unbeknownst to us, there was quite a group of them, with an extensive network of tunnels around the perimeter of the house, and when they didn't find food outside, they simply made their way in. We noticed that our uncovered trash bin under the sink was being disturbed, with garbage thrown about the surrounding cabinet.
And then one evening, we returned home to find a rat chomping away on a pizza crust, right in the middle of the kitchen floor. The Mrs. screamed. I swore. Rats! In our house! That we worked so hard for! Etc. My wailings were Oscar-caliber.
Panicked, I picked up the yellow pages. Bad, bad move! Repeat after me: Do not hire contractors based on yellow pages ads. And the more frantic you are, the worse a choice you are likely to make from that source. Don't do it!
We picked out an exterminator who advertised 24-hour service. He promised to send someone out the next day (I guess that was within 24 hours). When the man arrived (a young guy who didn't look like an exterminator to me), we let him into the crawl space under the kitchen, where he suspected the critters were coming in. He was right. The little buggers had been nesting in the pink insulation under the kitchen floor, and there were tunnels and holes all over the dirt in the crawl space.
Oh, and there was a smell. A really powerful stench. Suddenly the saying "I smell a rat" had a whole new meaning.
The exterminator sprinkled some magic rat killing poison dust around, took a big check from us, and left.
The rats didn't. More disturbed garbage showed up. And so we called the exterminator back. This time, the guy answering the phone (not the one who came out) refused to send any help until his powder had more time to work. Then he stopped returning our calls. Finally, we got so mad we called the Better Business Bureau and the state consumer complaint line, where we found out that our yellow page find was a scam artist, recently arrived from Africa, with a complaint sheet already as long as your arm. We kissed that money goodbye, and found another exterminator.
Meanwhile, we got two cats. They were just kittens, though, and the rats probably would have kicked their kitty butts in a fight. The best solution was our decision to clean up and renovate the crawl space, improving the support under it, removing some siding that had rotted away, collapsing the many rat tunnels, and redoing the insulation in which our unwanted visitors had been lodging. Taken together, all of our combative measures appeared to have done the trick, although one of our cats lingered watchfully in front of a small hole at the base of the foundation in the basement for many, many months thereafter.
When we moved to our current house, in Northeast Portland, our rodent episode became a fond memory. In the last year or two, however, we did notice a couple of suspicious-looking holes along the parking strip in front of our next-door neighbors' home. And when our cat assumed his perch next to the larger of those holes, where he would sit for what seemed like an eternity, we knew there were rodents in there. There's another spot out back of our house where some gaps in the stone wall make a nice home for some mice. The cats will sit and stare at that one for hours on end as well.
No big deal. Every once in a while, a dead mouse would turn up near one of our doors -- sign that our mousers had done their work. Last fall one of them even got a fairly good sized rat, which it deposited in the driveway for all to see. Given how efficient our feline exterminators were, we figured we had no worries.
About a week ago, however, a large new hole opened up on our side of the property line with our neighbors. At which point, it was back into full rat combat mode. (Sounds like something that will attract some Google hits looking for Rumsfeld.) Off to the hardware store I drove, returning with two weapons of rat destruction: some bait squares and some gas bombs. I threw a couple of bait squares -- blue waxy things about the size of a Chunky bar, only flatter -- down the new hole. But the next day, the bait was out on the driveway next to the hole, uneaten. I threw it back in there, but I shook my head. The rat didn't seem to be interested in it.
Meanwhile, we bumped into the neighbor, and explaining the problem, we asked her to please locate the lid to her garbage can, which always seems to be off. She did so, and she closed up the can.
The real fun part came next -- the gas bombs. As the wife reminded me, these are shades of "Caddyshack." They are cardboard tubes that look like fat firecrackers, about six or eight inches long and maybe the size of a quarter around. You insert a fuse, light it, and throw it down the hole, and when it starts to smoke, you cover the hole up with dirt. I was expecting lethal mustard gas, and I covered the hole as quickly as I could, but what seeped out through the dirt smelled merely like some moderately rotten eggs. I doubt it could kill a hearty rat. Heck, the Hoboken PATH train station in New Jersey had the exact same smell, 24/7, for years when I was growing up there. Probably still does. And it had tons of rats, who I am quite certain thrived in that aroma. My confidence in this particular technology slumped.
But lo and behold, the hole has been covered up for several days now, and there's no sign of rat life at the moment. Maybe our stinky little friend has moved on.
I sure hope so.