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E-mail, Feeds, 'n' Stuff

Tuesday, May 4, 2004


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.

Comments (17)

I hope you yelled "fire in the hole" when you lit the gas bombs. Cinderella Boy beats the rats.

The smell of ferrets is supposed to do the trick -- if the problem crops up, you might want to ask a friendly ferret owner for a piece of ferret bedding to put in the hole.

My dog has singlehandedly taken care of our minor rat problem in our new house.
She's killed one and left it for me in the backyard. She gave the other a serious beat down.
I know this because I came home to blood all over my kitchen. She was pretty damned proud of herself. The rat has not been seen again and it's definitely not under the house. So my dog is back to terrorizing the squirrels.

I had rats show up in my previous house on NE 55th (near Normandale Park). You do not want to poison them! Besides the fact that other animals (or children) may find the poison, the poison does not act immediately so the rat can die inside a wall or some other inaccessible place and then you'll find out what dead rat SMELLS like!

Besides removing any food sources, you'll want to remove any water sources (dog or cat water bowls, pools, puddles). Also rats like woodpiles so moving those away from the house is a good idea.

I got large rat traps and kept setting them until I got all of them. If you have other animals, you'll need to set them up so that they cannot access them.

Good luck!

In my years fielding calls at the City, I've had more than one rat call.

If you haven't, you may want to consider checking out your sewer connection. Sometimes, these pipes break, and the rats come up from the sewer into your yard.

Just a possibility. Best of luck.


Our rat family came from the sewer. We had a hole in the line from the house to the main line. MuCo Vector Control came out for free and dosed our main line. (Sorry Peta people, but this is war.)

The city came out and "camera'd" our sewer line to find the hole. If the hole is in the street, they fix it, if not, you're looking at 2Gs or more. (Ours was in the street... woo hoo!)

We did not notice the holes when we bought the house, because the seller had been hoping that well-placed rocks & bricks would convince the buggers to leave... doesn't work.

Does that really work, Shelley? I suppose your house is too new to find out just yet.

Every house I've owned in the metro area has had rats. I was too full of pride to admit it on the first one, but now I talk about rats like old people talk about their bowel movements.

Read "Rats" by Robert Sullivan if you want to develop a new appreciation for the creatures which will outlive us if we continue to destroy the earth.

Could be worse. Could be cockroaches. And they really will outlive human destruction.

Jen -- I'm not sure if it works, but we've never had rats, here or in Reno (have been ferret owners for ~11 years). A couple of field mice in the old house's garage, but that was it. [We would have a hard time killing rats, though. My husband once had a job in a pharmacology lab killing rats for research, and he still feels guilty about it, 15 years later.]

Your description of the small mounds below the bird feeder disturbs me. We have those same bumps, and I've noticed a network of tunnels re-appearing in the yard. Just a few months ago I had to crawl under the house to retrieve four carcasses that were causing a stink. I'd hate to think that there are more still at large. Worthless cat hasn't helped a bit.

I want to chime in with the "don't use poison" guy. Not only because the rats can die in weird places and stink, but because of your cats. If they make a snack of a slow moving poisoned rat they're likely to get sick too.

Come on, Jack, this story is really just a thinly-disguised metaphor to inform us that you've shifted to the pro-war side of the room, isn't it?

Jack, you are lucky you are just a city kid (NJ, PDX, its all the same). Why, out here in the deep burbs, the spilled seed from the feeders has attracted regular visits by a huge skunk! And, of course, it is so "cute" (funky elegance?) that we dare not take any measures to discourage the visitor. So, around dusk, I am careful when I turn the corner lest I require a tomato sauce bath.

To Sally about cockroaches:

I have never seen any cockroaches in Portland ever (40+ years experience). Have you actually seen cockroaches here (outside of the zoo)? I saw my first cockroach (among thousands), while I was at the U of C. You seem to take pride in the fact that cockroaches will outlive us. That disturbs me, as the other post of yours to which I replied (just found this blog while trying to find the best mayoral vote I could cast). While in Chicago as an undergraduate, I once was walking past the University Hospital, and they were apparently doing some spraying. Unbelievable numbers of roaches were cascading out of the hospital. It was truly disgusting. If you had ever done battle with such creatures, you would not go all PETA--trust me.

To any who are doing battle with rats or mice, I would agree with all who warn about poison. The stench of either decaying is most foul; as is their removal if you follow the scent to their source. I have fought both types of vermin, and the standard traps fail quite a bit. If you would like instructions for my own custom traps (still lethal, since they only improve upon regular traps), I would be happy to send you the elements of the design and baiting techniques if you like. If they stay outside, I leave them alone. If they come inside, then they find me a ruthless enemy.

Elementary school up in 'da 'Hood, on Killingsworth, catches on average five a day. School board says it's not a problem. Hmmmm.. do they have a union, maybe?

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