Tuesday, October 12, 2010

**La Jolla's Furry Little Secret

[This article about La Jolla's rat problem won the $500 first prize in a local San Diego writing contest. It is rumored that the La Jolla Real Estate Broker's Association still has a contract out on me. Alas, seasonal rat offensives are still a too-regular part of my life.] © 2009


Several years ago, as part of a kitchen remodel, we opted to add skylights around the house as a way of reducing the mildew that appears to be the karmic revenge toward those who live near the ocean. As soon as construction began, however, the contractor pointed out that we had termites. So we got the termite guy out who wanted to tent us, except that first, he said, we had to get rid of the rats.

That we might have attic occupants of the rodent persuasion was no surprise. It wasn’t long after we moved here that I learned that while the little furry fauna are prevalent all over our county (like the rest of us, they came for the weather), they are happiest to eschew the slimmer pickings of less landscaped areas of the city for the dense protective foliage and abundant food supply in places like La Jolla. Our personal rat population prefers to summer in close proximity to our orange tree, inconsiderately leaving orange rinds on the grass, but worse, having the poor manners to skitter across the patio just as we and our guests are sitting down to an elegant outdoor dinner. One can only glare at them and hiss, Do you mind????? We’re trying to have a classy meal here! (Lobbing a few cans of Rat-Be-Gone into the ivy in retaliation the next morning is not unheard of.)

Rats fortunately don’t want to come into the living quarters of your house (well, most of the time, anyway), but once the harsh California winter temperatures plummet into the 60’s, a rat family – Mom, Dad, the kids – moves in to winter in one’s toasty attic making comfy nests out of your insulation and dining on escargot (a.k.a the snails that feed on your daisies). The La Jolla Chamber of Commerce never ever mentions the “R” word.

Even the county of San Diego carefully disguises its e-rat-ication campaign on your tax bill under the heading of Vector Control. Of course, the vectors are disease vectors - in the case of rodentia, typhus and bubonic plague and most recently, hantavirus. Nothing you want to get. Let us be clear that the county isn’t going to come out and bag them for you. But they excel at showing you how you can smite the little furballs yourself.

In fairness, and in anticipation of becoming a persona non rat-a with my fellow La Jollans, let me state that while virtually all homes in La Jolla have at least a modest exterior rat presence, some houses are more prone to be rat havens than others. My 1947 built-by-the-lowest-bidder-after-the-war cottage is one of them. And some years are much worse rat years than others for reasons I’ve never been able to ascertain. One such year, in my single parent days, I heard the familiar scurrying in my attic and worse, the gnawing. If there’s one sound I hate, it’s gnawing. Lying awake at 3 a.m., I was consumed with curiosity. “What are they eating up there?” Of course, what I feared was that it was my wiring but it definitely had more of a beam-ish sound. Maybe it was actually the termites having a giant orgy? (In addition to being a rat Xanadu, my tiny cedar house with its ancient wood shake roof is the termite equivalent of Islam’s 72 virgins.) But that winter, listening to the relentless overhead chewing that I feared was devouring the investment I had sold myself into perpetual penury to buy during my divorce, I decided it was time to bring in the professionals.

A very nice gentlemen from a local pest control firm duly arrived at my home the next afternoon and installed live-capture traps throughout my attic, and in the abundant foliage around the house, with promises that he would be back daily to check on them. It was all very humane, he explained.

“So what do you do with them after you catch them?” I asked, immediately regretting the question.

“Oh,” he said, “we drive them out to the country and let them go.” He actually said this with a straight face. Unfortunately, he looked like he’d had a supporting role in The Terminator and that the back of his truck was filled with devices I didn’t want to know about. I was starting to feel bad for the rats.

Well, until about five of them were captured in the yard in four days, never mind a few in the attic. I had to be home every day for the pest control guy to get into my attic crawl space which wasn’t easy with work and carpool schedules. Plus, daily rat service was seriously costing me. Being newly re-entered to the work force and earning just above minimum wage, it became clear this was going to have to be a Kill-It-Yourself project.

There wasn’t much internet to speak of eighteen years ago when my local hardware gave me a hot tip about the county Vector Control program. But, happy to see My Tax Dollars at Work, I gave them a call, expecting some big burly rodent-hating club-wielding guy to show up. So you can imagine my surprise when this sweet young very petite long-blond-haired thing named Liz appeared at my door. A more fearless human I have never met. Climbing up her ladder to the cover of my attic crawl space, she gave the cover several sharp knocks. “I always like to alert them I’m coming in” she smiled.“Simple courtesy.” Adding, “I also don’t like rats falling on my head.” This was a concept on which we could agree. We systematically walked around my house, she showing me all the places that rats could get in and ways I could thwart them. An Amazing But True Rat Fact is that they can squish their little bodies through a half-inch high space.

Outside, Liz explained that my wood pile and the dense ivy over my fence were Ratopias, my prolific orange tree a veritable rat Whole Foods. She instructed me to go to the hardware and get them to cut a number of pieces of 3-4 inch diameter PVC pipe into 18-24 inch lengths into the middle of which I would insert rat poison so it would not be accessible to any neighborhood cats. These were duly placed around the property.

But the tricky part was the attic. I didn’t really want to trap live rats since I had no idea what I’d then do with them. (Well, there was that one neighbor…) I didn’t really want to trap dead rats either but that appeared to be the only other alternative. For those who’ve never seen a rat trap, think mouse trap on steroids. And with a snap bar that will easily break every one of your fingers. My livelihood as a clerical at the time was dependent on those fingers. Liz suggested that I bait the traps and set the springs in the hallway bathroom below and then tiptoe up my rickety ladder ever so carefully and set them very very gently just inside my attic crawl space. Trust me, I would never have attempted this without her cheerleader support.

For the record, a rat’s cuisine of choice is not cheese, as one might suspect, but peanut butter - a little known fact that you might use the next time you’re at a dinner party and the conversation lags. In fact, for years after Liz’s visit, our refrigerator featured two jars of peanut butter, one labeled “For Kids” and the other “For Rats”. Normally I wouldn’t confess that there were times I was so irked at the kids for one transgression or another that I was tempted to put the rat trap knife in their jar. But the statute of limitations is passed. Anyway, by the time Liz was done, I was, as my engineer second husband would say, “fully rat capable”.

Ultimately, however, I wearied of climbing up and down my ladder with my peanut butter-baited traps, and even more so, of removing dead rat carci before breakfast. (It’s actually no better after breakfast.) There is just nothing worse than starting your day off with a dead rat, other than the knowledge that it is guaranteed to get better. But the second husband wasn’t on the scene yet (where are men when you need them????), so what to do? I had always remembered the words of the pest control guy that one should never put rat poison in the attic; should a rat may die up there, one’s home would soon be wafting of Eau de Rodent Morte. I was lamenting this with my cleaning-fanatic neighbor Karen who has always been openly, if affectionately, critical of my housekeeping skills. “But in your house,” she reasoned, “who could tell?”

She was just funning, of course. But by nightfall, the spring-loaded rat traps were in the trash, and liberal quantities of rat poison packets had found their way into my attic crawl space. I never smelled anything amiss, but when a roofing guy was up there not long ago, he mentioned that he had come upon not one but two rat skeletons. I should mention that we were on a foreign work assignment in 2005-2006 and I can only assume that the aforementioned decedents had succumbed during our absence. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

I know that there are going to be folks who will blast me as a heartless rodent slayer with no regard for the pain and suffering I have caused countless small furry animals who, like the rest of us, are just trying to make a living. And I will admit that I have had moments of actual compassion for the little guys, most notably while watching the film Ratatouille on an airline flight. At one point there’s a scene where the old woman, annoyed at the scurrying of little feet above, bangs on her ceiling with a broom handle only to have a rodent colony the size of Leisure World come crashing down into her kitchen. I realized at that moment why I have never dared bang on my ceilings. Clearly the Rats Rights League was involved in this film as there were no scenes of the adorable protagonist chewing on computer cables or leaving droppings on the guest bed pillow. Our rats are grievously ignorant of boundary issues.

Now, of course, much of the info my fellow afflictees here in Ratopolis er, La Jolla, would need for successful containment of their rodent guests can be done from the privacy of their own homes via www.DIEFILTHYRODENTS.com, er, no, http://www.sdcounty.ca.gov/deh/pests/rat.html. They even have Rat Control Starter Kits and a Rat Control CD, which I genuinely recommend. But in my heart of hearts, I’m glad I had Liz.

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