catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 16 :: 2007.09.07 — 2007.09.21


The sacrificial rat

A gory story of Man vs. Beast

I can't say when I first heard the noises coming from our kitchen cupboard.  In fact, when I heard the sounds I didn't even suspect that the cupboard had anything to do with them.  Initially my thought process didn't even reach the lowest level of suspicion.  It was much easier to continue watching TV on the couch than to investigate any potential threat to the security of my home.  It doesn’t take much effort to ease the mind with simple explanations: “a box of cereal settling in the garbage can” or “something falling over in the sink.”  It would have been so easy to forget about these noises altogether.   Unfortunately I was forced to recall them when it was discovered that the source of the sounds was almost certainly a rat.

The reviled rodent probably entered our apartment through the back door that opens onto the alley behind our building.  Sometimes we'd keep it wide open to get a cross-breeze or to expel excess smoke from the kitchen area.  It's clear now that we should have been more vigilant about protecting our home.  That back door was our only line of defense.

I'm sure it didn't take long for "Ratatoni" (that's what we started to call him) to find the rich storehouse of food in our kitchen cupboard.  The door was always open and the lower level storage space was filled with chips, crackers and pasta.  I imagine Ratatoni's beady little eyes must have lit up when he first came across that glorious bounty.  We know he liked Ritz crackers because he had pulled several of them from the lower level to the top drawer.  He was so fond of the cheese-filled pasta that he ripped a hole in the plastic with his teeth to get to them.  He also left a little black present in one of the bags of pasta that unfortunately made it into our roommate Carolyn's bowl of soup.  We didn't know what it was at the time but Carolyn was smart enough not to eat anything strange like that.

When the sounds coming out of the cupboard became more frequent we could no longer ignore or explain them away.  One night, as I was walking around the apartment unable to sleep, the noises were undeniable.  I put a light on and peered into the cupboard from a distance.  I could see some kind of motion inside and suddenly there he was, scurrying overtop jars of jelly and coming to a full stop at the edge of the cupboard.  He knew I had detected him.  He darted out of the cupboard and scrambled across the kitchen floor, his claws scratching against the wood floor.  I jumped up onto a piece of furniture, my mind racing to figure out what I should do next.  I peaked over the counter and didn't see any sign of him.  He had disappeared somewhere under the stove or sink.  I wasn't going to be able to do anything about it at 5 in the morning, so I went to bed.  But I didn't sleep.  I knew that something would have to be done, something I really didn't want to do at all but could not avoid any longer.

The next day I went to get traps and I was faced for the first time with the ethics of the situation.  The creature certainly did not belong in the house.  Some quick internet research confirmed this.  Rodents carry diseases in their fur, urine and feces that can contaminate food.  They also can destroy books and chew through wires, sometimes causing house fires.  This unwelcome guest posed a threat to our health and safety and had to be eliminated. But after reading up on the behavior of rodents, I had begun to understand them and this understanding led to slight pangs of sympathy.  A rodent is clearly just a frightened little animal that wants nothing more than to eat and live in peace.  He doesn't know he's doing anything wrong.  Every movement is driven by an acute awareness, a (quite valid) sense of paranoia that a good number of humans and animals want him dead.

Despite my sympathy, something had to be done.  I bought three kinds of traps: a catch and release kind that wouldn't kill the poor creature, another one that lures a mouse in with poisoned peanut butter—allowing me to discard the carcass without seeing it—and also a glue trap.  None of these worked, however, because they were too small.  Our Ratatoni merely closed the traps with its feet and pushed the glue traps aside.  So I bought a bigger glue trap and put it right under the entrance to the cabinet where I knew he would have to go.

I couldn't sleep that night.  I was disturbed by the certain outcome of my actions that were driven by the necessity that this rat had to be taken care of.   The number of days our unfortunate houseguest had to live were now within my power.  I had willfully rigged up Ratatoni's demise myself with the perfect trap.  I knew the horrific death that was awaiting the poor creature.  Caught in a glue trap, it would struggle against the merciless adhesive until it suffocated to death.  Still, I desperately hoped for some miraculous situation whereby no animal would be harmed in the making of the next day.  Perhaps the rat would get one foot caught in the glue and I could gently remove him with a shovel and free him outside without any harm done.  But when my wife and I awoke the next morning to a knock at our bedroom door and a pale-looking Carolyn mumbled "The rat…It's moving…I can't…", I knew the thing I did not want to do had to be done.

I put on some clothes and braced myself for the conclusion of the matter.  I would have to face the reality of the death of this rat.  He would have to be physically removed.  And because the squirming animal would most likely not take kindly to me picking it up, I would have to find a way to get under him with a shovel without loosening his legs from the trap.  He looked so pathetic, his bottom fur matted, his legs and feet buried deep in the glue.  There was blood on the nose.   Every time I got close, he would writhe so violently, we were afraid he would free himself and die somewhere under the sink where we couldn't find him.  His gyrations had already moved the trap three feet from its original location and closer to the rat's apparent hiding place.  I felt only pity for the thing, an emotion that I hoped would not prevent me from doing what I knew I would have to do.

There was no getting around the deed.  Stuck in the glue, the thing was as good as dead…but it was not dead.  Maybe I could stun it so that it didn't writhe around so much as I removed it.  But I couldn't let it suffer all day in the trash dying a slow and painful death.  The shovel might do the job if I got a good angle, but it wasn't very heavy.  A hammer would certainly work, but the short handle would bring me too close to the creature and I wanted to avoid getting blood all over my clothes.  I went outside and got a brick from the yard.  This would be the instrument to do the job.  It didn't offer the emotional distance that I thought a pellet gun might, but it would have to do since I never had use for a gun before and therefore didn't have one in the house.

I crept up to within feet of the helpless rat, brick raised high above my head.  I was afraid I'd chicken out halfway through my throw and wouldn't hit it hard enough.  If I held the brick very high and just sort of dropped it, I reasoned, gravity would give the brick the kind of killing volition that I couldn't muster myself.

As I stood over the rat, I was sure it knew what was coming.  I imagined what I looked like through its eyes, brick raised, a sickening look on my face.  I tried to muster the kinds of feelings that help people kill—anger, fear, the calming assurance of military training—but I didn't have any of those.  So I did what I had to do.  I threw the brick.  It bounced against the wall right over the rat's head and struck the creature in such a way that the entire trap flipped over. 

The rat started screaming so relentlessly that the whole house seemed filled with the horror of what was being done.  My wife buried her head in the couch cushions and started to cry.  Each shrill sound from the rat made me feel more and more guilty—for allowing it to get into our apartment, for having so much food to tempt it with, for setting traps to catch it, for not throwing the brick properly to put it out of its misery.  I grabbed the shovel with a new sense of purpose: to stop that horrible screeching sound.  I whacked it once.  The screaming only got louder.  I raised the shovel high over my head and brought it down with a loud grunt of my own.  The noise ceased and the rat's body lay completely still under the trap.

Now, I hoped, the strange sounds coming from the cupboard would be over.  I could sleep peacefully.  I could forget about this whole thing.  And I'd make sure not to let a rodent into the house ever again.

When I was finished killing the rat, I felt a bit of relief that I had done it.  I felt like I had performed a necessary human ritual.  I had done what men are supposed to do in such situations.  It felt entirely natural, so natural that it seems somewhat false even to try to explain it.  Don't farmers do it to feed nations?  Don't soldiers do it to reduce threats to their homelands?  Didn't Old Testament priests do it in worship to God?  I know my rat was sacrificed only so that I would feel comfortable in my home, but that was still a necessary trade-off.

Why am I telling you all this?  Is it to pass on my new-found knowledge about the best way to kill unwanted pests?  Is it merely to entertain you with my heroic exploits?  No.  I am conjuring up the spirit of my prey, declaring the valor of my furry enemy who fought bravely for his life.  I would have cut out his heart and presented it to you as proof of the animal’s merit, but I was already grossed out…so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Everyday, countless rodents are slain at the hands of men.  It doesn’t make the national or even local news, but it is a fact that can’t be avoided.  You can be blissfully ignorant as I was for most of my life, but that mental peace is shattered the moment you are faced with the reality of rodent carnage.  I hope you never have to see what I’ve seen.  So let this story be a reminder to you that awful things are happening right now as you sip your coffee and eat your toast. 

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention the second rat.  So, a week later, I’m awakened by a pounding sound coming from inside our oven.  One of the glue traps I left out was gone so it seemed another rodent had stumbled onto it and somehow managed to pull the trap under the stove.  I imagined the stuck rat trying to pull the sticky thing off its leg.  The pounding was desperate and insistent.  I went to the bathroom to put off doing anything about it and, to my relief, the noises stopped.  Either it was dead or it got free. 

Turns out it had gotten free.  The next night all the peanut butter from my snap trap was gone and none of my roommates had eaten it.  So I re-baited the trap and, sure enough, 5:30 am, I heard it snap.  I crept into the kitchen without putting the light on.  There was the dark shape of the rat, its neck caught in the trap.  It made no movements now.  It was playing dead.  I picked up the shovel of death and raised it.  This was not any easier than the first time.  I really did not want to interrupt the quiet of that early morning with piercing rat shrieks again, so I hesitated.  And in that moment of hesitation, the rat sniffed very loudly, then did a somersault with the trap on its neck and somehow pulled himself and the trap under the stove. 

I was so relieved!  Now I wouldn’t have to smash it with a shovel.  I called our building manager the next morning.  He came while I was gone and removed the rat.  And we haven’t heard or seen signs of any more rats since.  All that’s left is the memory of Ratatoni, the sacrificial rat who gave his life so that I could have this story to tell future generations and you.

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