trying to catch an injured squirrel. That time, I had bought a cheap trap from Harbor Freight Tools. It had proved completely and utterly useless. I decided this time I’d go for a higher quality, brand name trap. The leading brand in the US is Havahart.
Havahart traps are neat and well made. Once the trap is set, pressure on a plate inside the trap makes the door spring shut and clip closed. You can then pick up the whole thing by the handle on top, take it to the release point, and unclip and open the door to release whatever you caught.
I tried local stores. They had the larger Havahart traps for raccoons, squirrels, Norway rats, and other larger rodents, but reviews suggested that those were problematic for roof rats. Being on the small side, roof rats often fail to put enough pressure on the activation plate to set off a large trap. So I went online and ordered the smallest Havahart trap, model 0745, the one for chipmunks, squirrels, and rats.
I set the trap out on the back deck the evening it was delivered. I baited it with bird seed from the bottom of the parakeet cage, as I knew our rat liked that. I sat at a table where I could see out of the back windows, and within half an hour, I saw the rat wander into view. Unfortunately, he looked around and spotted me, and decided that maybe this time discretion was called for. He didn’t come back during daylight hours, so I left the trap in place that night when I went to bed.
I woke up around 2 a.m. and found myself wondering if I had caught anything in the trap yet. I went downstairs and shone a flashlight out the window — and there in the trap was my little rat friend! He blinked in the light, and started chewing on the cage bars in a desperate attempt to escape.
I turned the flashlight off. I had expected it to take a few attempts to entice him into the trap, perhaps 2–3 nights. Instead, it had taken a few hours. It seemed too good to be true. I turned the flashlight on and looked again, but no, I hadn’t imagined it. There was definitely a rat in the trap, and he looked like the rat I had seen earlier in the day.
At this point I realized I hadn’t really made any definite plans for what to do next, beyond deciding that I’d drive somewhere and release him. I started looking for helpful advice on the Internet.
The first page I found offering helpful rat relocation advice was by PeTA. It was rather optimistically titled “Living in Harmony With Rats”. It said that I should release the rat within 100 yards of where I had caught it, because releasing it outside that area would almost certainly result in its death.
I could immediately see a couple of problems with this piece of advice, the first being that I was pretty sure a rat could find its way back home over a distance of a hundred yards.
“Oh, I see — he’s a homing rat, is he?”
But even if I was wrong, the area a hundred yards around our back yard contains dozens of families’ homes. The law said that to release a captured critter I had to have permission from the owner of the land. I was pretty sure that none of my neighbors would volunteer their yards as a rat habitat. Make the rat a surprise gift and they’d probably put down poison or glue traps. So following PeTA’s advice would not be doing the rat any favors. Still, maybe my whole plan was wrong? Maybe I ought to be euthanizing the rat, rather than relocating him to some unfamiliar area to get eaten by a snake?
The next web page I browsed to supported that thought, saying the best thing to do with a live-caught rat was to euthanize it humanely. The suggested method was to use a hammer.
I did have a hammer; several, in fact. I had some thick gardening gloves. I…
No. Absolutely not. I’m sure there are many people in this world who can grip a squirming rodent in one hand while they smash its brains in with a hammer, but I am not one of those people. Maybe after the apocalypse when rat stew is my only hope for avoiding starvation, yes, but not until then.
Lethal injection? Not likely. The vets would all be closed at this hour of the night, and I didn’t want to leave him in the trap until morning.
Gassing? Theoretically I could get some dry ice from the supermarket (open 24 hours), put it in a bucket, put the rat in the bucket, seal up the whole arrangement, and wait for the rat to go to sleep. However, this struck me as a plan with an unacceptably high probability of catastrophic failure, specifically involving the rat leaping out of the bucket.
I decided there was no other option. I was going to have to find somewhere far away to release the rat. Maybe he’d have trouble finding food, maybe he’d get eaten, but at least he’d have a sporting chance at life. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best I could do.
I pulled up Google Maps and scanned for suitable locations. After a few minutes I found a wilderness preservation area that was a good 10 miles outside the city. It had a small river running through it, plenty of trees, and there was a stretch of road where I could stop that looked to be a mile from any buildings, and not privately owned land.
I got dressed and went outside. It was a pleasantly warm spring night. I bent down to pick up the trap, and the rat gave me a look that seemed to suggest that he realized he had made some questionable life choices.
I put a plastic bag down in the trunk of the car, then put newspaper on top of that, then wedged the cage in place. The last thing I wanted was a permanent smell of rat urine in the car.
The drive was uneventful. I’ve read that rats sometimes scream when they’re trapped, but my rodent companion kept silent. The roads were eerily clear of other vehicles, and I started wondering what I’d say if I got randomly stopped by some bored cops. I decided I’d tell them I was suffering from some insomnia and taking a short drive to clear my head. It had the benefit of being true, which was probably advisable given that I have had no real practice at lying convincingly.
I left the outskirts of the city proper, and found myself driving down a wide unlit stretch of freeway, past dimly sodium-lit warehouses and factories. Suddenly I saw a deer in the headlights, its eyes gleaming. Luckily it wasn’t in the road, and it turned its head to watch as I sped past. Moments later I saw a second deer, or rather the body of one lying dead on the hard shoulder.
I came to a T-junction and turned. Now even the industrial buildings disappeared, and I was on an empty country road. I started to wonder if I was crazy to be out here. It felt like I was driving through the kind of place where bad things happened, where murderers dumped bodies in ditches and hitch-hikers enticed victims to stop for them.
The GPS told me I was at my planned destination point, so I pulled over onto the hard shoulder, stopped the car, put the hazard lights on, and looked around. There was a halo of orange light from a freeway light, but beyond that was darkness. No lights from buildings or vehicles in any direction.
I got out of the car into the quiet night. The ground was sandy, with patches of scrub. A small low hill looked to lead to a more forested area, but I decided the rat was going to have to find his own way there. It was all starting to feel a bit too much like a scene from a Coen brothers movie, and I suddenly desperately wanted to be back at home in bed.
I took the rat trap out of the trunk and unclipped the door latch. I stepped a few paces from the car, bent down, held the trap near the ground, and opened the door.
I shook the trap gently. Nothing happened again. The rat might have been desperate to get out of the trap earlier on, but now that I wanted him to leave, he had apparently decided he quite liked the place. Finally, I gave the trap another shake, and his head appeared through the door opening. He sniffed the night air, jumped down onto the ground, and scurried off into a clump of grass.
I put the trap back in the trunk, got into the car, and shut the door with a profound sense of relief. Half an hour later I was back in my bed.
And there the story ends. I have no exciting coda. The rat didn’t return unexpectedly. No additional rats have shown up. As far as I know the rat is still out there somewhere. If not, hopefully he at least participated in the beauty of nature by feeding a snake or a vulture.
“Moths beat on the windowpane
Telling me I’m not the same
Sounds of nothing, sounds of fear
Speak to me when no one’s near
I’m on Rat Patrol”
— They Might Be Giants
Rat hammer ad: fancy rat photo by AlexK100; mallet photo by Mauro Cateb. © mathew 2017
© mathew 2017