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Friday, October 28, 2011

The Vermin Dilemma

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Living in an urban/wildland interface zone, we see (or see evidence of) many wild creatures around our home. I'm a live-and-let-live kinda person. I prefer to fence them out or otherwise protect my home, livestock, and garden over killing of predators and pests if I can.

Sure, I have mousetraps set inside the house and garage, especially this time of year. But if I find a live mouse in the bathtub I'm more likely to trap it with an upended trash basket, sliding a magazine underneath, and toss it outside. This year, the little cottontail rabbits are thick out in the yard every evening. But I've dug trenches down, then out, 'round the chicken pen and garden, and buried 1" chicken wire to keep them out. Likewise, my little orchard (now, after losing a few young trees to wintertime bark stripping years ago) has 3' tall wire cages around every trunk. If we get a snowfall deeper than that, I'll stomp the snow down around each tree so they can't get to the branches by walking atop the snow.

But this fall, I've come up against something different. Caveat: there's always something new - last summer, when Bambi discovered the garden, we had to raise the height of the fence; earlier this summer we had to build a top over the chicken pen, after a bobcat family moved in nearby; luckily, still no bears or mountain lions - knock on wood, we know they're out there.

Rats! A few weeks ago, I started hearing spooky bumping and thumping on the roof a few times in the night. One late night, sitting at the computer, I heard a bunch of thumping and scratching right outside the open window. I shone a light out through the screen just in time to see a rat! a pointy-nosed, naked-tail rat! run across the window sill outside. Ok, that was new! Mice, ground squirrels, the occasional kangaroo rat, even chipmunks, but I've never seen a rat around here before.

And then, about a week later, we were awakened about 3 a.m. by something scratching about in the ceiling above our bed. Oh no, it had somehow gotten into the attic. We checked the roof, vents, and eaves a few times before finally finding a hole scratched into a spot under a soffit where an addition had been made to the original building. We patched that up, stopping anything else from getting in, but still had something scratching above our heads every night.

Our attic is merely a crawlspace, with some areas we can't really get into. No luck with a snap-trap, nor with the box trap. Rats are too smart, I guess. What to do? Besides the creepy feeling and loss of sleep, we can't have it up there chewing wires or destroying insulation. I don't like using it, and never would anywhere other animals can get to it, but we finally resorted to putting poison up there. Luckily, we live in a desert climate where a dead animal dessicates and mummifies instead of rotting. After a couple more nights, peace returned to our house.

But wait, there's more! We have an outside, underground cellar. In the fall, we open it up nightly to start cooling it down, and store quite a bit of our harvest. The cold air sinks down the cellar steps, and then there's a vent pipe in the opposite corner ceiling for the warm air to rise. We have a screen framework we put over the top of the stairs when we open up the door below, to keep critters and falling leaves out. Always before, it's worked very well.

But this year, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed gnaw marks on my fruit down there - rat-sized teeth marks. Now the whole idea of a rat in my cellar is a bit icky, but I wouldn't mind quite so much if he took one whole apple and ate on that night after night. But he had to gnaw bits out of four or five different pieces every night. Nothing was safe, either. He sampled my Asian pears, apples, the tomatoes and peppers, even an onion and the end of one of the big zucchini. He could either climb or jump even onto the highest wire racks. And the screen didn't stop him. The lower cellar door did. On nights I didn't open it up, I'd find rat poop outside the lower door, so I knew he was managing to get under the upper slanted door, but the fruit inside was untouched.

But I couldn't just keep the cellar door closed - it's still too warm inside right now for keeping stuff, and later in the season it'll be too cold outside at night to open the door. This is the time of year I have to open it up at night if I want to have my winter stores last until spring. So, we tried snap-traps - they were tripped, with the bait gone. The box trap tripped but empty, night after night. I put a couple of rat-sized glue traps along the edges of the floor. And one morning last week, we found half a bushy tail, along with quite a bit of gray fur, on one. This guy had chewed off his own tail to escape! You have to admire that kind of survival instinct, but that's my food you're messing with!

Hmmm. That's not the tail of a pointy-nosed rat rat. Onto the internet, to see what kind of nocturnal beast we're dealing with. And came up with the bushy-tailed woodrat - a kind of packrat. Ok, something different yet again, but I still want him out of my food supply. And then, just this morning, we got him, in the box trap up by the garage.

Oh, damn! Does he have to be so cute? Those big, nocturnal eyes (and obviously, he's our guy, with only half a tail). And damn you Disney! I've seen Ratatouille - you would have to animate rats into something sympathetic. So now, what to do? It's hard to drown something so cute, especially after he's sacrificed his own tail to live. Even though I haven't seen one around here before, they're not endangered. How far would I have to take it before it wouldn't make its way back? Is it illegal to transport rodents? Transporting him probably dooms him to a winter without food and shelter, or a quick death from an owl or coyote. Ah, what to do?

19 comments:

Eric said...

Steel your heart and kill it. Remember your food supply is at stake here...

Centro la Milpa said...

Wow, you deal with a lot of different animals.

Paula said...

I'm with Eric. Steel your heart and kill it. Have a daiquiri first if it helps, but just do it.

Linda Woodrow said...

It's such an interesting dilemma isn't it. Farmers kill wildlife, one way or another, with poison or traps or by having cats and dogs to do it or by removing their habitat and food sources or even just by clearing the undergrowth so they can't hide from predators. You can't share and make deals with wildlife. If you are seriously producing food, they see it as their food. But environmentalists protect wildlife, believe that loss of biodiversity impoverishes us all, and threatens us all too by disrupting natural balances we barely understand. If you kill the rat, an owl goes hungry, leaves or dies, and you have to kill the next rat and the one after. If you are an environmentalist farmer, you confront this dilemma daily. It's a wonderful story, a great example of a key question, and I don't know the answer.

Annodear said...

Nicely said, Linda. A dilemma indeed.

Kate said...

Our varmints either end up on the dinner table, or they take a swim in those cages.

I came across a good recommendation for those have-a-heart traps. Prop them open with a stick so that the door cannot fall closed. Then put food bait just outside of it. When that gets eaten, put more just inside of it. Each time the bait is taken replace it farther inside until it's at the back where the critter will spring the trap, and remove the propping stick. Works like a charm, and only takes about three-four baitings.

Sandy J. Omaha said...

Protect your food supply! I vote for moving it a few miles from home and letting an owl possibly get a good meal. That way, at least someone's getting something out of it, instead of just outright killing it. I would think that it could find something to eat somewhere else. It managed without starving before it got to your place. We'll just hope there's no babies around depending on it. It is awfully cute though.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

What did you do with it? We live and let live if they stay out of our food stashes, since our area supplies abundant food for them in their natural habitat. When they choose to sample ours, the deal is off. Drowning is the quickest, if you don't have a dog or cat to do the deed for you.

BLD in MT said...

We've only had mice at our place. We catch and release them several mile from the house. I've read 5 miles is a good distance, but I rarely go that far.

But, if you want to kill it you could still leave the carcass out after, so long as no poison is involved, naturally. An owl, vulture, or some other critter will still eat it most likely.

Jane said...

What about making a screen door for the cellar?

Sadge said...

All very good comments and suggestions. Thank you. We ended up taking it a couple of miles south, across a creek to deter it coming back, and released it out in an open field near a rocky outcropping. My hopes are that it either finds a new home for itself, or is food for someone else higher on the food chain.

No second chances though. I'm now watching vigilantly for signs of damage or droppings anywhere near the garage or cellar. If necessary, I'll use Kate's suggestion for luring pests into the trap. We'll definitely recognize Stumpy if we see him again.

We do drown ground squirrels, since we can't count on the dog to catch them every time if released. Since woodrats are territorial, and this isn't their breeding time, I don't think we have a rodent family problem (yet).

Sadge said...

Oh, and Jane: I don't know about that. A second screen door would have to open inward. The cellar is only 8' x 8' so I'm not sure if I want to trade the loss of maneuverability and the door swing space inside for something unnecessary most of the time. Hmmm - maybe a sliding pocket-door type? Aries can usually make my design drawings become reality - I'll have to think on that.

Angela said...

We lived in high desert for a couple years and had terrible trouble with packrats getting into outdoor storage and our CARS -- trouble! I hate to kill critters, but my husband was at war once one did get into our car. The locally-endorsed solution was to set out a bucket trap: one five-gallon bucket filled about a third full, with peanut butter smeared around the inside rim a couple inches from the top, and a plank leading from the ground to the edge of the rim. He often caught multiple beasts in a single night. Gruesome, but efficient and it saved our car wires and insulation, which cost too much to replace/fix.

The Younger Rachael said...

If you aren't putting out masses of poison, and trapping only the ones that get into your food supply, you aren't going to deplete the local population of said rats all that fast.

Dropping him across a stream is a good idea; its likely to keep him from coming back this year.

Also keep in mind that rats, and other small vermin, were/are a major disease vector (think black plague). Keeping them out of living areas and food stashes is really important.

Zelda said...

There are wonderful traps out there now for rats; battery operated, they give an instant kill with no suffering for them, and no more problems for you. I think drowning is incredibly cruel and violent. The maker of the trap is Victor. We found ours at the local Orchard Supply Hardware, but they're available online, too. And since they're reusable, they're not only humane but also eco-friendly. Ours have dispatched many a rodent, and I'm more likely to stay on track using it if I don't feel guilty about how the critter met its end.

Zephyr Hill said...

Bravo to you for not considering putting out poison. My Sheltie nearly died in September after finding some years' old rat poison put in a wall of a building years before we owned this place. She hemorrhaged in her lungs and had only 25 percent of her lung function left when we got her to the clinic. It took a platelet transfusion to keep her alive long enough for the Vitamin K to begin to work. Five days and $3000 later, she came home, but it was a very close thing!

Linda said...

Kill as a protein source for chickens!

Anonymous said...

bang it on the head with a brick hard and fast... it's not nice, but if you are producing large amounts of food, one rat turns to hundreds of rats... you have to control them... however, rats are vermin here in australia... an introduced pest... they do nothing but disrupt the natural balance of things in our environment... if it were one of our native rats i wouldn't kill it (they are not so common and protected i believe)

Anonymous said...

No, don’t kill it. Drive it a few miles away and let it go.