Friday, 28 October 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?