August 24, 2017

In Search of the Pied Piper

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

I wish I could tell you that this farm is a Peaceable Kingdom, that everything that goes on here is smiled upon by a benevolent farmer basking in the warmth of  interspecies relationships only topped by those found on Noah’s Ark.

It’s not.

Oh, the cows and sheep get along fine.  The chickens don’t seem to bother anyone except the dogs.  Happily, the dogs ignore the chickens if you remember to keep a tennis ball in your pocket.  The dogs aren’t a problem with the cats.  In fact I have a picture of one of our cats chasing a Chesapeake Bay retriever 10 times his weight throughout the house.  (Wendy has never lived that one down.  Her big, fierce Chesapeakes don’t scare my cats!)

The problem I hesitate admitting so publicly is rats.

Sure, we have barn cats.  Inevitably they’re seduced by the fabulous hunting in our fields. They leave the barn for greener pastures.  Literally.  Still, we keep them.  Some we’ve had for years.  For others, their time here is much shorter.  They disappear abruptly when coyotes happen upon them 500 feet from the nearest tree.

I lament.  “If only they’d concentrate on the barn!”

They never seem to.

That fact leaves me thinking like the town fathers in the pre-Pied Piper period.  How do I get rid of rats?  There are so many.

I try convincing myself that rats are the inevitable side affect of keeping stock.  We have to grain our cows and sheep, especially over the winters.  We keep dog food, cat food and chicken scratch on hand as well.  All that food is stored in galvanized, rat-proof garbage cans.  But frankly, the animals of which we’re so fond are slobs.  Every one of them.  Watching them eat is embarrassing.  Grain falls out either side of the cows’ mouths as they mill the other half.  Sheep aren’t any better.  The dogs are gluttonous but messy.  There are occasions when I have to mop the floor following their dinners.  The cats leave bird parts everywhere.  The chickens miss a quarter of the corn you spread for them.

The rats capitalize on all those leavings.

It’s reached the point where we even have to store our egg cartons in garbage cans.  Something about that soft, pressed-felt cardboard is infinitely appealing to rats.  They can shred dozens in a single night.  Cleaning up the mess and throwing it away afterwards always leaves me wondering what to do about the rats.

I set traps.  But only in areas where I’m confident the cats can’t reach.  Sure, I’ve caught a few but I can’t escape the feeling that I’m only doing the population as a whole a favor.  I’m weeding out the mentally challenged rats.

The smart ones understand traps and ignore them.

I hate to use poison.  Warfarin is such an indiscriminate killer.  Even if it got a few rats, what subsequently dies from consuming the corpses?  Okay, I’m not a big fan of turkey vultures but they have their place.  They’re certainly graceful flyers.  I wouldn’t want to kill them in a misguided attempt to euthanize rats.

I’ve wasted hours sitting in the barn with the pellet rifle.  My vision isn’t what it used to be.  As night falls and the rats come out, the visibility in the barn is even worse than it is outside. I miss far more than I hit.  Yes, I’ve shot a number but if you divide my time by the total, I’m sure it’s over two hours per rat.  Like everyone, I have other things needing to be done as well.

The problem is getting worse.

I notice rats have moved into the composter out by the garden.  I try telling myself that they’re getting desperate.  There’s only vegetable waste and eggshells out there.  Alas!  That seems to sustain a healthy population more than adequately.

I saw one under my wife’s birdfeeder yesterday.  Yeah.  Other people have trouble with squirrels.

Perhaps I should buy a pet barn owl.  But, like the cats, I don’t think it would stay in the barn.  Once outside, I’m afraid the large neighborhood population of great horned owls would drive it away.

In fact, every solution I come up with seems to have serious drawbacks.  Telling myself rats occupy an essential niche in the ecology of this farm doesn’t work.  I suppose it’s human to try altering ecosystems to suit ourselves.  Still, we don’t call rats vermin for nothing.  Nonetheless, perhaps it would make more sense to try altering my own preconceptions.

I fear that’s even harder than evicting rats.

We’re all victims of our own inflexibility.

But in this case, if I die of bubonic plague, at least you’ll know what happened.