Warning: This post is not vegetarian-friendly and may be kinda gross for the rest of you, too. And embarrassing (For me, not you.)
If I could rephrase one line in every chicken-keeping book out there it would be this: “if you get rats” needs to be changed to “when you get rats”. Don’t sugarcoat it. If you have chickens you will have rats. They may not show up the day after you get home from the feed store, but they will come.
I want to produce a PSA to air on TV — or maybe just in front of mini-farming videos on YouTube — with a beautiful shot of a couture chicken coop (you know the kind: perfect paint job, cupola, casement windows, all clean enough to eat off of) with a voiceover (Mike Rowe would be perfect. Or Michael Dorn.) that says “If you build it . . .” (jump cut to rats the size of small cats advancing on your gorgeous coop from all sides at warp speed) ” . . . they will come.” I’m pretty sure I can get Victor® to sponsor it.
This is not the first time I have battled rats in my chicken coop. (See here for the previous saga.) Last time I was able to fend off a much less persistent fellow simply by blocking off some rat-sized entrances that I had overlooked during initial construction. This guy, though, man. He’s bigger, meaner, smarter . . . well, (spoiler alert!) he was. He was big on tunneling. He pried up the edges of the buried chickenwire skirting and dug under it twice. There was a week’s respite (evinced by no rat turds in the spilled food pile and an apparent uptick in egg production*) and then he was back.
When, for the third time in a week, I had to reattach the second roosting bar and tuck the wires for the light and timer back into their cubby, I realized that it wasn’t the chickens knocking this stuff over every night: it was the rat. He was climbing up the extension cord like a teenager scaling a drainpipe in an 80s movie.
Why you little rat bastard . . .
Naturally, I blocked up this access, too. (I’m going to buy stock in welded wire mesh products.) But when, a few days later, he punched a fist-sized hole in the middle of the coop floor (Rat bastard!), I also responded with brute force: I got a rat trap.
Let me confess that, while I am not opposed to these contraptions on any moral level, I am really leery of them on a personal level. I was so awkward a child (and so blind to it) that I am truly shocked that a network has yet to approach me about the serialization of my adolescence into a foul-mouthed and cringe-inducing sitcom. Of the three birthday parties I can remember being invited to, one ended in me calling mom and dad to pick me up because we had A) sleepwalking bedwetters, and B) Freddie Kruger movies scaring me into joining the ranks of sleepwalking bedwetters. (Also, the other girls tarted me up in the mom’s date night clothes and a makeup job worthy of the Lynnwood Beauty Academy and sent me out to hit on high school boys by asking them if they wanted to go make out in the cemetery). Another ended with me crying alone in the bedroom because my socks (purchased specially for the occasion during that weird period in which it was terribly fashionable to layer multiple pairs of neon-colored tube socks up and down one’s calves) were soaked through. (I seem to have repressed the memory of how that happened.) And the third ended with me, trying in desperation to appear cool after having been tricked into admitting that I owned only one She-Ra doll — and that she was the plain-Jane base model, to boot; no chest jewels or anything like the birthday girl’s Princesses of Power. (Group laughter, no hesitation: everyone with their heads back, bleating, wiping their eyes, certain that I was joking. “Oh, Amanda, you’re always so funny!”) I tried for the casual lean while we were playing in the basement . . . and put my hand right into a rat trap. I shrieked as (I’m not ashamed to admit) only I can: shrilly enough to induce lasting ear trauma. I was certain I had broken at least one finger. Until yesterday I hadn’t touched a rat trap since.
Such is my love of (and pride in) backyard-fresh eggs that I overcame a childhood trauma-induced aversion. Hell, if I didn’t have a much stronger aversion yet to rats themselves (Thanks a heap, Dirty Jobs! They never bothered me before.) I might have laid in wait in a Ghillie suit all night and throttled the little f***er with my bare hands at dawn.
As expected, the plan did not go as expected. Last night I baited the trap with peanut butter (Find me a living creature that isn’t attracted to peanut butter.) and set it (which took ten minutes of psyching up, a little Lamaze breathing, and, in the end, a hand from Matt) and put it right in the middle of the little Ho Chi Minh trail the rat bastard had going from the compost bins to the coop.
This morning — mid morning, because apparently he was a lazy rat bastard — there he was. I checked the trap on my way past the coop to liberate more tools for my ongoing indoor project and stopped to do a shameless victory dance. I texted Matt, who offered to pick up a tanning kit from the leather store in town on his way home from work so that I could make a necklace out of his ears. (I should have been disgusted, I know, but instead I cackled. I also declined, just so you know.)
And that’s when I noticed he was still breathing.
The options: A) Leave him. (No. I’m not that guy. That guy drowns kittens in sacks — and that guy deserves the same fate, if you ask me.) B) Club him. (Admittedly, this is how I dispatch fish. But they’re, you know . . . fish. The rat bastard, while rattish and bastardly, was also a fellow mammal.) C) Shoot him with a .22. (Overkill. Pun intended. The size ratio would have been equivalent to shooting myself with a softball.) D) Shoot him with the pellet gun. (Sigh. OK. Lemme just figure out how to load the damn thing . . .)
So, yeah. Rats suck. And if you have chickens you will have rats. And then you have a rat problem (Eew, rats!) and the rat problem (What do I do about them?). Killing one means nothing. You have to either remove the temptation (your chickens) or continue to remove the rats. And by “remove” I do not mean “relocate” . . . unless you really want to live-trap a critter with no bladder and transport it in your car to some godforsaken corner of the world where he will, no doubt, just start terrorizing another innocent home that you couldn’t see from the road. You have to be OK with either that Sisyphean task or with offing countless vermin. Or, you know, not having chickens.
There’s no cohabitating with these guys. Don’t fool yourself. They will eat your chickens’ food and spill and spoil what they don’t consume (Again — no bladder!). They carry diseases, as do their fleas. (You know that people still get the plague right?) Their favorite food — or at least the favorite of my local rat population — is eggs. Failing that they may kill your chickens, too. A daytime attack is pretty pointless since chickens don’t like to be messed with and have some pretty decent claws, but at night they may as well be comatose and are exceptionally vulnerable. Chicks are easy prey no matter the time of day.
If you decide to kill them, how will you do it? A sticky trap or live trap necessarily means doing the killing yourself. (Unless you’re that guy.) A snap trap, as I learned, may also require more audience participation than you find palatable. (I chose that option because it was, like me, wicked cheap.) There’s also poison, which I didn’t consider an option because I didn’t want the slightest chance that the Boll Weevil (our tiny terror of a cat) would get into it — or that she would find the poisoned carcass and snack on it and get be poisoned in turn. There’s also these new-fangled portable electronic rat death chambers that supposedly work a treat, but they’re prohibitively expensive (or me, at least) and the Boll Weevil is both awfully small and awfully curious . . .
I hate the rat bastards. I do. But I’m keeping my chickens. Even with the ass-pain of vermin chickens are still a pleasure.
*I say “apparent” because, of course, there was no change in production. There were simply no eggs going missing. Now, at last, I have as many eggs as I have chickens. Here and I thought the pullets weren’t producing!