That's Not Guano, Honey ...

By Roy Tompkins

Though the signs of winter here in Austin are not quite as clichéd as they are in my northeastern motherland, they do exist. The heat envelops us for months on end and then, come sometime around Thanksgiving, the temperatures dip to a rather pleasant and much-welcomed chilliness. The leaves don't burst into a flame of color and then fall; instead it is more of a "hmm, look at that, most of the leaves are gone." Maybe we don't even notice the bare trees as much as we notice that the yard needs to be raked, the house swept more often, and the hideous cable wires, so nicely masked by the greenery of three seasons, are now exposed, as well as the neighbor's bathroom window. It is not so much of a "fall" as it is a slow cascade, but the signs are there in slow and obscure ways. And then there is the other, more obvious sign. The one more threatening than any heavy storm. The one which makes my heart race and my very being shudder. The one of which one rarely speaks, not in polite company anyway, and when it is spoken it is oh-so hush-hush and shameful.

It is the scratch, scratch, scratching in the walls. The pitter-patter of little feet in the attic. The knocked-over canned goods in the pantry. The turkey leg dragged out of the garbage and across the kitchen floor. It can only be ignored for so long. How long can one convince oneself that what one hears and sees is nothing more than a figment of the imagination or the wind or a careless spouse?

"Honey, did you leave that splintered turkey leg on the floor?"

But then, one morning, it all becomes clear. You discover the last and most obvious sign -- tiny droppings all over the kitchen counter. And you wish that like that of the bats, there was such a poetic term as "guano," but you must you call it like you see it: Rat shit.

Ugh. In our wee little cottage in South Austin this invasion has been annual. As Christmas comes but once a year, so too comes our pestilence. At first we thought them to be mice -- large, aggressive mice, but mice nonetheless. They, in comparison to rats, seemed almost cute, like the helpful critters in Cinderella sewing her dress and pulling her pumpkin coach Then one night, a sighting. In the kitchen we, in pajamas and ready for bed, saw the fat, brown rat run out of a cabinet and across the kitchen floor. Not for one minute did it fret the presence of us larger humans -- quite the other way around, actually. As it confidently dashed under the stove, peeking out in a taunting manner, we became a Saturday morning cartoon: shrieking, grabbing the broom, leaping up onto the nearest chair, and flailing rather spastically in the direction of it. Boots donned and jeans pulled up over pajamas, we headed to the nearest HEB for ammunition.

I always enjoy seeing what people are buying at midnight at the grocery store. Sure, there is the toilet paper-and-diaper crowd, but there also lurk the guys with a cart of 16 pints of sour cream, a dozen bottles of shampoo, and a 48-pack of donuts. Our basket, however, contained no mysteries: a half a dozen large rat traps and a six-pack of Guinness. We were going to war.

Once home we entered loudly, banging doors and knocking chairs so as to alert the little rodents of our return. One quick pint to diminish the terror and, with our jaws clenched and our leather boots pulled high, we positioned the traps and waited.

For bait we used glazed turkey skin and cornbread -- two things these rats clearly loved. We sat back and waited, wishing that we had purchased a 12-pack instead. After a while of rodent inactivity and a slight buzz, we abandoned our watch and went to bed. Our bedroom was off the kitchen. Our doorway was just a curtain, so we built a barricade of plywood and chairs and wished we had installed a real door or opted for an actual bed instead of our humble mattress on the floor. The barricade was for peace of mind more than anything else. If a rat can climb up a vertical wall and climb through a quarter-sized hole, surely it could get through that; but a psychological blockade was better than no blockade at all.

In the morning we found our trap tripped, our bait gone, and a tipped over box of cornbread mix lying empty on the floor. Next to that we found a box of butterscotch Jell-O pudding, opened but only slightly eaten. Hmm. No room for Jell-O? Or perhaps just smart rats.

For the next few days we replayed this charade without getting any closer to our goal. Clearly these were clever rats. Next, we tried glue traps on which we managed to catch one harmless gecko. We considered a Hav-a-hart trap until realizing that would mean disposing of a live rat instead of a dead one.

Desperate for information, yet hesitant to let out our shameful secret, I told a few people of our problem, whispering the woes of our infestation. Rather than meeting stares of disgust, I was met with a series of stories of similar situations. Be their house cabin or castle, just one mention of the problem was all the impetus needed for others to share their rat tales. "Oh you had rats? We had rats! Fat rats, killer rats, indestructible rats ..."

Funny, they never mentioned it before.

In asking a few aficionados of all things rodent, all concurred -- poison was the answer. Just the word itself made us cringe: poison! But my dad explained that the very same drug he took to keep his heart pumping properly was the one they used in rat poison and that cinched it. Poison it would be.

The poison looked so innocuous in its little yellow packet sealed up so nicely like a tiny bag of candy. And so, like paraders tossing goodies to the masses, we scattered the packages about: in the attic, behind the oven, under the sink, anywhere our hands wouldn't dare touch, howling in disgust with each blind toss.

The poison clots their blood and makes them thirsty, forcing them to search for water (hopefully) outside the house. Sometimes they die in the walls or under the floorboards causing a stink of death. Which is precisely what happened to us in our leaky little house. But once the stink passed we were home rat-free, until the next time. end story

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