Since I can first remember, I’ve always been captivated by rats. Unlike the cockroaches which haunted my life for decades until the final denouement last year, rats have always held a special place in my heart. There has always been a bond between Rattus norvegicus and its close cousins which has fascinated me since I was very young. These animals live in every corner of the globe, are incredibly intelligent, and have managed to survive some really outstanding attacks on their species.
According to my mother when I was a little girl, “Rats are an American phenomenon and do not exist in Austria.” However, at the age of four, still in Austria, I recall sitting in our apple orchard at the summer place with my father, watching them steal apples and birds from nests. My father would caution me about telling my mother what we had seen. “No use in upsetting her. Let her think what she wants, Liesl.”
“Daddy, I’ve seen them in the zoo at Schőnbrun. They steal the food from the elephants and run up their legs.”
“Just don’t tell Mother.” He replied.
In 1938, as Mom and I boarded the ship to come to the United States, I was aware of the thick rope hawsers keping the vessel tied to the dock. Each rope had what looked like a huge plate hung halfway up the rope, which passed through a narrow hole in the center of the device. The ship’s crew members explained the plates kept rats from climbing aboard. A passing sailor flippantly said, “The Cunard Line only permits paying passenger on board.” Mom repeated her comment about Austria, and the crew members told her she would see plenty of the creatures once we arrived in New York City.
Sure enough, the rats were there to greet us on the docks. As we descended the gangplank, we watched as rats ran up the hawsers, met the rat guard barrier, and either returned to shore or fell into the Hudson River.
As we settled into New York City, I had plenty of rats to watch. They existed in subway stations, parks, streets, stores, back yards, zoos, garbage bins, sewers, and schools. We could see them running across the George Washington Bridge as went on early morning excursions in our car. The animals were apparently commuting between New York and New Jersey. They were even found on thecommuter ferries on the Hudson River, New York Bay, and to the Statue of Liberty.
A favorite trip of mine was to be taken to the docks at the tip of Manhattan. Here, in addition to cargo vessels, passenger liners, and other watercraft, we could watch the creatures swimming, climbing into packed cargo mounds, taking their small families on excursions, and generally ignoring Homo sapiens.
Eventually I also met tamer rats on display in zoos and nature centers. Even as a child, I loved to hold them. These rats were not the dark gothic gray of street rats. Rather, came in various pastel shades of white, yellow, gray, and brown markings. The animals were quite affectionate and loved to nestle in my arms for hours. My mother was horrified.
When we moved to the chicken farm we found the wild rats there in force. My dog was petrified of them and literally climbed trees to escape them. As I approached the age of ten, I was given the task of shooting the critters as they overran the coops looking to steal eggs and to hunt chickens. These rats were aggressive and also stole grain from the wooden food storage bins, cutting holes in the three inch thick boards overnight. They killed chickens for food, devoured baby chicks, and stole eggs from nests. No longer was I fascinated by them: they were the enemy and had to be destroyed.
Eventually we succeeded in controlling them, and only had to deal with occasional strays.
One incident, however, comes to mind. On a late spring evening, as I made my killing rounds, I walked into the coop just after sunset. Most of the hens were settling in on the roosts for the night. Unexpectedly, a large male rat was daintily picking its way along the roost in an eastward direction, and the agitated chickens flew off in a panicky cloud of cacophony and feathers.
Except for one bird. She saw the rat approaching and, clucking with curiosity, made her way westward to meet the intruder. The rat stopped. The chicken was now cooing in a friendly fashion as she approached him. He crouched for the kill.
I lifted up the rifle and shot her dead. Then I rapidly reloaded and shot a somewhat surprised rat who had run forward as I reloaded to grab the bird to drag her home for dinner.
My father roared with laughter when I told him what I had done. “Let’s not tell mom, eh?”
The chicken, you must know, was delicious. We threw the carcass of the rat into the fields across the street, where the vultures made short work of it the next day.
When I entered high school, I soon became a part of the science squad, and one of my jobs was to take care of the rats in the laboratory. There were about a dozen sweet, intelligent, friendly creatures, and they became my school pets. Often, after school, I would sit in the window seat of the Science Supervisor’s office, reading a book while several animals snuggled in my lap and around my neck or in my hair. When I read Little Women, I was delighted to learn Jo’s beloved pet was a rat yclept Scrabble who shared her apples and ate her manuscripts.
I approached my mother with a proposition to have my own personal rat like Jo.
Mom’s shocked NO was total rejection. I would have to wait until I was an adult.
Years later, when I began teaching, I had one or two of the creatures in my classroom. Around this time, my husband, who was a naturalist, began his skull collection. He asked for one of my pets to add to it. My NO was adamant and final. Later, I spoke to our custodian and explained my problem. He said he would shoot a wild rat without destroying the head and bring it to me to take home. I was delighted. My friend was not the brightest sequin on the shoe, but he had a good heart.
A few weeks later, I happened to be having a conference with an irate parent in the hallway outside my classroom, which was at the furthest end of a long hallway. The parent had believed something her child had said and was loudly berating me. As I waited for her to stop so I could tell her what really happened, I glanced down the hallway. Here came Joseph, almost skipping with jog, and carrying a brown paper bag and a pistol. School rules were different in the early 1950’s. He was heading right for us. As I watched in increasing horror, the parent saw the look on my face and sputtered to silence. We watched Joseph happily approaching. When he reached us, he greeted the parent and then held up the bag. Without hesitation, he snagged a tail, and held the dead rat up high.
The parent, who was a friend of his, blanched. He spoke cheerfully to her. “Hey, Susan, your son telling lies about not poisoning the birds at Mrs. Anderson’s feeder?”
I accepted his gift. We hugged each other. He left, whistling merrily and twirling his six-shooter.
Holding the dead rat in one hand, and the brown paper bag in the other, I looked at the parent. She looked at me. “Well, I’ll kill him!” she snapped.
Then she stalked into the classroom, grabbed her son and spanked him in front of his classmates.
Life in school was different in the old days.