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Started: 2021-09-29 19:56:31

Submitted: 2021-09-29 22:27:16

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator confronts a rodent infestation in his crawl space

Around the time our cat Willow departed this plane of existence, we started seeing evidence of unidentified pests in the kitchen of our new house. They started by eating fruit set out on the counter (they especially liked avocado and banana) and when we started putting the fruit away in the cabinets at night, they attacked the compost bin on the counter, then found a bag of pita bread on the counter and carried it under the oven to eat it in peace. I finally saw rodent-sized droppings on a bookshelf at the edge of the kitchen and confirmed that our uninvited guests were rats.

I asked around and bought a rat-sized electric trap, powered by four C-cell batteries and supposedly capable of electrocuting a rat. The trap arrived from Amazon at the end of August, and then I discovered that we didn't actually have any C-cell batteries in the house. (We had a large supply of alkaline batteries in the pantry when we lived on top of the mountain at Loma Prieta, but we couldn't find the batteries after we moved. I assume they must be somewhere but I'm not sure where.) The next day I went out to buy batteries, and I baited the trap with peanut butter and hoped for the best.

We went away for Labor Day Weekend to attend my brother's wedding, and when we returned my trap was blinking green, indicating it had caught a rodent. (I had expected to see a tail sticking out of the trap so I hadn't looked closer, so I probably would have been able to catch something sooner had I been paying attention.) Inside the trap I found a small brown dead mouse-sized rodent, though everything I knew about identifying rodents by sight I gleaned from five minutes on the Internet. I observed my birthday by emptying and setting the trap three times for a total of four confirmed kills; at one point I set the trap and turned out the lights in the kitchen to watch TV and heard the trap electrocute another rodent within five minutes.

Refinished wood floors in the kitchen at Nanna Ct
Refinished wood floors in the kitchen at Nanna Ct

Convinced that we had mice, not rats, I went back to Amazon and ordered two more electric mouse-sized traps. These too proved effective: by Friday morning I had caught a total of six rodents. I carefully dumped the dead rodent into a trash bag and carried the trash bag out to the trash can on the driveway.

This was more than I felt like I could deal with on my own, so I found a pest service to come to the house and help reclaim my kitchen. (Along the way I tried to remember what my pre-sale home inspection had said about pests, and it only vaguely said something like "might be a problem here, consult the appropriate professional". The PG&E tech who turned on my gas after we fumigated the house pointed out a big hole in the subfloor under the hot water heater along with rodent droppings on the floor, and suggested that perhaps the rodents liked to sit next to the warm water heater.)

While I waited I kept hearing scuttling around the kitchen and seeing the evidence of the food they'd found in the pantry. (Our rodents seemed to like carbs; they spent a lot of time eating through a stack of tortillas in the pantry.) If I sat at the kitchen table and stayed quiet I could see the small brown furry rodents scamper out from under the stove to the dishwasher, then back to the stove, and finally into the pantry on the other side of the kitchen island. (It was sufficiently disgusting that I started facing the other way, so at least I wouldn't see them while I was trying to eat breakfast.) One evening I opened the pantry and found a rodent hiding on the other side of a couple of cans of food at eye level, just hidden enough to give a slight physical barrier between us. It was almost cute, hiding behind the cans, clearly afraid of being discovered by the giants towering over it, though I had no intention of physically attacking it myself. I showed the rodent to Kiesa and Calvin, and eventually, while I had my back turned, it made a death-defying leap out of the pantry back towards the safety of the stove and the crawl space below.

My efforts to remove the rodents from my house by any means necessary suggested a horror movie from the perspective of the rodents as they get picked off, one at a time, by an increasingly elaborate set of traps. This would, I think, work best as cosmic horror: the monsters are unfathomable alien intelligences who, when they bother to think about you at all, regard you as mere vermin, unworthy of existence, and suitable only for extermination from the face of the universe.

Electric rat trap set in the kitchen
Electric rat trap set in the kitchen

The pest guy showed up for an inspection Friday morning, armed with a flashlight and an inspection mirror on a stick so he didn't have to get down on his hands and knees all the time. He took one look at the picture of the dead rodent I had on my phone and confirmed that it was a juvenile rat. Given that I'd trapped six of them, there was clearly a nest in the crawl space, with a couple of adults lurking around (too smart to be caught by the enclosed electric traps), but if we were lucky that might be the entire litter. He found a couple of holes that the rats were using to get in and out of the crawl space, plus plenty of evidence that they'd been scurrying around in the closets and crawl spaces in the garage. He quoted an up-front charge to block the obvious entry points and set traps, plus an ongoing service to check the traps (and, while they were at it, they'd handle ants and other insects in and around the house). I signed up for the service, eager to be done with the rats in my house.

Before the pest tech could show up to start his work, I caught three more juvenile rats in my traps, and then my electric traps stopped working, probably because I tried to clean them and somehow messed up the careful balance of the electrical surfaces. The tech spent the better part of three hours at the house, setting traps in the crawl space and in the attic (the attic being as a precaution, because we hadn't seen any evidence of rodents there but didn't want to take too many chances) and securing all of the access holes with quarter-inch steel mesh.

For the next couple of days we kept seeing evidence of rodents in the kitchen, and my electric traps weren't working, so I picked up a couple of rat-sized snap traps and set them out of the way of people, behind the potted house plants at the edge of the kitchen. (It looked like the rats had been digging in the potting soil, though I have no idea what they were expecting to find there.) I baited one trap with peanut butter and one trap with a Nutella-based cookie dough. (The pest tech had baited his traps with Nutella, but before I had a chance to divert some of ours for bait, Kiesa used it up in cookies, but saved me some of the dough for bait.)

Snap trap set under the ficus
Snap trap set under the ficus

That night, not long after I went to bed, I heard a scuttling in the kitchen, followed by a loud snap, a bit of violent trashing, then silence.

The next morning I confirmed that my new snap trap (baited with Nutella cookie dough) had killed a rat. This one was larger than the juveniles I'd caught before; I neglected to measure it (or weigh it, or photograph it); by size it looked a bit smaller than I expected a Norway rat to be, so it might have been a roof rat. The rat might have been female, so it might have been the mother of the juveniles I'd trapped over the prior two weeks. (Though to be fair, sexing rats is not something I can claim any expertise in.)

After catching the adult rat, my traps have remained baited, armed, and untouched. We haven't seen any further evidence of rats in the kitchen. The pest tech returned a week after setting his initial traps and checked them, finding only one kill of his own: a juvenile from one of the traps in the basement. (This brings the total to one adult and ten juveniles, still in the range of a credible single litter, leaving open the question about what happened to the other adult.) He suggested that he'd try to cover the hole under the stove if I moved the stove out of the way (not that I had any expertise in moving the stove, but that would presumably remove any potential liability for scratching my floor or damaging the gas and electrical connections), so I carefully protected the floor and pulled the stove out of its alcove in the kitchen island, revealing an obvious hole in the floor around the gas line for the tech to patch with wire mesh. (I understand rats will chew through just about anything to get to food, but I'd still rather have the hole plugged if I can.)

Rat hole in the kitchen covered with wire mesh
Rat hole in the kitchen covered with wire mesh

At this point I'm cautiously optimistic that we've trapped our uninvited visitors, even as I worry nervously every time I hear a creak or rustle or any unexpected noise and I wonder if my visitors have returned.