Saturday, September 23, 2006

Buddha is a Rat

This is not at all about aviation, but explains why I haven't been posting much lately.

The sleep deprivation started Tuesday around 3am with a distinct, scratching, chewing sound. It seemed that after 10 quiet years in our house, a rodent had found a way in. While you can manage rats by trapping and poisoning, it's better to keep them outside. Hey, even a rat has to be somewhere. I just didn't want one in my house, inside the wall, chewing away incessantly. My new part time job was to find out where the rodent had gained entrance and seal up that entrance.

At first I suspected a somewhat defective roof vent had allowed a rat to fall into a space between an inside wall. While this line of inquiry proved to be in error, it seemed compelling at the time. I even felt sorry for the rat, assuming it was trapped after its fall and unable to climb up the smooth sides of the galvanized steel vent back to the roof. I didn't want it to die inside the wall and stink up our house, but mostly I didn't want it to die a horrible death. Call me sentimental, but there you go. Early Wednesday morning, It became clear that I was wrong about the rat's location.

Last year, I had opened up the ceiling in the downstairs to replace the last remaining, 80 year old galvanized steel pipe with copper pipe. The old pipes had become so scaled with rust and minerals, that bits were periodically breaking off and jamming the insides of various water faucets. Now I knew the layout of the area where the rat was located, I knew the orientation of the floor joists, and I knew the rat was essentially isolated to one area. But the two questions on my mind where how in the hell did it get in there and when was I going to be able to get some sleep?

My next theory centered around a wall vent for an overhead bathroom fan. Some plants had grown up that could have allowed an enterprising rat to enter through the vent, get past the fan, and gain access to the area where I had heard the noise. There's a small metal flapper on the vent that had been blocked open, so this seemed plausible. I put some peanut butter on the outside of the vent and decided to come back the next day to see if it was gone. Again, my goal was to get the rat out, then seal things up.

Wednesday evening, I got down on the floor upstairs, near where I was hearing the rat chewing away, and I had a talk with the rat. "Look, it's nothing personal. I'm sure you're a fine rat with many good rat friends. You may even have some fine rat sons and daughters, but you're not welcome here and we'd like you to leave." Nothing wrong with trying the Buddhist approach, I thought. You know, respect for all living things.

Early Thursday morning, I was awaken by the chewing and scurrying and I became certain that this was not a Buddhist rat. This time, I knelt down and threatened the rat - "Get out of our house or I will kill you!" What can I say, I was sleep deprived and feeling more than a bit hostile. I returned to bed, frustrated and tired. As I lay there, alternating between sympathy for the trapped rat and revulsion at the thought of the bugger being inside our house, a new theory occurred to me.

I was too busy to act on my theory until Friday afternoon, when I cut a section of sheet rock out of the downstairs wall. My theory was that there was some sort of breech between the concrete foundation and the sewer drain pipe and that would have allowed the rat to burrow in to access the wall and the area of the ceiling where we had heard the noises. The sewer pipe comes down through a chase - a chimney like structure of wood and sheet rock built around the pipe. I carefully pried off the baseboards and cut out a 14" by 14" section of the sheet rock, starting right at the floor. As I pulled out bits of insulation to reveal the base of the sewer pipe, I knew I was on the right track. I found rat droppings, leaves, and bits of shiny plastic and foil that rats like to put in their nests. I also found a dead rat and a new problem.

The design of the sewer pipe's junction with the foundation was not what I expected. There was actually a bit of space between the pipe, the outer wall, and the ground! It seemed likely that the rat was coming and going pretty much as he or she pleased - go outside for a rat get together, eat some trash, visit with your rat friends, then head back to the space between the ceiling and floor at John's house for some late night gnawing and a warm place to sleep. I had no idea why would anyone construct a sewer pipe junction like this and decided to consult with a contractor who lives on our street. He graciously agreed to stop by and offer some advice. He, too, was baffled and suggested the solution that I had come upon, given the tight quarters where the pipe was located - backfill the empty space with concrete.

So with my lovely wife's help, I began mixing quick-setting concrete into a thin slurry and carefully pouring it into the space through a makeshift sluice we constructed from aluminum pie plates. 90 pounds of concrete later (about 5 gallons in volume), the area was filled. "Take that you rat bastard!" I cut a makeshift piece of sheet rock and temporarily screwed it in place to seal the hole. We were both pretty tired and decided to walk around the corner for dinner, hopeful that we would finally be getting some sleep that night.

When we came back home, I walked in the house and heard a scurrying sound. This was not the "rat in the wall" sound, but a "rat loose in the house" sound. We were both nervous as I headed downstairs where I hoped the rat was still isolated inside the wall. That's when I saw a perfectly round hole in the sheet rock, freshly gnawed, right at the area when we had poured the concrete. I had assumed the rat was out when we sealed the area, but I was wrong. I scolded myself for being so stupid, then closed the downstairs door and tried to decide what to do next. I decided to put out a rat trap, baited with peanut butter, next to the freshly gnawed hole. So much for Buddhist mind.

I grabbed my flashlight and walked around the back door in hopes of opening the door and letting the rat out. I had left the downstairs light on, which allowed me to see the rat, hanging by the window shade cord on the french door. It was much cleaner looking than I expected it to be and I found the rat to be an oddly elegant, graceful, even beautiful creature. It was obviously scared and looking for a way out of the house, so I opened the door from the outside. The rat immediately hid under the furniture when it heard me so I propped the door open and stepped back into the darkness to wait.

After standing motionless for nearly 10 minutes, I saw the rat slowly come out of hiding and carefully make its way to the door, sniffing cautiously. If ever I needed evidence that rats are intelligent and resourceful, this was it. Then I saw a second rat. It had never occurred to me that there could be more than one. They both came to the threshold of the door and stopped. They must have caught scent of me and scurried back to hiding under the furniture.

I made my way to another entrance, through the garage, in hopes of flushing the rats out the back door. It took some creative herding, but in the end it worked. There were a total of four rats - two smaller, light gray ones; a larger gray one, and one much larger black rat. One by one, I succeeded in getting the rats out the back door with the large black one being the last, most reluctant to exit. We carefully checked under all the furniture for any stragglers. Satisfied that the coast was clear, went upstairs to bed.

Before I left, I picked up the rat trap and held it in my hands. A rat's lifetime is seldom longer than about 300 days. Say what you want about rats, but I was glad that Buddhist nature had prevailed.


zb said...

"... that would have allowed the rat to burrow in to access the wall..." I wonder when aviatrix' alphabet of burrowing mammals will get to the letter R again and if she will introduce "Rat Airlines" then.

John T said...

Cats are good at keeping rats and mice out of the house. If you don't have a cat, try to borrow a neighbor's cat for a week. We borrowed a friend's cat once, when we had rats in the house. After the cat had been at our house for a week, the rats were gone. They never came back.

John said...


I think it might be better to go at it from the Buddhist angle. I'm thinking Dharma Airlines. And their slogan?

"The end of suffering in the air."

Aviatrix said...

Aww, John I love you. Thank you for taking care of the rats. It's not their fault that the bubonic plague hitchhiked on their fleas.

"Rat" is on my list, but has no company name written next to it. Any suggested candidates, zb?