Rattus Rattus

The good news: A house can be rodent-proofed. Almost.

By Kathryn Robinson March 14, 2011 Published in the April 2011 issue of Seattle Met

ONE DAY LAST FALL, watching an Anne Hathaway movie with my family, I looked out the window to see a rat shambling across our deck.

I shrieked words my daughter had no idea I knew, then jumped meaninglessly onto the couch and screamed, “I’M GONNA THROW UP!!!”

I didn’t enter that room again for three weeks and I never will finish that movie. (Anne Hathaway is dead to me now.) Sure, it’s irrational. I had history. Eight years earlier, in a former house, just back from a family camping trip, I walked with my then four-year-old daughter into her adorable buttercup-yellow bedroom to find two big greasy rats frolicking on her bed. Her bed.

This impressive scene led to: me scooping up my kid and running crazed into the street, my husband packing our bags and calling a hotel, us hiring a pest control professional and, finally, a contractor, who through a formidable combination of wire netting and foam and fresh concrete hermetically sealed up every domestic entry point larger than a quarter—the size we were told a rat could slip through.

I breathed easier after that. Until the day a grizzled old-timer doing unrelated work on our house chuckled at our naivete. Houses are porous, he shrugged; rats are motivated. Cold and hungry enough, they find their way in. “There’s two kinds of people in Seattle,” he grinned toothlessly. “The ones that know they got rats. And the ones that don’t.”

We moved that spring.

He was right: Seattle is overrepresented with the vermin, across all neighborhoods and socioeconomic divides—a function of our watery habitat and mild winters. Rats can swim a half mile, shimmy up drain pipes, get three feet of vertical air off a flat surface.

Some, Norway rats, live in sewers; they’re bigger, meaner, greasier. Others, roof rats—species name Rattus rattus—are leaner and tree agile, preferring attic habitats. Both can smell and gnaw through plastic—plastic not unlike the compost bins into which good green Seattleites now dutifully dump fragrant meat scraps. And though King County officials insist that weekly compost pickups keep the beasts in check, our latest pest control professional mentioned that last year—the first winter of Seattle meat composting—was one memorably lucrative season in the Seattle rodent-hunting business.

Yes, our latest pest control professional. During February’s frigid spell we discovered—droppings in the basement, scritch-scratchings after dark—that our new house was no better fortified than our old one. My husband laid traps in the basement, which the next morning he found untripped but lavishly pooped upon—rodent Esperanto for, Yo chumps! We’ll outlast you, too! Enter Ulises, a pest-control professional with a reputation mighty as his mythic name. “The key,” our hero told us intently, “is to think like the rat.”

With methodical precision Ulises scoured our basement for forensic evidence. No pet food, no birdseed—“Good, that means they probably got in by mistake.” When he found a little entry point at the corner of the garage door, I despaired. But the garage led only to dead ends. And cunning Ulises found no other entrances. “People assume rats prefer old houses like yours, but in fact new construction usually leaves more points of entry,” he said. “Any work done on your house lately?” No, I told him. Well, besides a little gutter repair.

Ulises smiled. “I’ll get my ladder.” And that’s how he found the missing piece of fascia along our eaves, its exterior scratched with claw marks, its interior heady with rat pee, its location aligned both with the scritching sounds and a straight shot into the basement.

Ulises sealed it up, then handily caught our friend Rattus rattus in a trap he knew precisely where to place. “You will not have any more problems with rats,” he pronounced with glorious conclusiveness, packing up his hero’s kit bag and sailing triumphantly back to Ithaca. I mean United Pest Solutions.

I was euphoric with relief. A house really was sealable! “Yes, almost entirely!” agreed a county public health employee I called for this story.

Uh, almost?

“Well, sewer rats will come up through toilets,” she sighed. Happened 73 times in Seattle last year. “Always leave your lid down. You know…when you can.”

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