The Rat King and I

Man and megarodent, face to face. The garage wasn’t big enough for the both of us.

By Robert Ferrigno January 5, 2009 Published in the January 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Ryan Snook

I admire rats. I really do. They’re smart, they breed constantly, and they’re good parents—the suburban ideal. Yes, their cannibalism and habit of spraying urine with every step are definite downers, but nobody’s perfect. And rats and I go back a long way.

I grew up near the Everglades in South Florida, a natural incubator for stinging insects, venomous snakes, and every other practical joke God’s come up with. A 98—degree, high-humidity horror show. Every other month, a city truck used to drive down our street laying down a thick white fog of DDT. My mother would open the doors and windows to let the cleansing chemical roll through. Behind our house was a froggy swamp of palm meadows and pine trees. At twilight I’d watch huge rats scamper along the chain-link fence, whisker-twitching tightrope walkers. In the morning I’d empty the snap traps I’d placed outside. Major rat traps, biggest they sold. I liked doing it. My father, a tough guy who found my terror of flying cockroaches amusing, was scared of rats. I’d stroll to the
window where he was eating breakfast, holding a dead rat by the tail in each hand. After getting the proper reaction, I’d spin them over my head and sail them over the fence, back into the swamp. Ain’t ecology grand?

I live in Kirkland now, and I suspect there are more rats here than in South Florida. Why wouldn’t they like it? The climate’s mild, there’s plenty of rotting fruit on the ground, and folks like to put out nuts and seeds for the squirrels. Easy pickings if you’re a rat. Sometimes when we visit other houses, I smell dead rat. There’s no other smell like it, a sickly-sweet stink. I’ve smelled it in old houses and brand new ones, once even in a movie theater. Every year or so I smell it in our own house and know I have to go into the crawl space and take care of things. Terrible job, scuttling through the cobwebbed darkness on elbows and knees, a handkerchief dabbed in vinegar over your face—thanks for the tip, CSI! Once you have rats, you can’t get rid of them. Not permanently.

The troubles started a few years ago. We’ve got dogs, and I used to keep a large plastic tub of dried dog food in the garage. One night I went out with a stainless steel dog bowl, flipped open the lid, and saw an enormous rat staring back at me. King Rat. We were both startled, but neither of us was scared. He looked at me like, What’s your problem, ape boy? I went to hit him with the dog bowl, but he just jumped at me, leaped off my knee, and scooted up into the rafters. Then he turned around and watched me. Smiling.

We were both startled, but neither of us was scared. The rat stood and looked at me like, what’s your problem, ape boy?

I checked the tub. Rats had carefully gnawed through the thick plastic at the very back and bottom—a secret entrance to a dog-food cafeteria. Here’s a fun fact: Rat poison works as an anticoagulant; poisoned rats bleed to death internally. Dried dog food is fortified with vitamins, including vitamin K, which helps blood clot. Eating dog food not only builds healthy rat bodies, it protects them from rat poison. I’m not saying they’ve had rat meetings to share this information, writing memos in urine, but….

By the time I discovered King Rat having his late-night snack, it was too late. Word of this constantly replenished food supply had spread from the garage—a miracle! Months had passed, and a female rat goes into heat every five days. Every. Five. Days. The crawl space of our happy home was a full-tilt rat-baby factory. This meant war.

I called the professionals to clear the crawl space, but King Rat was all mine. He’d been hitting the dog food for a long time; he’d be back. I went to the hardware store for snap traps and set them at prime spots around the garage, each baited with a morsel of Iams ProActive Health Adult Lamb Meal and Rice Formula.

At two in the morning, I was startled out of sleep by the snap of a trap…and something thrashing around in the garage. Rushing downstairs, I flipped on the light, expecting to see King Rat prostrate with a broken neck. Instead he flopped around on the garage floor, his tail caught in the trap. In the philosophy biz this is what is called an existential moment. Should I put on several pairs of heavy gloves, hold him down with fireplace tongs, take him outside, and release him? Is this a go-and-sin-no-more situation? He burgled my home, I broke his tail. Are we even now?

While I pondered the ethical ramifications, King Rat flipped around, almost getting traction on the floor. I looked at him and he glared at me, yellow teeth bared, eyes bulging with hate. Which basically decided things.

I didn’t blame King Rat. I’d hate me, too, if I were him, but I had to do what needed to be done. My set of golf clubs sat in the corner, untouched for years. At 2am, this seemed to make a lot of sense. I actually considered which club to use. Forget the woods, this called for an iron. I chose a 3-iron, since I’d never been able to hit a golf ball with it anyway. I hid the club behind my back as I approached, but King Rat wasn’t fooled.

The first blow was more of a hesitation stroke, not full force, and it just hurt him and made him squeal. I apologized and whacked him hard. Le roi est mort. Vive le roi!

These days we store the dog food in a metal garbage can with a cinder block on the lid. I gave away my golf clubs but kept that 3-iron with the blood stains in the grooves. I’m just sentimental that way.

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