There is much that humans can learn from rats. The fact that most us are rat-ignorant has long roots in the human/rat relationship, which casts rats in the role of villains to righteous humans. The longstanding antagonism between rats and humans is epitomized by the Black Death of the 14th century, after which rats were convicted in absentia for killing 30 to 60 percent of the population of Europe through the transmission of bubonic plague. A reputation like that is hard to shake, even six centuries later. (It should be noted, however, that a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences absolved Europe's black rats of responsibility for the deaths of 75 to 100 million people. The researchers blamed Asian gerbils instead.)
No one studies rats for fun; if you're watching YouTube videos on trapping rats, you've got a problem. I would not be here telling you things you may not want to know—like this, for example: male rats can mate with 20 females in a few hours; the gestation period for rats is three weeks; the average rat litter is between 15 and 20 pups—if rats had not taken up residence in my home. A disquieting experience to say the least, a rodent infestation is not just a call to interspecies warfare. It's also a distorting mirror in which our reflected selves look at once vexed, frightened, enraged, and despondent.
If you find yourself running an unintended AirBnB for large rodents, I offer the following advice based on recent experience. For those who normally read my column to their children at bedtime to soothe them into sleep, you may want to skip this month.
Believe your wife when she tells you she's seen a rat. Here's one I can't stress enough. You may have heard scratching in the wall, but that was probably just a squirrel that crawled in through the crack where the addition is separating from the house. Squirrels, you think, are not that bad. But after you've gone to bed one night, your wife sees a rat—not a mouse but a big, brown, fuzzy long-tailed rodent—on the basement stairs. This being the 21st century, you find this out via text the morning when you wake up.
Now, you've lived in this house almost 15 years, and you've never had rats before. Perhaps your wife was tired, or it was a trick of the light and shadows. While you may question the veracity of your wife's claims in your mind, do not express any overt skepticism. That plan of action will lead to an untenable two-front war you will be ill-equipped to fight. Don't wait the three days until you find rat poop in the basement. Just believe your wife and start to wrap your mind around the essential existential question, "Why me?"
Having rats in your home is not a moral failure.
Despite the fact that you've known about that hole in the side of the house for weeks and did nothing about it, don't be too hard on yourself. As the exterminator will tell you, there are a number of other ratholes in the foundation of your home that you did not know about. You will find out that the long, flexible, and cylindrical bodies of rats can fit through surprisingly small holes, some no larger than the size of a quarter. You will spend hours searching for quarter-sized holes in your basement, filling every nook and cranny with steel wool, which the Internet has told you is a rat deterrent.
Resist the urge to tell people that you have a rat problem. When people ask you "What's new?" you will find yourself dying to share with them something that is legitimately new in your life. Do not do this. Don't tell your neighbors, don't tell your coworkers, don't ask for exterminator recommendations. Let this be your secret. Telling people you have rats in your home is like confiding in someone you're not going to have sex with that you've got herpes. It's information about you others would rather not possess. Think of it as classified intelligence and everyone is on a need-to-know basis.
Some people keep rats as pets. When you do spill the beans about your rats—as they are, indeed yours now—people will tell you about someone they know who has a rat as a pet, and how smart and affectionate and adorable it is. You will think of this on nights when the scratching in the walls of your kitchen cannot be ignored, even over the sound of the television, which you've been turning up higher and higher. You will wonder what kind of person would keep a rat as a pet as you stealthily cross the kitchen floor wielding a souvenir baseball bat you got at Bat Day at Shea Stadium in 1979 and hoping to God they finally eat through the paneling because you are itching for a fight.
Rats are the darlings of the animal research community. Rats make up more than 90 percent of the animals used in medical research. As rats and humans share many similarities in structure and function and rats are low in cost, easy to handle, and mate in captivity, they are ideal for research. PETA claims more than 100 million mice and rats are killed in US labs every year. Given the fact that there are still so many diseases to cure, you think 100 million is not enough. You wish more rats would be used in research. Specifically, cancer research. Specifically, colon cancer research. You wish that these rats in your home were captured alive so that they, in particular, could play a crucial part in curing colon cancer.
You will be right to be nervous when the exterminator comes. After you proudly tell him all you've done to battle the rats these past weeks, he will say that the only correct move you made was calling him. The way you set the traps is wrong, the way you filled the holes in your house is wrong, the way you waited so long to call him is wrong. You've just made his job harder, and he's not confident he will be able to get the rats out in four visits spread out over a month. You'll need to go on monthly maintenance for a year. Oh, they'll get the rats out for sure, it just might take some time. When you ask if they will use poison, the exterminator says yes, and you'll be told it's safe for humans and animals. You may follow up with, "Is it wise to poison creatures as large as a good-sized sweet potato that live within the walls of my house? If they should die in the wall, I may not be able to find the bodies but be haunted by the smell of a deliquescing corpse for weeks." To which you will be given a crowning bit of knowledge by the exterminator: A dead rat in your house is better than a live one.
You will find no fault with this reasoning. You will hire him without asking how much it costs.