Service Story #18: The Long Ballad of Momma Roof Rat
Produced on Aug 31; Sept 4, 15, 20, 27; Oct 4, 7, 25 2019By Nita of Portland, Oregon
Act I – Crossing The Line
Before I arrived at Nita’s home in SE Portland, I was trying to remember if I’d cleared any roof rats from homes in her neighborhood. It was on the east side of the city, but it wasn’t near the river, or too close to Tabor, or along Johnson Creek in The Flats…
I was still wondering as Nita shared her backstory with me. As it goes, her neighbor saw a rat on her roof and took a photo of it. The photo was taken at a distance. I couldn’t make out any rats, but I could see that some wild creature had turned her solar panels into a nesting opportunity.
I wanted a closer smell, so I broke out my ladder and climbed up. I found a lot of insulation, twigs, and leaves, but no urine smell or droppings.
Nita and I chatted about roof rats for a while. I explained that roof rats (a.k.a. tree rats, black rats, ship rats) are notorious for living in attic voids for years unnoticed by homeowners, because—like a sneaky neighbor—they are very in-tune with your behavior, and they usually feed outside in trash cans and gardens. The experts even say they prefer vegetables.
“The big question is,” I asked Nita. “Where did that insulation come from?”
Her attic was a Portland classic: steep stairs leading to a cozy bedroom that had storage voids on both sides, a dormer, and a tiny triangle shaped void between the ceiling and the pitch. My childhood home in Milwaukie had the same set up. My sister Heidi used to hide in the void when we played hide-and-go-seek. She always won, because we never figured it out.
Luckily, I was able to access the void below the rooftop nest. Within a few seconds of entering the void, I found what I was looking for: (a) the signs of nesting roof rats, and (b) the same kind of insulation.
I also found a pair of what I call “Tom-and-Jerry holes” leading to the void between the ceiling and the pitch. If you look closely, you can see where they manicured the edges of their highway.
I belly crawled back as far as I could go in the void, looking for the entry point(s), which is, by far, the most important piece of information for any rat hunter. Entrypoints are easier to find in crawlspaces, and not always as easy in big, beautiful SE Portland homes.
I had no luck in the void, so I climbed back up on the roof, cleared off as much of the nesting material I could reach, and remembered my climbing instructor’s advice—“Three points of contact at all times!”—while I searched the roof for entry point. I found one on the side of the dormer, which could lead up into the attic void and The Nesting Space.
The hole was plenty big for Nita’s home wreckers to enter, but I didn’t see any signs of oily rub marks, which I usually find in entrypoints that have heavy use…It could be new paint, or maybe it was big enough for them to slide by without markings, or maybe there’s more than one entry?
At this point, it was too soon to tell—so I stuffed the hole with a plastic bag marker and set my mind to the business of trapping roof rats.
Dropping a trap in the nest isn’t always the best strategy, so I set most of my traps on the roof and the base of the tree I knew they were climbing to and from their nest on their nightly feeding routes.
My Volehalla Rodent Trapping System’s rooftop debut! I used zip ties to fasten them to the power pipe. I baited the trap near the new nest with peanut butter and Bob’s Red Mill; I used chunks of old nest/insulation to bait the one closer to the tree, and I set 2 boxes on the ground: one at the bottom of the tree, and the other beside an shed with a lot of harborage and fruit nearby. It just seemed like a nice place for a rat to hang out.
I didn’t put any attractant in the attic traps. Instead I followed the wisdom of the old rat catchers, and presented them with a pile of oats and peanut butter in the hope of getting them hooked and “pre-baiting them.” I also set a number of traps without bait in front of the Tom-and-Jerry holes in the hope of (a) establishing them as runways (b) killing them when they try to sneak by, or blunder into them.
When I was done setting the scene for our roof rat hunt, Nita and I chatted for a while about our action plan. I offered her a reduced rate for my trap checking services in anticipation of what I knew might become a long campaign depending on how many rats were living with her.
We also talked about the other attic void. I wanted to see it, because the rat tunnels in the insulation were clearly running under the bedroom. Nita explained that the solar panel guys sealed it up, because they decided for her that she would no longer need to get in there.
“So,” I thought to myself. “They went to all that trouble to mud and tape the door closed, because why? No needed to go there?” My guess was the guys from the solar panel company had a very good reason why they wanted to spend the time and money to seal the void up…and I very much wanted to know what that was, so I asked Nita for permission to open it up.
I stared at the covered lines of the old door for a while, and even made an effort to see how hard it would be to reopen. In spite of my strong need to know—everything!—I talked myself down off the ledge and decided it was a bad idea to start punching holes in Nita’s wall.
When the “making a plan scene” was done, Nita did something I thought was truly great. She invited me to sit down and share some fruit and ice water with her. I can count the times I’ve sat in a customer’s home like real people do with my hands. Normally, working for other companies, I didn’t have the time to spend a few moments getting to know customers. I only wish I had scheduled more time to spend with Nita listening to her stories…before The Action began.
And begin it did. The following service story is a conversation I had with a tough mother roof rat who didn’t go down without a fight…
Act II: The Action
Service #2 (Sept 4): The Conversation Begins
RATS: Outside, one of the Volehalla traps near the new nest under the solar panels was tripped, and my bag marker was pushed out. No signs of activity in ground Volehallas. In the attic, two traps were tripped and the oats were all picked clean.
“Thanks for the oats,” Momma said. “You idiot human!”
RAT CATCHER: I reset traps in attic using a new attractant, a scientifically developed product called “Provoke” as well as peanut butter. I added old Victor style snaps to my line up. Moved the paddle style traps back under boards in front. Make a note that the two traps blocking “high road” Tom and Jerry holes hadn’t been touched. Then, since they seemed to like the oats, I set a live catch trap in a corner…sprinkling it with oats in front and behind the trigger. I imagined the rats wouldn’t be able to resist another free handout of Bob’s Red Mill. Outside, I removed my marker and set two snap traps in front of the entry point, feeling pretty confident that I was going to nail the next rat that headed out to feed…
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “Have you ever heard of the old bait and new live catch trap trick? I guess not.”
Service #3 (Sept 15): The Learning Curve
RATS: One of the traps in front of entry point had been tripped, indicating the rats had successfully left the attic to feed. The Volehalla trap near the solar panel was tripped as well. Inside, the live trap was still full of oats and no rats. And all the snap traps were untouched as well, except two:
The two youths were caught in traps set with peanut butter in a nice “hidey hole,” a floor joist opening that had been shielded with metal.
Half the head of one of the youths had been eaten.
“When will you humans finally get it?” Momma Roof Rat said after she’d snacked on her youth’s head. “They will never grow strong if I protect my children from predators, and feed them claw to mouth all the time. I honor him by eating and gaining strength, and remembering him in body and in mind. To waste a life is a dishonor.”
RAT CATCHER: In the attic, I reset the traps and added dog food to the mix of lures. Outside, I added three traps above the entry point in the eves. The trap on the bottom of the combo wasn’t set. It was there to hold the other two in place. On the ground, I lured the Volehalla traps (which previously had no attractants in them) with fresh tomatoes in hopes that momma and daddy rat had abandoned their nest.
“If you still want to nest in Nita’s attic void after I sent your youths to rat heaven,” I shot back. “You should think again! I’m not going to stop until you get it. You nested in the wrong home.”
Service #4 (Sept 20): No, Not Gone
RATS: Outside, the traps blocking the hole were tripped again. Momma rat was still nesting inside and feeding outside at night. And, strangely, one of the traps I set up in the eves was missing. Like I couldn’t find it. I imagined a rat might have dragged it down—and died in it—and then Nita’s half feral cat might have dragged it off somewhere…but no. I searched all around the garage, and the missing trap was nowhere to be found.
“Search your feelings Rat Catcher…” Momma Rat mocked from the safety of her secret lair. “You know why your traps only work on dumb males and youths. Mothers are the toughest creatures on earth.”
To which I replied (with a chuckle), “Yeah, I know. But I’m betting you will not be able to win this one by the power of your girth alone!”
RAT CATCHER: I was still convinced Momma had abandoned her next, or at least she was out at night looking for new shelter. And I wanted to know for certain if she was still there, so I cleaned up the remaining oats and dog food, and then fixed a one-way vent over the entry point—and wrapped it with plastic so I could tell if it had been messed with or not. I was sure, if she was there, she’d get hungry and have to leave…
Service #5 (Sept 27): Desperate Times
RATS: In the attic, every oat that was left in the live catch trap up to the trigger had been eaten. Every oat and kibble of dog food around my “free food spot” near the opening had been picked clean. But there were no dead rats in my traps. Outside, I found no new signs of activity.
“You have to be the dumbest rat catcher in Portland,” Momma said as she listened to my large body lumber in and out of the attic void. “First it was free oats. Then it was free dog food. I’m living The Good Life here thanks to your handouts. Keep them coming buddy! I promise I won’t tell Nita, or your competition, that you’re feeding the wildlife!”
I didn’t take the bait and reply to her taunts. Instead I did this…
RAT CATCHER: In the attic, I made a pile of granular bait (poison) on their free food spot. Outside, in an act of pure desperation, I built a tree trap to make myself feel more like a crafty Rat Catcher.
Service #6 (Oct 4): The Beginning of The End
RATS: In the attic, the bait poison was untouched. The oats on the far side of the live catch trapped finally kicked in. A third teenage roof rat was found dead in the live catch trap.
On the far side of the attic, between the floor joists that ran under Nita’s bed, a fourth teen was found dead in a trap lured with peanut butter.
“We don’t like that scientific rat attractant you used in the beginning,” the rats said. “It’s like McDonald’s meat, so obviously not food.”
“I know you like dog food too,” I replied to the fallen teen. “And it doesn’t mold as fast as peanut butter. I’m going to leave a big handful on top of this tub for your Momma–and any other of your sibs–if they’re still here. Feel free to eat up. It’s a free handout treat I give to all the rats who officially register their place of residence with me.”
Outside, the trap that blocked the rope leading to the tree was tripped, but no dead rats hanging dramatically from The Rood. On the roof, the oneway vent trap was still untouched, and I found my missing trap. It was sitting in plain sight at the top of the solar panels just above Momma Roof Rat’s Second Home. I simply hadn’t thought to look there.
“Hum,” I said as I inspected the trap like a pest hunting version of Sherlock Holmes. “There’s blood on the bar.”
I didn’t need a CSI team to connect The Action. Momma Roof Rat, her mate, or one of her teens had explored the dormitory eve, tripped that trap I set there, got caught, and then dragged it up and over the pitch of the roof to the edge of the solar panels where the trap was caught…and the rat was able to use the leverage to free its appendage. The story reminded me of that campfire classic starring the logger who sawed his own leg off, and then drove home with his stump to save his own life.
I didn’t change anything on the roof, but I did check the long forgotten Volehalla box I set beside the shed. The fresh tomatoes I lured it with a month ago were no longer fresh. So I “freshened” it (as the Ecolab techs like to say) with some dog food and a dab of peanut butter to make it stick.
Service #8 (Oct 7) – The Big Mouse
I was watching an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale with my wife Farmer Emily when I received a text message from Nita.
NITA: Hello Jake, I had two contractors today who I hired to tidy up my backyard shed. When they finished power washing the top and bottom, they noticed your trap box that you planted on the side. And behold they saw a big mouse dead on the trap. What do you want to do with this box? I took a pic but did not know how to send it to you on the phone. I think the mouse was too big to go through the hole and got stuck halfway…
You should see it!
JAKE: Holy Moly! That’s a big mouse! If the trap is in your way, feel free to move it anywhere. If you’d like me to swing by Monday AM and clear it. I can do that too. What a wild adventure, huh?
NITA: Yes, it is! I found another baby dead on the concrete pathway exposed this morning, too. I checked the box also and the bottom half was mangled and the internal organs exposed. Somebody came and dragged the box upside down. Wow! Gross! Yes can you come by and clear it? I leave for work around 7 AM.
JAKE: No problem. I can swing by around 10…
Act III: The Line Redawn
On Monday I arrived in a hurry. Scott the Badass Texan Facilities Manager of East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District was waiting my arrival for their inspection. I was late, but I stopped for a moment of remembrance when I saw what remained of Momma Roof Rat.
I know it must sound crazy to hear a professional Rat Catcher admit this, but I had to choke the tears back. I’d never met Momma Roof Rat, but I knew her well. I imagine the cat, or raccoon who picked at her bones understood, all too well, the thankfulness, respect, and yes…love that develops between a predator and the prey they feed on for life.
Let the scientists reduce that love to the instinctive, animatronic, Disney satiation of hunger, but I know humans hunger for food, shelter, and sex too. I know this, because I’m still a little wild–and I’m thankful like a wolf howls for the death of Momma Roof Rat.
Without this victory, Nita would not be able to redraw more clearly The Magic Line between civilization and wilderness we call “home.”
Service #9 (Oct 25)
I decided to give the dog food in the attic a while longer to tempt any rats that might still be living inside. Turns out, that wasn’t a bad idea. When I messaged Nita about the dog food a few weeks after Momma Roof Rat’s death, I got this reply:
NITA: Yes, I did…checked twice in the last 2 weeks, and the first time had no activity, but the second time I went back on Thursday, the dog food was untouched, but a baby mouse [#6] was caught on the trap in back [the traps I set within reach of the door], but nothing in the front two. I was trying to tell you, but I got busy with my contractors for the house. Cleaning, packing, and more cleaning is an overwhelming task. Anyway, I’m not sure if you want to pick this baby up or wait till another one bites the dust. Waiting to hear from you!
JAKE: If you caught it in attic, that is ok. Still means our entry point hasn’t been compromised [my theory was that Momma had abandoned the ones still in the nest after I installed the oneway vent trap]. We should schedule another service to check traps in attic and seal entry if we have the “all clear.” Would you like me to come soon to clear trap?
NITA: Yes, I think that is a good idea.
When I arrived for my last service and read The Scene, I found: no new signs of nesting under solar panels, no tripped traps on roof or outside, and the plastic wrap was still unbroken on oneway trap. Inside, the dog food was uneaten, none of the thirteen traps in attic were tripped, and the “easy pickings” I set on some of the traps were uneaten as well.
When I walked down the stairs to announce the news to Nita, I delivered my lines like I’d found more activity…and then I smiled big and said, “I’m calling it. We’ve finally reached The End.”
“Well yes,” she smiled. “We will see.”
I don’t think Nita fully appreciated the tease. Not that I blame her. It had truly been The Long Ballad of Momma Roof Rat.
And it’s worth noting that, in The End, none of the poison was eaten. What that means is, no roof rats were killed slowly and painfully by anticoagulant rodenticides in the production of this service story.