THIS IS A SERVICE STORY ABOUT HOW SOMETIMES THE RATS WIN IN THE END (and how difficult it is to secure a Homefront if the entry hole can’t be excluded without unearthing the sewer line)…
I am Wilderness Security Guide, the Environmental Control Operator in charge of rodent services for Storysold: Pest Control. And this is my story –
In the old days, rat catchers were itinerant. They traveled town to town, farm to farm, knocking down infestations.
Pre industrial revolution, no one welcomed a rat catcher into their home, farm, or bustling mid-city factory and expected him to stay long. Certainly no one expected to house, feed, and entertain a rat catcher while he battled rats on their property for two years.
“So, how many rats did you catch today?” I’d expect a homeowner to say as he watched his guest slurp his potato soup and guzzle his beer.
The rat catcher’s reply was naturally unintelligible. He’d mutter something between slurps about “that bastard in the barn,” which he’d follow with a rage filled monologue about “bad rat catching weather.”
What do you do with a rat catcher who eats more from your plate than the rats in your farm fields? Isn’t the difference between a pest and a guest the willingness to give food and shelter, or not?
I have to admit, all that flashed through my mind the moment Richard the Landlord told me Pioneer Pest Management (my old employers) had been trying to rid his rental of rats for two years.
Sure, I’m a little over-optimistic. Maybe these rats are the toughest rats in SE Portland. I don’t know, but I started with the one truth about rats I hold dear: THEY HAVE TO LEAVE THE HOUSE SOMETIME.
And I was going to find where that somewhere place was, and trap it.
After an hour of inspection, I pretty much took the attic off the list. Little to no sign of urine or feces in two years of infestation…? Not likely.
On the other hand, the old chimney had a mess of droppings, it smelled like a rat hideout, and it was within striking distance of all the activity.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have got so excited about the rat highway I found along the gutter line. I believed the wide, manicured gaps were used at one point (and still may be used), but I didn’t find any corroborating evidence that it was active. Even though I was wrong about the “rat highway,” I still believe enthusiasm has to count for something…
If nothing else, the metal flashing I bent over the traps will serve as a nice, attractive hole for the rats to explore at some point. It takes rats weeks, sometimes up to a month, to feel out a bait station. The same is true for strange dark spaces and holes where there was once light.
Chapter 2: A New Hope
I returned a week later to check my traps, and meet the mother who was kind and fun to talk to. I told her, “After 2 years of rats dodging these snap traps, trying something new couldn’t hurt.” She laughed and agreed to put a live trap where the old bait station in front of the sink was. I assured her I would come out and take care of the rat if we caught one.
I poked around the attic for a half hour looking for entry points, smelling the hole and trying to figure a way to get at them. The best idea I had was sending a box full of dog food and traps down the hole to “fish” for activity. I imagine they like dog food, and they will at least tear at the box if they’re down there. Any solid information is good at this point.
That was more for fun than anything. It still hadn’t completed my quest to find the entry/exit point. At first I thought the tenant’s brother (yes, I do not remember her name) was messing with me when he explained there was a hole along the driveway that always reappears. My gut reaction was “It’s a mole,” but I checked it out anyway. Sure enough, I dug down about a foot and found a nice fat hole leading under the sidewalk. I’m horrible at mole work, but I keep a few in the truck for shits-and-giggles. Who knows, maybe I’m better at catching rats with mole traps? We’ll see.
By the end of the second service, I was really scratching my head. I needed a new hope—something to believe in—and, to my surprise, I found it.
There’s a half-inch gap under the back stairs leading into the home: not too far from the kitchen. Excited for a new possibility, I stuffed it with plastic bags and set a few fishing snap traps under the stairs.
Now I have something to look forward to next week. The key to winning this conflict is the exit/entry point. If the back stairs, the gutter, or the reappearing hole aren’t the winners, then I imagine the sewer could be a possibility?
I don’t know. All I know is, I want to be the rat catcher that catches the rats and leaves the table for his next meal in another part of town.
Chapter 2: Sewer Vs. Roof Rats
[ The following was taken from an email we sent to Richard ]
STORYSOLD: Weird. I was about to write the next chapter of my service story, but I’ll just send it to you here instead:
I stopped by today to check traps. After I checked in, I downsized my gutter blockade. It’s clearly not the highway I thought it was. Next, I checked the gap under the stairs. The plastic bags I stuffed in there was still firmly in place. Strike two for the Would Be Rat Catcher.
Then I went into the attic to check the “fishing trap” I send down the old chimney.
I couldn’t help myself. When I pulled it up and saw my traps, my reaction was, ‘F— those guys!” They had managed to jump into my little box, trip all my traps, and eat every scrap of dog food in the box…
If I didn’t know better, I’d think someone was messing with me. I have, however, seen this before. It reminds me of the rat we cornered in the dog food asile in Safeway. It danced around every trap and piece of bait we set for months. We could see it’s nest, and it would just stare at us with it’s dead “f— you” rat eyes. That was a Norway rat, and I now suspect that the rats in your rental are Norway or “sewer rats” too.
The good news was, I made contact. They’re down there, and now I have to find a way to get them. Today’s effort was to step my game up, just a little bit. I filled the box with glue boards and sent it back down the hole.
The real wammy discovery today was this:
That’s not a mole hole, and it’s not a burrow hole either. That’s an exit hole. Which means, either they use the runways I blocked and decided to dig there way out for food, or this simply is the main entry point. I dug down where I put the mole trap (which mysteriously wasn’t there) for a while without luck. My guess is, if I (we) get serious about it we could dig down to where the sewer line enters the home, and we’ll find our entry point.
The brother’s story from the beginning was, “There’s a hole that keeps appearing there.”
I have no idea how far down that pipe is, and I don’t feel comfortable digging seriously without your permission, but I’ll give it a shot if you like. It might be worth it. Something has to explain why you’ve been struggling with rats for years. It might yield another clue.
The other thing is the food and water question. I think there’s a good chance that they’ve become uninvited household pets, sneaking a bite or two of dog food and water when the house is quiet. That’s why I added another slightly trickier live trap behind the dog dish (I put the dog food bag in the trap to cover the trigger). I explained my plot to Tyree, and let her know that I would come out to clear the trap if we caught one. She seemed happy to know that.
The live catch cage is a new thing (unlike snap traps), so it may take some time to work. The last time I used one it didn’t kick in for three weeks. I know it means more waiting, but waiting is what wise old rats do best. And they’re not going to explore something new until they’ve checked it from every angle before they go in.
All in all, I’m feeling less cocky, but still optimistic. I have succeeded in making contact. I’ve actively engaged our targets.
Sincerely, Jake the Would-Be Rat Catcher
Chapter 3: The Subterranean Exclusion
I’m glad we talked on the phone. It’s hard to predict how effective any rat catching campaign will be, but it felt good to report that I was engaging the rat population where they lived possibly for the first time.
And more importantly we formulated a plan of action to dig and investigate the mysterious reappearing hole.
I planned to do The Dig on Saturday, but I had a few other stops in the area on Wednesday, so I stopped by to check my fishing hole…
Rage no longer felt like an appropriate expression when I pulled my fishing box from the chimney and saw that the rats had once again made off with my lure. I did the math: they had cleared two traps and three glue boards in the confines of a little box! It could have happened “by instinct,” but it sure as hell looked like they tore the edges of the cardboard box, tossed the torn pieces on the glue, and used it to walk on. If they muscled their way out of the glue, there’d be a lot more hair…
Sure looks like they had a plan and it was better than mine!
Of course, I saw you at the property at the exact moment of my defeat. I hope I at least sounded confident. My traps had been beat twice by a small creature that was supposed to be my prey.
My reaction was typical. I rolled with The Action. Clearly the rats had the traps figured out, but it was the effort they expended to get at that dog food that was the real tell. Why would they work so hard to get at my lure if the rats at the bottom of my fishing hole were fat and happy? Maybe they were just cocky as I was when I first entered this scene?
Then the real question flashed in my mind, maybe no one has been able to put bait poison in the right place? Maybe they never took the time to check out the stations in the kitchen, or around the house, because The Gamewas always sneaking in and out of the kitchen for food and water?
In any case, I mixed up a feast of dog food, two different kinds of bait, and reset the snap traps to make it look like more lure. And then I sent it back down the fishing hole.
Three days later, I pulled into the driveway with our farm truck half full of the gravel. I’d used it earlier that morning at another job, and I had every intention of using it if I unearthed a rat hole.
After I gently repotted the thyme plant, I started to dig. It didn’t take me long before I set the shovel aside to dig out my first object of interest with my hands. As I suspected, I’d found the point where a pipe made its entry through the concrete foundation.
It looked like it was a good candidate, until I got down with my flashlight and checked all the way around it.
“Damn,” I sighed. “That’s not it. I feel concrete all the way around.”
I was thinking about calling it a day when the downstairs tenant opened the door and walked by. I introduced myself and asked him if he had a few minutes to answer some questions. He said he did, so I asked him if he’d been hearing noises around the excavation site.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I heard them around here.” He pointed down where I was digging, to the left of my dig, and explained that the scratching sounds sounded like they were lower than where I was digging. He said it was at knee level from inside his apartment.
“How often do you hear them?”
“Oh, about every day.”
I thanked him for taking the time, and then I continued to dig. It didn’t take long before I found my second object of interest.
What I found was an uncapped pipe that lead down to somewhere. I stuck a metal rod down it, and it was open for at least a foot past its opening. And it was exactly below the hole I’d found the week before.
It was not the answer I was looking for. I mean, if they’re using it to travel in: where does it exit? They still have to get into the house somehow!
I’ve never done a subterranean exclusion before, but the first thing I’d do if I wanted to test a possible entry point would be to mark it. So I searched my truck and found an old piece of dried foam, and did just that.
Then I pushed the dirt back into the hole. The plan was, if the pipe has a function (and needs to be unblocked) the foam can be removed easily. If it leads to some mysterious underground lair, then we will know it was the entry point if (a) the hole doesn’t return (b) the behavior of the rats inside suddenly change dramatically.
Or it’s possible that it’s just an old pipe, and the burrows are still six feet below it like we talked about on the phone.
I would have checked my fishing hole during this service too, but I didn’t have my ladder. Instead I drove home, unloaded the gravel, and wondered what the competition was doing with my new box full of bait.
To win, they have to trip my two traps, eat all the dog food, and leave both kinds of bait uneaten in the box. We’ll find out when I return on Wednesday or Thursday.
Chapter 4: Rats 2, Rat catcher 2
After my Saturday of digging I wrote you the following email:
STORYSOLD: Good morning Rich, Did some research yesterday. It’s possible the pipe is an uncapped disconnected drainpipe. Apparently homeowners are doing this in Portland. If that’s the case, it could lead down directly to the sewers.
The idea that homeowners in Portland had drainpipes that might not be capped—leading to the sewers!—was a revelation for me. I never thought about it, because I don’t own a home.
But now that I am thinking about it, I want to start knocking on doors like Paul Revere and check everyone’s drainpipes. In your case, it looks like a new pipe was installed at some point, but the old one wasn’t capped. I can only imagine how many homes suffer the same situation…
No wonder Portland is overrun by rats.
The good news is, on Thursday Oct 17th I checked the bait I send down the chimney hole and found this:
Every scrap of bait and dog food had been picked clean. Encouraged by the promise of death, I scooped up all the bait packs Pioneer had left scattered about, added some of my own, and then sent it down the chimney hole with two armed snap traps for old time sake.
A week later, I returned to check my offering of bait.
My faithful box had been torn to shreds, bait ripped open and overturned, and one my traps had disappeared into the mysterious shadow lands that surround that hole. As you can see, some of the bait had not been eaten for some reason. My guess is, it was the brand Pioneer used…
I like to think the rats preferred mine.
“That was an American made trap, rats!” I hollered down the hole quietly as not to disturb the tenants below. “You’ll pay for that!”
“Whatever you say, rat catcher,” the rats laughed back. “You know as well as we do, your traps don’t work on us. They’re weak like you!”
I’ve only been after these rats for a month. I’ve battled rats a lot longer than this, and I still managed to hold onto warm feelings and respect my adversaries. But those sewer swimming, sneaky tunnel-digging cowards at the bottom of your chimney hole were really pissing me off.
“Do you know what the worst thing you can do to someone is?” I asked the rats as I reworked my fishing line. “The worst thing you can do to someone is willingly feed them their own brand of ignorance.”
With that I fixed a trap directly to my line and fed it down the hole lured with my new berry brand rodent attractant.
Then I rigged 2 more of my nice American-made traps the same way, and set them gently at the bottom of the hole.
“See rats,” I snickered to myself in silence. “All I want to know from these traps is…are you still alive? Because, I have to say, it sure smells a lot like death down there.” And that counts for at least 2 wins for me.
Chapter 5: Don’t Rush Off Now! There’s Dessert!
The following was taken from live email and text correspondence:
STORYSOLD: I think we’re winning…I checked the hole Thursday and today and no signs of activity from the hole, not even a nibble on what I would consider to be a real rat feast. I also talked with Tyree’s mother and she said they haven’t hear anything in a while. I’m not celebrating yet, but that’s all good news 🙂
We said we weren’t celebrating, but a week later Farmer Emily and our human host went on their annual post farm season vacation. This year, they went on a road trip to visit their farmer friends in Kalamath Falls. On the way, they explored the tide pools along the southern Oregon coast, hiked in the Redwoods, climbed Mt. Elijah near the Oregon Caves, and watched the stars through the skylights in an off-grid hippie Airbnb in Cave Junction.
While we were hiking gleefully out of cell phone range, Richard replied –
RICHARD: Great. I entered the basement last week and noticed heavy dead rat smell throughout unit, but more pronounced in living room area. Same today as cleaners are in there with heat on. Have you been by to check on bait since 11.6.19? Do you have any recommendations to eliminate odor? I am researching a company called NoOdor which sells pouches of a natural substance they claim attracts the odor molecules and traps them in the material. Need about one $15 pouch for every 150 sq. ft. Has good reviews for what that is worth.
STORYSOLD: Thanks for being patient with me. We snuck out of town for our annual post farm season trip.
The update (your next chapter in short) is as follows:
1) I messaged Tyree and she’s still hearing scratching around her bathroom and bedroom/chimney area, which has been her story every time.
2) The bait I left on my last service had an effect. It was half eaten. Still no way to know how many I’ve killed, or how many are left…
3) I checked out the basement apartment. I didn’t notice a smell, but I still smelled it in the chimney. I was hoping for some inspiration, but all I found was 2 inactive entry points and Pioneer’s old mouse traps. Speaking of which, I am still collecting their equipment with the intention of mailing it or dropping it off next time I’m in Vancouver.
4) I removed the ineffective live catch traps from inside. Tyree and her mom reported they haven’t seen a rat inside in a long time.
5) I devised yet another original chimney trap made from a live trap, a snap trap, and a bag of dog food. I have hight hopes…
6) The reoccurring hole has yet to reappear, so that’s good news.
Moving forward, I’m going to go back to weekly trap checks and check ins. I’ll send you the full report/service story soon.
RICHARD: Thanks Jake. Referring to item 2 in your report: when did you leave that bait there? I was in the bottom apartment yesterday and the strong dead rat smell was gone, but did notice an unidentified odor. Maybe the last remnants of the dead rat odor?
STORYSOLD: I smelled it too, but I thought it was the stuff the odor guy you hired used.
At that time, I was checking our rat fishing hole twice a week. Tyree was patient and helpful with her replies to my text messages…
STORYSOLD: Hey sorry to bother you. I saw that you were busy when I stopped by, but I was wondering if you could give me an update? Have you heard more or less scratching this week?
TYREE: So far the only thing is the smell. I haven’t seen them or heard them. It’s jus the smell
STORYSOLD: Ok, I had no sign of activity in hole this week, but I’m not giving up. I put some water down to see if they drink it…I’ll be back next Monday. Thanks for your help 🙂
TYREE: You’re welcome we will get them
And here’s the report I sent to Richard the Landlord >
STORYSOLD: I checked the traps again on Dec 2nd. My live trap/bait mix showed no signs of activity, so I send a bottle of water down with a few traps and bait in the hope of getting some sign, one way or another, to ascertain if they’re still down there. I texted Tyree as well. She said she’s still smelling the smell, but no signs of activity this week.
I’m planning to check traps again on Monday.
RICHARD: Thanks for update, Jake. What is the bottle of water for?
STORYSOLD: The water is bit of a stretch. I know the rats need 2oz of water per day, and I thought if they’ve become “bait shy” at least they’ll drink the water and we know they’re still down there. The box below has a new flavor of bait and a couple of snap traps.
RICHARD: You wiley clever guy…
As promised, on Monday, I checked in again >
STORYSOLD: I’m stopping by to check my hole. Have you had any signs of activity last week?
TYREE: Nope nothing.
STORYSOLD: Good sign, I’ll check in again next week
TYREE: Ok coo
A week later I checked in again >
STORYSOLD: Hello! Just a heads up. I’m going to drop by in about a half an hour. Any signs of activity since last time?
TYREE: No nothing so far jus the smell
STORYSOLD: Looking good on my end 🙂 happy holidays!
TYREE: [thumbs up] happy holidays
STORYSOLD: [to Richard] We’re on a roll. 3 weeks no signs of activity in fishing hole or reports of activity from Tyree.
RICHARD: Wonderful….it’s a Christmas storysold
And that’s how our service wrapped up. Just in time for Christmas. There was only one more scene I needed to perform to make our story complete >
Mailing the traps back to Pioneer was gloating, for sure. But it was also a reminder for us, as well as all our fellow rat catchers, that we should never be too comfortable eating at our customers’ tables.
Two years is way, way too long to be living with rats.
Chapter 6: The Epilogue?
Many months later, like a monster in a horror film, the rats returned to stir the pot of action again. The new tenants in the downstairs unit reported hearing scratching in their ceiling and walls near the door right outside the once open drain pipe leading to the sewer. That activity was followed by the presence of flies outside their door and the smell of death.
Long story short, I checked my rat fishing hole. The water had evaporated from my Powerade bottle, but everything in my little box of tricks was as I left it. And Tyree said she hadn’t heard or seen any new signs of activity.
How that rat (or whatever) happened to roar suddenly to life like a nearly beaten monster from the depths of the sewer only to die trapped somewhere underground…is beyond my powers to understand.
The good news is, it prompted us to not only do a more permanent exclusion on the once open drain, but the still open attic space as well. Here’s some proof-of-work shots from those exclusion adventures:
So, now, as of July 18th 2020 the home I’ve dubbed “Old Pioneer” in honor of the 2 years Pioneer Pest Management freshened the bait in the stations like magicians every so often, is once again sheltering humans without the aid of a rat catcher.
I know many of you readers must be wondering, “How can we afford to turn our backs on this story? Obviously the rats are going to rally and try to cross The Line again! Wouldn’t it make sense to pay a rat catcher to, at least, check The Line every month or two?” If you’re one of those readers, our answer is still “No.”
Don’t feed the rat catchers. They will never catch the rats if you do.
Chapter 7 – The Rats Strike Back!
Today’s date is 1/23/2022. I started this service story in the spring of 2019.
Using the skills I’d developed fishing for rats in the chimney, I cleared the rats featured in the previous chapters and enjoyed a nice long break. Then, right on cue (just before we took our annual post farm vacation to Wallowa County in November 2020), the rats bubbled up from the sewer again to reclaim their warm spots on the building’s heating ducts.
This time I made short work of the activity, fishing them out one by one through the chimney until the scratching inside was no longer heard.
Then I enjoyed another nice long break…until, right on cue, when we were planning our annual post farm vacation to Death Valley in 2021, Richard emailed to let me know his new tenants (three youthful transplants from Ohio named Claire, Abby, and Debbie) had been experiencing rats in the walls again.