RATS DON’T RESPECT THE WALLS WE BUILD BETWEEN OUR HOMES. OFTEN ONE NEIGHBOR WILL SUPPLY THE FOOD SOURCE, WHILE THE OTHER SUPPLIES THE NEST. RATS LOVE THIS STORYLINE, BECAUSE THEY KNOW THERE ARE A LOT OF HUMANS WHO DON’T RESPECT THEIR NEIGHBORS…
PRODUCED FOR KIM P. OF SE PORTLAND
My name is Wilderness Security Guide. I’m the environmental control operator for Storysold: Pest Control in charge of rat hunting and exclusion, and this is the story of my service –
The Chicken Loving Neighbor is a classic, reoccurring character in rat stories. I can’t count how many times I delivered the bad news to humans like a doctor diagnosing disease. “Yes sir, I’m afraid it’s true…you have rats.” Only to hear the human say something like, “Well you know, our neighbor has chickens…” and that line is often followed by some kind of commentary about their neighbor’s cleanliness, or hoarding, or some other recognized social vice.
I love chickens. Unlike dogs or cats, they don’t usually service the emotional needs of their owners. Humans don’t subjugate chickens to help them score dates at city parks, overcome their fear of flying, or cope with an illness. Chickens work for a living, supplying their owners with food. I love chickens like their predators love them: for their eggs.
And that’s why I’ve always defended urban chicken owners. Nine times out of ten, I tactfully try to remind our patrons that the rats aren’t living in their neighbor’s crawlspace. I often say things like, “Most of the chicken owners I’ve caught rats for here in SE Portland (or wherever) are very responsible. They don’t leave their chicken food out all day and night for every rat in the neighborhood to feed on. They use timers, feeders, or at least keep an open space at their table to feed a rat catcher if they insist on throwing food at their chickens like Disney farmers.” I’m sympathetic to the Chicken Loving Neighbor. I know The Farm Dream is strong in the humans of Portland. We all want to feed chickens overhand like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I get it. I really do. I’ve never painted the Chicken Loving Neighbor as the villain, until I met this guy…
Permit me to set the scene. The landlord’s name was Kim. She rented a small house across the street from a city park in Woodstock. Kim wasn’t renting to strangers to make big money. She was renting to her younger sister and her fun-loving neohippie friends. The first thing Kim showed me was the basement. It was what they call a “dug out” basement, meaning it had walls but no full concrete, classic basement foundation. To make matters worse, the rats were nesting in between the ceiling joists and access the house through an inaccessible, narrow crawlspace like wilderness void. We could peer into the dark void through openings in the hot water heater/storage room, but the details of the space left a great deal to my imagination. In the small section I could see, I saw the bottom of the shallow footing the house rested on, and 2 rat-sized entry holes leading up to the backyard.
So naturally I asked to inspect the backyard. The story that followed went something like this:
“The house doesn’t have a backyard really,” Kim explained. “My neighbor’s property butts up against our back wall. I think there’s a few feet there that’s mine, but I’m not sure. We need permission to inspect it…”
“You need permission to inspect your backyard?”
“Well yeah,” Kim replied. “The only way to access it is through David’s yard.”
After Kim called her neighbor for permission, she told us the story of David’s chickens. Apparently this wasn’t their first go around about rats. Three years ago, David was feeding his chickens (and the rats in Kim’s house) in a pen that bordered Kim’s property. For whatever reason, somewhere along the way, David decided to stop raising chicken in that pen. But now the chickens were back, living in a small enclosed coop closer to David’s house. And so were the rats…
Kim had already consulted Vector Control. They supplied her with a few rodent boxes stocked with snap traps. They also recommended trenching and excluding along the back of the property to keep the feed-loving rats from burrowing into her basement to nest. She’d already caught at least six rats before I arrived on the scene.
David asked to speak with me when I was done inspecting the back of Kim’s property. I didn’t think anything of it, at first. I stepped onto David’s porch and knocked on his door feeling hopeful of gaining an ally in our fight to send clearer wilderness signals to the rats of SE Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood.
After a few words of greeting, I explained that I’d set some fishing traps under Kim’s ratty rain shield that was, at once, keeping water from flooding into her basement and providing the rats excellent harborage.
[ this is what it looked like after I tore off the torn old black plastic ]
What happened next truly took us by surprise…
“Did you put anything in my backyard that can hurt my pets?” David asked straightaway
“I’m not sure,” I replied thoughtfully. “That depends…”
“Yes, or no!” David barked suddenly. “Did you put anything in my backyard that can hurt my pets?”
“That depends…” I replied again.
We tried to explain, but David cut us off. “It’s a yes, or no answer…”
“I didn’t put any bait poison in your backyard if that’s what you mean?”
“Yes, or no!” the bearded, white, middle-aged man in puffy camouflage plants shot again. “I can’t stand it when guys like you can’t give a straightforward answer to a straightforward question.”
Even Bookmaker, who usually has a smart ass remark locked and loaded most of the time, was shocked by the neighbor’s demands. All I could think to say was the truth. “I’m trying to give a thoughtful answer…”
“Is it yes, or no?” David barked again.
I wasn’t trying to be an Asshole. I honestly had no idea if he thought rat traps, set in the open, were safe for his pets or not. Based on his dialogue, I was thinking “clearly he must rank high on The Psychopath Test,” which is a great book featuring an entire chapter about how much psychopaths love their pets. If he was in fact a psychopath, I definitely wanted to answer that question right. “Yes!” I’d say clear as multiple choice. “100% For sure. Undoubtedly, your cat might feel some kind of curious urge to put its paw in my rat trap…and if that happens it will cause your pet pain…so maybe I should put my traps in protective boxes, or put them somewhere extra safe?”
“Ok,” David agreed when he finally heard what I was saying. “I put traps in my coop all the time…”
And then came The Big But. “But,” David continued to hold his grip on our conversation. “I want you to let me know before you come…a few years ago a guy Kim hired did some work back there…and he trampled all my raspberries.”
Blink, blink. “Don’t worry sir,” I said, feeling like I’d somehow just been transported back to Age 18. “I work hard to do my best at all times for my customers. I will not trample your raspberries.”
One of the blessings and curses of playing our parts in a fully embodied business entity is, every so often, we get strong instinctive feelings. The employees and owners of classic, generic business entries rarely have strong feelings of these kinds, in the moment, because employees and owners are always so preoccupied with running their generically-engineered work programs. Here, the strong feeling we felt awaited until after we left David’s porch and took what social workers call a “self-managed time out” in our work van.
As usual, the feeling began as a sort of irreverent math exercise: 1) neighbor who feeds his chickens like Laura Ingles Wilder six inches from my customer’s foundation; 2) no more than 6 inches of foundational footing anywhere around the home; 3) almost zero access to the footing from the mini-crawlspace in full basement; 4) at least a 3 year history of rats (based on Kim’s last complain to Vector Control); 5) a cement walkway on one side of the house and a driveway on the other that limits access to foundation; 6) a sewer pipe that runs along the driveway directly into the unprotected basement; 7) other rat attractants everywhere in neighbor’s backyard like a bamboo forest, many unused items left outside/junk, raspberries, strawberries, and shrubbery; 8) a city park right across the street; and to top it off: 9) having to play nice with the Chicken Lover.
The strong feeling we felt next could be best described as “every instinct in Storysold: Pest Control’s fully embodied business entity all screaming ‘Hell no!’ at once.” No joke, we were a hair-trigger pull away from walking back into that house and telling Kim, very nicely, that she couldn’t pay us enough money to help her. Or, at least, pull The Classic Orkin Man Move: quote her so high she will tell us “No.” Then if she says “Yes”…set a few glue boards, catch a few rats, and wait patiently for her to cancel the service while we move ever onward “Westward ho!” to hustle the next maiden in crisis on our list.
That would have been the smart move for sure. Instead, I did what we at Storysold: Pest Control do best. We shit canned The Doom on our list and we asked ourselves The Question of Questions…
“Will we want to write the story of this service when we reach The End?”
I love that question. The best stories are always performed first. And I was All In the moment I imagined our team sitting down with a beer to write that first scene with David on the front porch. I mean, seriously, most of the time the Chicken-Loving Neighbor is only a nuisance character like Nasty Antsis. How often does the Chicken Lover actually turn out to be a fully infested Asshole?
The answer was yes, we had to see Kim’s service story to The End. It was the scoop of a lifetime/literary gold in the making, and I wanted to be the rat catcher who owned this story with my actions, however it ended. Like a flashy car and a well groomed dog, I wanted this story, so I could bust it out every so often when a customer faces their back fence, peers over dramatically, and whispers the classic line, “My neighbor has chickens.”
That night, in our email proposal to Kim, we penned one of the craziest lines we’ve ever written:
“Hello Kimberly,” it began. “What I propose to sell you is an end to rodent activity in your home, whatever that takes to make happen.”
What followed that heroic line was a long list of actions for a plan that didn’t work. Not that we expected the plan to fall like proceeded widgets into line. Bookmaker reminded us that most seasoned writers know The Action always changes, by some measure, as soon as those words hit The Page. And I reminded him that most earth creatures don’t have the luxury of writing a first, second, or third draft for their Homefronts. If their well laid plans for marking their territorial lines fail as soon as The Action hits The Page, they become food for predators. Death is the final draft on earth.
And so The Line was drawn. What was it going to take to exclude Kim’s home?
WHAT FOLLOWS IS AN IMPERFECT TRANSLATION OF THE LANGUAGE OF ACTION BETWEEN OUR TEAM AND THE CHICKEN LOVING NEIGHBOR’S PET RAT POPULATION:
STORYSOLD (April 28th): remove the DYI black garbage bag rain shield, clean out all the rat hangouts, trench along the back wall deep enough to unearth the tunnels into Kim’s home, patch the entry holes with gravel and concrete, line the trench with hardware cloth, cover the trench with gravel and dirt, rebuild the rain shield with aluminum flashing and concrete blocks (placed high enough to let some air in and make it less of a little manmade wilderness ghetto), and then set a barrage of rat traps under the rain shield all along the back wall. Then I set some fishing traps and food attractants in the uncrawlable crawlspace via the storage room.
THE RATS: trip traps in crawlspace, get tail caught in Guide’s new big rat trap, and then die in Chicken Lover’s trap next door. David describes us as a “big one” and benevolently offers to let Storysold take credit for it.
STORYSOLD (May 6th): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, clear a few dead dumb teens from Kim’s traps we set with birdseed, clear one very dead maggoty adult from storage room (it dragged itself out of the crawlspace, fell 4 feet, and died on the floor of the storage room), inspect Kim’s Homefront, discover that the front of the house is an open highway covered only by bark dust, pack the massive gap with hardware cloth and foam it, patch 2 entry holes on both sides of driveway, exclude the possible roof rat holes we marked on the first service (see below), and reset the traps.
THE RATS: dig out the side of the back trench from under the sidewalk, die in the traps we found there, and dig out the foamed entry hole under pipe leading from street to right of driveway and front door. Escape to freedom, eat trash, and salivate at the smell of the chicken feed David was, at that time, keeping in a stilted coop set closer to his house.
STORYSOLD (May 14th): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, hop the fence to minimize chance of trampling beautiful but thorny raspberry bushes, clear the dumb teen rats from the traps, and reset the traps with birdseed and other rat attractants. Then reenforce the exclusion in front with concrete and gravel.
THE RATS: Dig out the back corner near sidewalk again. Die in traps Guide placed there. Escape to freedom. Salivate at the thought that the raspberries will be blooming soon.
STORYSOLD (May 22nd): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, cheer aloud when Guide discovers that the back corner exclusion has held AND she bagged 2 adults and 2 dumb teens, and reset the traps with berry bait attractant, birdseed, peanut butter, and peanuts on the trigger of the new trap.
THE RATS: hang out in between the ceiling joists in basement room closest to driveway (and the sewer pipe coming in from the street), torture nice Neo-hippie renter (and his pet snake) with scampering at night.
STORYSOLD (June 5th): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, check traps in uncrawlable crawlspace, puzzle over the fact that none of the traps have been tripped (or any free food taken) since the back corner exclusion has held strong, and then Guide went to check her traps in back and discovered! David had moved the chickens back to the larger coop set less than a foot from Kim’s Homefront. Kim reported that he had, at some point in the distant past, agreed to move them away from that coop to order to keep his pet rat population from burrowing into Kim’s basement.
The first thing Guide said when she saw it was, “Doesn’t he know rats will burrow and nest under the nearest possible rock, tree, or shallow basement footing to their food source! Like sports fans, rats hate having to leave their cosy armchairs, get up, and walk a long way to the way to the fridge to get their beers. The big difference is, sports fans don’t want to miss any of The Action when they’re away from their armchairs, while the rats are afraid of being caught by The Action of neighborhood predators when they leave their nests.”
THE RATS (from the ceiling void inside Kim’s house): sniff, sniff, “smells like chicken feed,” scamper, scamper to the foundation nearest the coop, dig, dig, dig, and dig under the concrete and hardware cloth until they pop from their new bolt hole near the coup, claws outstretched in the rain like Shawshank Redemption, and give thanks to the Chicken Lover for moving the fridge closer to their armchair. Like Momma Rat says, “Always remember, we rats aren’t meant to be caged.”
STORYSOLD (June 19th): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, inspect Kim’s Homefront, foam and concrete new holes, reset the traps, and then stand dumbfounded for a long moment watching the chickens like I was watching sports on TV…
“There’s 3 new rat holes around Kim’s home,” Guide reported to our team.
“Yes you will discover that you were mistaken about a great many things young Wilderness Guide,” Bookmaker hissed like the Emperor on Star Wars. “Now witness the rat attracting power of this overfed and fully operational chicken coop.”
THE RATS: scamper, scamper, feed and breed all day long, “Game on!”
STORYSOLD (July 5th): ask David permission to control his rats on Kim’s dime, dig, dig, dig, follow new holes to source, discover large hole under concrete and hardware cloth leading straight into the ceiling joist void that leads to basement bedroom closest to driveway, rip out old Homefront, dig deeper, pour two large buckets of cement in hole, lay new hardware cloth, dump four more buckets of gravel, and then block the 2 of the 3 newly excluded holes with 12+ snap traps (the 3rd new hole reappeared in the middle of the coop).
THE RATS: dig, dig, dig around concrete and through gravel in back corner near sidewalk, die trying to redig the new holes next to the coop, and then settle back to life under the sidewalk.
KIM: Hi. Hope you had a great weekend. We got a big one in one of the traps. He drug himself with the trap out to the street. My neighbor [not David] threw him and the trap away. There might be a chance they are getting in along the cement slab driveway where the downspout is…I’ve hired an inside guy to remove the old insulation and get rid of any rat nests etc. above that basement room. So if that doesn’t get ride of them then I give up. I’ll have the whole freaking house torn down! Lol.
STORYSOLD (July 20th text to Kim): Well you just won 1st prize for most tenacious rat infestation since I started my business. They dug through my gravel and concrete in back next to the bamboo again. The one you found [in front of sidewalk leading to the front yard] was just a bolt hole [from the subterranean sidewalk lair]. I poured more gravel and cement, reset my traps, cleared the 2 you found and one in back next to chickens, and burrow baited the hole you found [in front of sidewalk] and covered it with a bag and dirt. The best news I have is, no new signs of tunneling around the coop. I’ll be back in a week or so for sure…
KIM: Wow! Okay and I feel like this is part when you need to start charging me. How much?
STORYSOLD: Yeah probably, but I did sign on for the duration. Let’s save your money for possible extreme exclusion plans like trying to actually exclude that side walkway ( I thought they would find that a long time ago) and possibly the catio side [with the drain pipe running to the street]. For now I’d like to keep trapping and see what happens next. I’m hooked. I can’t tell if it’s one old wily rat doing all the digging, or some new players who were drawn in by David’s move to, not so brightly, put the chickens back 6inches from your foundation. What is your estimated body count since I started?
KIM: Funny you mentioned David’s location of where the chickens are. A friend told me that’s it’s against city code for them to be closer than 15ft from a residence. Do you think I should call the city vector? They did tell me that after I’d done exclusion work, etc. and I’m still having problems that I should contact them. As for body count? Humm. How many months have you been trapping now and we are getting an average of 4 a week approx…
THE RATS: subterranean sidewalk rats eat bait and die, 2 get caught in basement ceiling void by Kim’s Inside Man’s traps, but no dig, dig, digging of new entry holes.
Two days later, Kim texted to tell us that Vector Control changed their tune. Now, instead of following through, they decided it was likely a broken sewer pipe that’s letting the rats in. Two weeks later, we met Kim
As so it goes with pest control. We rat catchers are master spinners of stories. Mere days into the job, Kim’s Inside Man spun his own story to interpret The Infestation. Not unlike most of the fables spun by industry technicians, the Inside Man’s story lacked the one thing all good stories need: action. He was new on the scene, and he hadn’t engaged The Action in any meaningful way, but he had it all worked out…and now he was selling his story to Kim.
“What is this instinct in human males?” Guide pouted after Kim shared the Inside Man’s theory. “Why do they all feel they can discern the truth, from their armchairs, without engaging The Action? Are they so afraid of rats that they need to make some snap judgement about their natures, almost immediately, to calm their nerves?”
“Let it go Guide,” Pest Predator said quietly. “Nobody cares about tracking The Action anyway. Least of all our paying customers. It doesn’t stay still long enough under their microscopes to matter.”
“I suppose,” Guide agreed through gritted teeth as she began to check the traps around Kim’s Homefront.
“You’re just mad, because you don’t have a solid theory for where they’re running,” Bookmaker chimed in, on cue. “They could be running in from under the street, tunneling and following the sewer line to the basement like the rats in Don’t Feed The Rat Catchers and then tunneling out the back to the coop through the small space afforded them by the joists? Or they could be tunneling in from the street, all along the drain pipe, and then back dooring the basement room through the massive hole you unearthed? Or they could be digging from under the sidewalk, sneaking by all your traps and free food everyday, around the storage room, and then back dooring it to the nest above the basement room…”
“Stop being an Asshole, Bookmaker,” Predator stated flatly. “You’re just trying to make her mad.”
One after the next, every trap Guide checked around the Homefront was tripped, upturned, and empty. Even the 2 peanuts she set securely on her new big-rat-killing body trap and been, somehow, both lifted (straight up) off the trap’s steel pin trigger. It was the first time all of her traps had been run through without anything to show for it.
Then it happened. Not too unlike the strong feeling our fully embodied business felt moments before we decided to begin this service story, Guide felt a sudden urge to stand and peer over the raspberry bushes and read the scene at David’s backyard for clues, signs, anything that made what she was feeling make more sense…
On the other side of the berries and the coop, along the side of the house, Guide spied 2 rat traps sitting unarmed on a trash can. They were just sitting there, unset, in a sea of rats and rat attractants.
Guide’s eyes narrowed as stared at the coddled domesticates clucking in the coop. Then she faced the neighbor’s house, crossed her arms, and whispered under her breath, like a gossip in church, the same worn line she’d heard her customers’ deliver so many times before: “It’s because the neighbor has chickens…”
And now we too can stand at the fence, arm in arm with our good neighbors, and gaze into the Chicken Lover’s yard and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why we were suffering a plague of rats.
It’s those got-damned chicken lovers and their raspberries.
STORYSOLD (August 13th): I was totally wrong about Dan the Inside Man. He’s on it!
KIM: Oh good. That gives me confidence too. I appreciated all the work you did on the outside though.
STORYSOLD: It was a good one alright, and I’m glad I played a part…but I’m going to sign off. You’re in good hands with Dan. Feel free to use the traps I left. I’ll stop by in a couple months or so to collect them.
KIM: Thanks again for everything. I’ll definitely recommend you for anyone looking for pest control.
STORYSOLD: Thanks for the adventure! Good luck with The Chicken Loving Neighbor!
Dan the Inside Man was on it. He tore the basement open so we could see more of it. At first, after Dan and I spent some time hunting for entry holes together, I thought we had finally found our answer…
KIM: So many holes! So many entry points!
No doubt, the light was proof of possible entry. Yet we (I, Kim, and Dan the Inside Man) were not able to find an entry hole large enough, on the outside, to explain this rat story away.
Either the rats had found the perfect dark corner of the home to breach The Magic Line between wilderness and civilization, or we had, in fact, reached The End. The world may never know…
The story now rests in the hands of Kim and Dan the Inside Man.