The Fearsomeness of Rats

Martha Patterson

© Copyright 2023 by Martha Patterson

Photo by Denitsa Kireva at Pexels.
Photo by Denitsa Kireva at Pexels.

. One night on my couch, after spending a long day at a rather dreary office job, and while simultaneously sipping a glass of white wine, I was re-reading Pride and Prejudice -- imagining romance, and flirtatious encounters with challenging, elegantly-dressed men, and period ballgowns beset with jewels and lace. It was bad enough Elizabeth Bennet was accosted by a possible suitor, Mr. Darcy, who turned out to be rude at first meeting, but to actually have a rat in my lap at the same time? Unforgivable! The rat stared at me with an expression that looked positively evil. It shook itself and bits of gray fur showered onto my sofa. I clutched my book, then threw it at the rat, which jumped onto the floor.

Rats terrify me. They scurry around under my apartment building, and pick through garbage. Other animals seem more approachable. When I was six we kids wanted a pet, and a turtle was the most my overwrought mother could deal with, so we got a reptile. Caring for it was easy and the turtle didn't demand much from us.

I can’t remember what we named it - probably an ordinary human name we thought humorous, like “Sam” or “Dave.” It lived in a shallow plastic dish filled with small colored pebbles, and water we changed every few days. The dish was a foot long by eight inches, with sides two inches tall to prevent Dave’s escape. It smelled like a terrarium, dank and foul. But we’d pick up the turtle and let it crawl along our kitchen table, free to wander in its curiosity. I wonder how much consciousness our turtle had. It drew in its head and limbs whenever we picked it up, as if afraid of our intrusion. We probably acquired Dave from Debbie’s Petland, a local store that was later challenged by animal rights lovers for its treatment of creatures under its care. We fed our turtle a couple of times a day with freeze-dried worms poured from a shaker. Feeding it was probably the most excitement we got from our pet.

Then, when I was ten, we got two yellow chicks from our elementary school classroom to keep in a cardboard box. It was a holiday and the chicks needed a home away from school. They were fluffy and cute, unlike the squawky chickens they’d later turn into, and we welcomed them as warm-blooded alternatives to our little turtle. They were adorable and piqued my interest.

And my interest in animals extends to sometimes-unsettling pests. I feed grackles on my lawn, even though they’re among the greediest of birds, with bread crumbs torn from the heels of supermarket loaves, and I give peanut-butter-on-saltine-cracker sandwiches to squirrels in my backyard. I feel at one with nature doing this, and one reason I was a vegetarian for 20 years was because I thought all life, even an insect’s, deserved respect. As creepy as it sounds, these pests seem like friends.

I used to feed pigeons bread I bought at a bakery near my office -- and I don’t regret that, either. Pigeons don’t quite deserve the scorn they get. As a child I was told pigeons were ugly; “rats with wings,” and they seemed even to scare some people. But to me they were beautiful, with purple throats and golden-green crowns. I read recently the alarming reason many pigeons lose at least one of their red-toed feet is because, while walking city streets, their feet get entwined with human hair falling from pedestrians as a matter of course, and the twisted hair cuts off circulation in the pigeons’ feet. No animal deserves this fate.

Meat-eating often seems cruel to me, especially when I've read of chickens beings raised in cages too small for them to turn around in, and cattle being injected with hormones so their meat will be "fat and juicy." I didn't eat that stuff for years. But finally, I went back to eating meat on occasion -- after all, "it's us or them." I hardly know how to feel about it anymore. I limit my consumption of meat, though - how would I feel having my life ended in a slaughterhouse? And I have a tender respect for animals: the big, brown eyes of cows in fields that my family passed in our old Chevy while on vacations in the country, whose noses we stopped to stroke. And I remember the mysterious cats I've kept as pets: how they gave me unconditional love and only wanted food, shelter, and affection back. And I consider the seagulls I see flying around in the valley below my apartment, those beautiful, scavenging birds, with their raucous cries, white feathers and wide-spread wings, and orange beaks. All they're after is some scraps to eat, so they can survive. I do love animals.

But my pity for wayfaring rodents has its limits. When I had rats and mice in my kitchen, I was witlessly scared of their scrabbling noise and possible disease. Getting electrocuted by putting my finger in a light socket might have been worse. When the exterminator put out poison, it seemed effective. But when that rat leaped onto my lap as I reclined on my sofa, it was the living end. Hurling my book at it only made it run away. I didn’t scream or jump onto a chair, but hoped rather passively he’d find his way back into the wall.

I was revolted beyond belief. The rat was invading my turf. I might not have been so hostile if it had stayed outside in its own territory and left me alone. There are some animals I simply don't want to deal with. And it may be a while before I return to reading Pride and Prejudice.

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