The water sparkled with reflected sunlight, deep pink water lilies covered much of the surface, and goldfish of all sizes casually toured their own little kingdom. After a few minutes of relaxing and talking quietly, Laura and I noticed something stirring on the other side of the pond. Two adorable little noses poked out from under the Japanese Anemones. After a moment, two cheerful little creatures hopped up on a large rock overlooking the pond.
They were only 20 feet away, directly across from the bench where we sat. Our presence didn’t worry them at all. They looked at us and went on about their happy business. In fact, they seemed to be smiling when they glanced our way.
They began taking turns diving into the pond. First one would dive in, swim down a foot or two, then nimbly hop back up on the rock and shake it off. Then the other would take a turn while his mate watched and waited.
Sometimes the little animals stopped for a moment and watched the pond, exactly as Laura and I had been doing. During those quiet moments they would touch noses and stand very close to each other. I don’t think we were imagining the bond between them.
They ignored us and focused on each other, reminding us of honeymooners. Their shiny little eyes glittered with pleasure and the joy of a hot day playing together in the water. Again and again they dove, and smiled, and played. We were enchanted.
We set about trying to figure out what sort of creature these cheerful little souls were. They had charming little rounded ears, big bright eyes and comical faces. They were not squirrels. Though they seemed nearly squirrel size. Maybe they were something visiting from Kellogg Creek. We’d had Jeremiah the bullfrog living with us for a while. He came from the creek. Whatever they were, they were certainly welcome to play in the sun in our little habitat.
After watching them for fifteen minutes one of the little guys turned sideways. This is what we saw:
“Wait! They can’t be rats! That looked like a rat when it turned sideways!” I said.
We watched for a few more minutes. They were rats, in broad daylight on a hot sunny day! They showed no fear of us. They were perfectly at home!
Right now you are telling yourself that you would have known they were rats from the first moment. Chances are you have seen rats slinking along a wall or running in front of your headlights at night. Maybe you once saw a rat in broad daylight in your own back yard; but if you did, the rat probably flew across the lawn and out of sight the minute it saw you.
Think about what we saw that day; a pair of sleek little creatures in broad daylight, seemingly relaxing at Club Med, flirting with each other, frolicking poolside in the sun, enjoying vacation in every way just short of ordering a Pina Colada, If you saw the same thing, you might not be so sure they were rats at first.
When you did realize they were rats, your prejudices against the creatures might be just a little bit shaken. When you look at a rat’s face head on, the nose isn’t so pointed and the little round ears and bright shiny eyes are darn cute. For just a moment you might wonder why calling someone a rat was an insult!
Friends have occasionally whispered that they had a rat problem. It’s one of those shameful things people don’t like to admit. The truth is, there are rats all over Portland and the suburbs. I’ve seen them in the ivy outside my doctor’s fancy office and running in front of my headlights at night.
The adorable little creatures visiting our pond that day were ordinary Norway rats, the plague of our cities (where food is readily available), and once the carrier of the fleas that spread the plague. Judging by their obvious affection for each other they were likely to live up their species’ reputation of producing fourteen litters a year!
Now that we knew, we could not allow them to stay.
A day or two later I found their den –a convenient hole directly under the bird feeder. I was feeding black oil sunflower seeds at the time, a perfect lure for rats. Even if seeds hadn’t been falling to the ground, I learned that the smell of sunflower shells alone attracts rats.
We tried driving them out from under the bird feeder. We ran water full force directly into the hole. It didn’t matter. Our little lovers were still openly entertaining themselves in the yard. They had become used to moving about in daylight – and they did so love the pond.
A little bit of research convinced me I had done everything possible to make our honeymooners feel welcome.
Dave and I removed all the spent sunflower seeds under the feeder, bought a new feeder with a central cone, and moved the feeder to the center of the lawn. We filled the cone with shelled sunflower seeds to prevent sunflower shells covering the ground. The cone kept the seeds in the feeder and off of the ground. As a bonus, the cone also keeps the food dry in wet weather.
The metal skirt we had already installed on the pole had kept both squirrels and rats from climbing up to the feeder. With no shells and no seeds on the ground we had cut off the rat’s food supply
Just the same, it wasn’t long before they were digging under the feeder at the new location. They hadn’t had time to do much excavating, so we forced them out. Laura stood over the new hole and poured water from the hose, full force. After a few minutes up popped a dripping wet little face wearing an accusing expression that seemed to say, “What in the devil do you think you’re doing!” They gave up on that hole.
Since making changes, to the bird food and the feeder, the neighborhood rats have disappeared. Maybe not truly disappeared, because rats are all around us all of the time. What they have done is return to their nocturnal secretive ways. With no source of food, they will struggle to survive, as wild creatures must.
It was easy enough to stop feeding and encouraging the rats, but we learned something else. We saw them once without prejudice, with clear eyes. They are clever, opportunistic, and sentient creatures, like us. Given the opportunity they will become a genuine problem.
Just the same, if a single pair of them silently crosses the yard to the pond one hot summer night, plays for a minute on the big rock by the anemones, and decides to enjoy a midnight swim, I won’t mind.