My partner and I lay awake after hearing the startling sound – the proclamation that we do (or did) indeed have a rat living in our attic. We listen as the rodent struggles. My partner, beside herself, swears that she can hear it crying. I close my eyes and work toward falling back asleep. My partner can’t; she is too riddled with guilt over the life we’re in the process of taking.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. The act of killing the rat was something that I wanted to embrace. Over the days of deliberation regarding the method of ridding ourselves of the pestilence, I reflected upon a previous Great Whatsit post, which came off to me as extremely heroic – the struggle of a man to protect his family from a thieving and potentially dangerous villain.

My partner wanted to trap and release the rat. I wanted to kill it. I argued that humans and rats are natural enemies. And that throughout history, we’ve been embroiled in a competition over food and space. “We are merely an extension of this timeline,” I concluded.

Days later, however, after hearing the cartoonish trap spring to life, I am having a hard time falling back asleep. I wonder if I had committed the natural fallacy – the argument that since things have always been such and such a way, that they are naturally this way or that. (This type of argument is a favorite of racists and hard-core capitalists.)

I conclude that I think too much, and that not everything is clouded in moral ambiguity.

“It’s a fucking rat! If it takes up residence in my home, it needs to be killed,” I remind myself. Still, I listen as it struggles, and since I can’t bring myself to put it out of its misery, I too am punished with guilt. “I am a child!” the voice is ringing out in my head. “A grownup would put it out of its misery.” I can’t…or won’t. After about 20 minutes, the struggle ends.

The next day, I am prepared to scoop up the dead rat, but before I get to it, the other trap snaps shut. This time, the target is right on, and there is no struggle to speak of.

I open the door and see the two of them lying together. I can’t help but wonder if the second was merely investigating his partner’s body when he was snared in the other trap. In a moment of extreme anthropomorphizing, I ponder the possibility of suicide: perhaps the second rat couldn’t go on without his love.

A couple of months later, I am placing our Thanksgiving turkey into a two-gallon plastic bag for the days-long dry brining process. I lift the carcass and can’t help but think about its similarity in weight to my beloved dog.

I turn off my brain and gently place the body-bag in the fridge.

14 responses to “Hierarchy?”

  1. Jane says:

    When I was about 10, we had a rat in our house, and my dad set the trap, despite my protest. I remember him telling me that it would be so quick that the rat wouldn’t even know what happened. He then tested it for me with a stick so I could witness the swift and harsh movement.

    I heard it snap one afternoon, and I too heard the struggle. There was no one home but me, and I wasn’t about to go out there and take care of it. I went into my room and cried. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t painless, and I’m so sorry that you and your partner had to experience something like that that…even if it is just a rat.

  2. Dave says:

    humans and rats are natural enemies

    Yeah, there’s some kind of fallacy going on here.

    I’m still fine with killing the rats, though. If you eat meat, you shouldn’t have a problem with killing rats.

  3. Gary Lee Smith says:

    I’ve had similar feelings regarding hunting, and I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by supposing that deer are nobler creatures than rats. The dilemma is that my family hunts out of tradition. By now hunting season every year is a huge family reunion, and I am still unsure how I feel about it. I’ve been hunting before, and even shot at (and missed) a deer. But since then, my thoughts on these things have changed. I don’t know whether I will continue on in family tradition, adding more to the scores of animals taken over the years, or refrain because of morals. Who knows.

  4. Dave says:

    Gary Lee, do you eat beef? Pork? How do you feel about the animals being raised in factory conditions and slaughtered for the supermarket? Is hunting more or less humane? (These sound like rhetorical questions, but are meant as real ones.)

  5. Natasha says:

    I am a notorious meat eater, but at the same time, my meat eating is incoherent with my believes about animals. When I was little, my dad went craw-fishing and brought lots of it home in a bucket. When it was time for dinner, my mom boiled a pot of water and I (being a very gentle and amiable child) threw a fit of gregarious proportions. My mom ended up cooking something else, while my dad and I went to the nearest pond in Kuskovo and released all of them back into the wild. I lashed out at a teenage girl, in Newport Beach, who was dragging an alive fish on a string like a dog. My blood boiled and I swear I was going to break her face, aside from the effusive euphemisms she heard from me. I gave a presentation on “Amazing Animals” at my kids’ school, emphasizing the need to understand that even ants are wonders of nature and we must watch where we are going while walking.

    A few weeks ago, we found out that we had a rat in my pantry. I called my Terminex rep, who showed up that same morning. He looked at the rat, while it was hiding behind a giant bottle of Lysol, and concluded that a glue trap must be used in order to catch it fast. He sat the trap and cornered the rat. It stepped on the trap. Then it started yelping in fear, while the terminator put it in a trash bag, alive. He looked at me and felt bad and dawdled for another 10 minutes explaining to me the way the world operates, while I was thinking about that rat dying a slow death in an uncomfortable position, hungry and thirsty and shrieking. “Say your prayers” he said and walked out. He stood outside for another 10 minutes and rang the bell again. He was holding the rat separated from the glue and set it free. “It’s a happy day for everyone” he said “But you have to understand that it’s a circle of life and rats carry diseases.” He left and I went on to disinfect my pantry, I also thought that I must get over it and accept the dubious “circle of life”.

  6. Gary Lee Smith says:

    Dave, those are some really simple, but provocative questions. I would like to say that I only eat meat gleaned from humanly treated animals, but honestly I don’t. I think I represent the typical American in saying that when approached with an actual real life choice between ideology and practicality my hunger for a big beef hamburger wins the battle. But this leads me to yet another difficult question, that I would put to you, Dave. Animals are not human, so is it necessary to treat them humanely? I would say yes, but then again, I might stop at burger king on my way home.

  7. Rats disgust me. We had rats in our South Central house for a while. Susan is a vegetarian, so we waited to see if they would just move out on their own, but it turned into an infestation instead. The snap traps were being baited and emptied on a daily basis for a while, but it was too much, so I resorted to poison. On poison the rats get delusional and we would be sitting in the living room and a rat would start walking across the middle of the floor, poisoned and oblivious, and I would have to go get a shovel and kill it (or else it would die in the wall, or pantry), and take its little flea ridden corpse out to the trash. They are covered with fleas.

    Some of them died in our walls despite our best efforts. During one of our home improvement projects, I took out a portion of wall and found their nest. The droppings were about an inch thick covering all of the floor space beneath a fiberglass bathtub. The house had smelled of rat piss, droppings, and rotting rats for months, so it was a huge relief to find this nest and clean it out once and for all.

    The sound of Norwegian roof rats scratching in the attic still runs shivers down my spine.

    Dave and Gary: I’m reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which is really wonderful. The author (Michael Pollan) discussing his work with BIll Moyers about a month ago and he suggested that hunting for venison, in regions where there are a lot of deer, and where natural predators have low populations (most of the Plains and Mountain West) could actually be a highly sustainable source of food. To read his descriptions of factory farming, it is easy to see why eating hunted animals is an ethical no-brainer compared to the hamburger.

  8. mouse killa says:

    When I was about 24 or so, I went to visit my grandmother in Garrett Park. She was getting on in years, and my grandfather had already passed away. She greeted me at the door and informed me that one of the mouse traps had caught a mouse, but the little bugger was still alive. She asked me to put it out of its misery.

    I went to the back bathroom, where the mouse was flailing around on the floor. The poor thing was clearly mortally injured, as the trap had slammed down on its head. But it still had movement in its hind legs, which it was using to scramble around the bathroom trying to get free. It was nasty and sad. Clearly I had to kill the thing, and quick.

    But how does one kill an injured mouse? A knife? Run over it? All my options seemed pretty grisly. I elected to stomp on it, but that didn’t work. Then I took it over to a log and proceeded to pummel it with a big rock until it died. I beat the thing to death.

    I looked up and my grandmother was watching me through the window. The rest of our visit was very awkward.

    Years later, I realized there was a pond in the back, and I should have just drowned the thing. Or at least waterboarded the little bugger so he’d give up his friends.

  9. Tim says:

    #7: Grody to the max.

  10. Natasha says:

    Oh, Rogan this is the most disgusting comment of the year. I am a germaphobe, you have no idea how it feels to read this. Why in the world would you think that the rats would “move out”?

    Dave and Gary Lee, these questions are actually quite simple, when we think about them a lot and find some kind of a golden mead for ourselves and our own justice, of course, our convictions will vary depending on our experiences. For me, killing rats, and mice, and other household imposers is OK, as long as they don’t suffer. I would, personally, shoot them in the heart: I’m a good shooter. Eating meat is OK as long as the rest of the human kind put it out on the supermarket shelves (and nothing can be done to stop it) and it’s there frozen and not resembling Scotty’s dog or other things that come to mind per individual imagination. Hunting is OK for the overpopulation, but morally establishes a question: “Why would you scavenge, if there is already so much meat ready for consumption?” Killing for the purposes of eating fresh food is not OK (just for me). I once had a brush up with a waitress in a fancy restaurant, who took a lobster out of a tank and was having a great time, while casually chatting with her colleague, while the lobster was foaming at its mouth for the lack of air. Animal suffering is not OK — hunting, mere consumption, extermination, or what have you.

    Perhaps, it all comes down to the question Krilov poses in his tale about the sheep and the wolf. When the sheep makes an intellectual case about why the wolf should not eat it, the wolf (also an intellectual) agrees and says to the sheep, “You are the culprit of my hunger and that’s your only guilt.”

  11. Dave says:

    Gary Lee — I don’t think our obligation to treat humanely extends only to human beings. Many other kinds of creatures can experience suffering, and in a vague and un-worked-out way I think that we ought to minimize suffering. I do eat meat, but I’m far form morally comfortable with the practice. I tend to agree with stuff like what Rogan says Pollan talks about, that hunting plentiful game is a more humane way of obtaining meat than factory farming, and it respects the environment to a much greater degree as well. I also have a strong but not particularly well justified belief that you should know where your food comes from and be willing in principle to take part in any step in the food-getting process — slaughter the steer, butcher the pig, etc. There’s a remarkable documentary along these lines called Our Daily Bread that I can’t recommend highly enough.

  12. Marleyfan says:

    This post and the related comments are amazing. I’ve been gone for a couple of days and missed TGW!

    Notable quotes: “It’s a fucking rat!” and, “… Years later, I realized there was a pond in the back, and I should have just drowned the thing. Or at least waterboarded the little bugger so he’d give up his friends.”

    While I believe we should treat animals in a respectful manner, if you grow up on a farm, life is different than those who grow up in an urban setting. You don’t have a vet to put your family pets “to sleep” when they are old and suffering, you or a neighbor have to do it. Mice and Rats must be killed or poisoned when causing problems (see #7); they will get in and chew your wiring, or spread disease. But at the same time, I respect vegetarians and vegans, and have no problem with the choices they make.

  13. Scotty says:

    Sorry for jumping in so late.

    I was well aware that this post might have sparked a conversation about Pollan’s OD. I found a couple of points in that book to make some pretty clear sense. For example, that locavorism is really the only environmentally solid way to be a part of the food chain. In light of this, Pollan goes on to suggest that if one lives in Vermont, for example, from an environmental standpoint, one should consume meat in the winter.

    Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about the point that Marley makes above, and wondering how I could be more of a hands-on component of the food that I eat. In an effort to achieve this, I recently decided that If I was going to cook chicken, for example, that I’d buy and clean a whole bird rather than the cleanly dissected parts that are easier to (emotionally) digest. But in reality, as someone who lives in Southern California — and who loves animals — I have no excuse to not be a vegetarian.

  14. swells says:

    Scotty: If you want to go down that path, I’d be glad to go back there with you!!