Sunday, December 27, 2015

In Defense of the Rat

My friend Donna posted on Facebook, a charming story about country woodrats nesting in the back of her woodpile. Donna addressed the give-and-take relationship between the need for woodland creatures to have a safe haven and her need for firewood in order to keep warm. It was a poetic Thoreau moment. However, acute hysteria reigned on her thread. Fear of plague was bandied about. It was like a witch hunt.

I realized that this fear is yet another intersection of the disengagement and distancing between (wo)man and nature. I felt obliged to defend the honor of rats who, by nature, are fastidiously clean, and are incessant groomers.

I tried to assuage Donna's friends' fear by explaining that Donna's country rats, (aka woodrats, traderats, or packrats: Neotoma) native to North America, are not even rats, though they are rodents. No luck. Wood/packrats are related to hamsters and lemmings. City rats, aka Norway, black, roof, or sewer rats, are native to Asia. 

It's true that plague fleas prefer rodents. The marmot or gerbil were probably the original overland flea hosts (who carry in their gut the bacterium, Yersinia pestis, source of the Bubonic plague, or Black Death). Plague originally came from China via the Silk Road of Mongolia, then it resurfaced again by stowaway rats in Southern Italy in 1340. Rattus norvegicus are not first host choice for plague fleas, but marmots and ground squirrels are. So one should add all rodents including chipmunks to the creature avoid-list, if you're concerned about contracting the plague.

We're no longer in the Middle Ages (it's been wiping out Siberians since the Bronze Age), and in North America, plague is no longer a common human threat (there were only two cases in Yosemite; last case was in 1959)In California, plague sporadically resurfaces after long, dry summers. (Apparently there's an El Niño connection, the cycle is 15 years after a warm, moist winter.) California has few human plague victims. By comparison, Arizona's had 64 cases since 1950; ditto that in the Rockies. 

Plague doctor, engraving Paul Fürst, c. 1721 —Wiki

During the Middle Ages, from 1348 through 1351, 25% to 60% of the European population died of the plague, it reduced the world population from 450 million to 350–375 million. Thanks to antibiotics, by 1959, worldwide plague casualties dropped to 200 per year. Plague symptoms (big buboeshence the name bubonic plague), are also very obvious, not something you could ignore, and it's treatable with antibiotics. 

We've had plague fleas in California since at least 1900, possibly since 1855, it arrived by steamer to San Francisco from China via Hawaii in 1899 (originally via rats, but the plague quickly jumped ship to a new host, native California ground squirrels). The last California plague outbreak (one person was infected) was a decade ago. It's a pretty rare occurrence.

I remember a plague warning at Fallen Leaf Lake during the early 1970s. But nobody contracted it. I had rescued a wayward vole wandering down the road, so I was checking my armpits and groin for weeks for signs of plague. But first, you have to get bitten by a rodent flea (not a dog flea, nor a deer flea...) carrying the plague...

However the plague is decimating prairie dog populations in the Rockies, and our endangered black-footed ferrets will ONLY eat prairie dogs. So now scientists need to save the black-tailed prairie dogs from the plague in order to save the ferrets. The chances of Donna's woodrats giving her the plague is close to zero—even if she slept in their nest. Carrying off her car keys or anything shiny and round would pose a much greater threat.

Anyway, fear of rodents is a deep one, but it's highly unlikely you'd catch anything at all from them. (Yes, rats do poop over our stuff), but they do not all carry diseases. As long as rodents are not running amok in my house, I don't have problems with them. But once they cross that threshold, then my killer instinct emerges, the gloves (and shoes) come off. My preferred weapons of choice are sticky glue traps, and a sandal. No poison to enter the food chain, snap traps don't work, and I'm not interested in using live traps. Besides, house mice and most rats are not native creatures.

I would never kill a woodrat, unless he moved into the attic, as they're not plentiful and their habitat is easily destroyed. After my brother kicked apart a woodrat nest in the upper garden, they shimmied up the plum tree to hide in the eaves, then moved into the attic, and set up shop in the walls, so he had to listen to them scurry about and gnaw through 2 by 4 beams at night. When he punched a hole through the wall to shut them up, then small things began to disappear, matchbox cars, coins, thimbles.... Poetic justice.

Woodrats are territorial, solitary creatures as they rarely travel more than 100 feet from their nests. They have plush, speckled fur, almost like chinchillas. Not at all like rats. They're definitely borrowers, or rather, traders. They love anything shiny or round: car keys, bottle caps and quarters. And they will often trade one shiny item for another. Hence the name, traderats. Funniest thing found in a packrat nest: a set of false teeth. Imagine the backstory....

Because woodrats are such great hoarders, archaeologists will often excavate their middens in search of artifacts. Not only that, the middens serve as a timeline as well. The oldest woodrat midden found was dated at 21,000 years old, and from it, archaeologists were able to tell when certain plants arrived in the Southwest. It was also a remarkable record of climate change.

After much back and forth posting on Donna's thread, it emerged that the poor woman really is terrified of rodents. Musophobia is one of the most common socially induced conditioned phobias.

When Donna's friend was a child, she recounted that when she stayed overnight at her grandmother's house, she imagined rats running across her feet as she slept in her feather bed. She remembers her grandmother sweeping a rat down the garden path with a broom. And when a great-uncle made sandwiches for their tea, she saw mice skitter over the drainboard, the stage was set. Clearly her grandmother and great uncle had no fear of mice. So she learned it elsewhere.

She recounted another childhood story, when the family cat brought a mouse into the house, she and her mother climbed onto a sideboard, screaming. Her mother phoned her husband, who was a bank manager, to rescue them from the mouse. I told her that Kitty clearly loved her, bringing her such treats. She was not amused.

My neighbor also had a severe musophobia. I found a wild field mouse trapped in a coffee can and brought it over to show her my treasure. She screamed and climbed a chair... I was shocked. I was about 6 years old and had never witnessed such behavior in an adult. Such a tiny animal. Why was she so afraid? I looked into the can again, and took him home, convinced adults were nuts.

Unfortunately there's no reverse button for musophobia. Those phobias probably evolved for good reason. I was thinking of Victorian women who used to scream at the sight of mice (in novels), the mice making a beeline for those billowing skirts...and I shudder.

I found a deermouse in one of my grannie's old handbags and it leaped out of the handbag and madly circled around under my sweater a few times before it exited. A little rill of fear—would he bite me? I was fairly critter crazy from a tender age and adopted them early and often. I wanted to be a vet. And I did work for horse training stables. So though it was a novel experience, I was not afraid.

I once found a half-drowned deermouse after a storm and he went bald from stress, I had some liquid cat vitamins, and he loved it. When his fur grew back, I let him go. Deearmice and fieldmice never tame up, not like (non-native Chinese) house mice, who are the ancestors of lab mice.

You can get hanta virus (much, much deadlier than the plague) from deermice (wild North American mice), but it's only a small portion of the population that carries it—on Navajolands, far from CA. 

Some people's fear of rats extends to all rodents, and squirrels often get lumped into the hate bag. Probably because they can be destructive and eat wires. But they usually mind their own business. 

A silly red squirrel lives on my fence, and during the drought I made him a water dish. So he runs up and down the fence, stroking it with his chin, saying "Mine! Mine!" He hides his acorns in the water goblet, then has to dive in to retrieve them as they sink. Hilarious. Just like the squirrel in the animated movie, Ice Age. He has been known to purr, but he doesn't want to share that section of the fence, or that water goblet. However, I don't stand close enough to share his fleas.

41 Interesting Facts About . . .The Black Death The term "Black Death" is recent, it was called "the Great Mortality" or "the Pestilence." The first named victims of the plague died in 1338 and 1339 in the area around Lake Issyk Kul (Lake Baikal) in Russia, where a grave marker says, "In the year of the hare (1339). This is the grave of Kutluk. He died of the plague with his wife, Magnu-Kelka.

Your 60-second guide to the Black Death  the disease has never gone away. An outbreak in Surat in India in the early 1990s caused panic across the world. The death of a herdsman in Kyrgyzstan in 2013 from bubonic plague was wildly exaggerated in the media

BLACK DEATH The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, they were covered in black boils that gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” It affected cows, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens as well as people. So many sheep died there was a European wool shortage.

Lost Car Keys


Don't ask how, but this mousy bit became the genesis of two more mouse pieces:
(Ridiculous title, I know, but a good handle hasn't suggested itself—yet).

and Mouse Wars, redux 9/3/13

No Mouser, Jack 8/12/13 At my cousin's in Nicasio. I guess I was in mouse training mode.

SUMMER MOUSE HAIPU 7/29/13 I should've guessed that the best was yet to come.

And the mother of all Mouse Wars, the first edition of MOUSE WARS 
Note the date was 9/20/2009. My last major mouse war and campaign.
Note bene: I've taken to cross-posting whenever possible as I can't find my own work. Blogpost is no longer working for me, no matter how I cross-reference, tag, and label things.

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