Pondering the Worth of a Roof Rat

Picture 6The Associated Press ran a news story today that caught my attention.  It was about the Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who apparently wasn’t in a ‘pardoning mood’ when he gave a ‘smack down’ to a teensy weensy spider that was crawling on his desk in the midst of an office meeting of sorts.  Turns out Governor Christie was speaking with a group of school children who’d spotted the intruder legging around the telephone atop the Governor’s desk.

After explaining to the kids that as Governor he was allowed to kill bugs without getting into trouble, he later decided to tweet about it, proclaiming that he’d “saved a few school children from a spider”.

But wouldn’t you know?  His tweet caught the attention of Ingrid Newkirk, who is President of PETA.  She promptly issued a statement of her own, although I don’t know if she actually tweeted it or more likely called a news conference (because we all know that PETA is not kidding around when it comes to protecting the ethical treatment of all earth’s creatures, 8 legged included).

Never to miss a beat, the AP stayed on the story, and reported the following:

 Christie probably killed it without thinking. Newkirk said “some people put the spider outside, but spiders are often scary” and that can prevent people from pondering their worth.


Pondering their worth?  Well, Ms. Newkirk, all I can say is…thank the good Lord you weren’t a neighbor of ours when, quite some years ago, we pondered the worth of a roof rat (followed by hundreds of his kin) when it…and then THEY… decided to take up residence inside the attic of our home.

Initially, we didn’t know what type of critter we were dealing with when we called in an exterminator to investigate those vague sounds that emanated in the wee hours of the night from above our bed. They caught my attention when I awoke pre-dawn realizing that Mother Nature was beckoning, and no matter how hard I tried to tune her out, she wasn’t having any of it. (My mother always told me not to drink anything before going to bed, but that’s a lesson I never quite managed to maintain.) On a short rope, I finally stumbled out of bed in a sleepy stupor… and then promptly stopped.

What’s that sound? I listened for a few brief moments before glancing upwards. Nothing.  Silence.

When I climbed back into bed, all sensors were on high alert, including the hairs on the back of my neck.  I listened astutely through my husband’s steady snoring and those familiar nightly sounds that all homes make.  You know the ones…the inexplicable structure expansions and contractions that you never hear during the daytime hours because we all know that houses only live and breathe at night, like vampires.

After several excruciating minutes, where even the sound of my own pulse was amplified to my now ultra sensitized ears, I heard it again.  Thinly audible, soft scratchy noises. Once again they stopped.  What could that possibly be?

Living in a two story English Tudor with exceptionally steep roof lines, I couldn’t imagine what was lurking up in our attic.  With only a slight hint of wonderment, but a growing anxiety closely resembling fear, I kept my hearing acutely attuned like any stealthy sleuth would.  Dead silence.  Nada.  But just to be absolutely certain I wasn’t imagining things, I remained absolutely still for several more painfully long minutes.  And there it was again… like a passing whisper, completely gone before I could even think of what my next move should be.

Like all savvy investigators, I woke up my snoring spouse. “Do you HEAR that?”, I whispered with eyes wide while looking directly above me.

“Huh? What?”,  he asked loud enough to wake the dog.

“SHHHH!”, I scolded,  “just listen!”  Without his snoring, the ticking of our bedside clock became evident.  We could hear the jingle of tags on our dog’s collar as even she looked upwards from her position on the floor by our bed.  The three of us were motionless, as we stared at the ceiling.

Nothing.  And for many excruciating minutes more, still nothing.  Laying  comatose for what seemed like an eternity, gentle snoring started up it’s familiar rhythm as my husband once again reclaimed the title ‘Man of the House’.


Early the next morning, after getting my two boys off to school, I held my daughter in my arms as I called up the exterminators.  “I hear sounds” I said, “at night in our ceiling.”

Like all reliable ‘exterminator extraordinaire’s’, they promptly sent someone out that very same day, fully equipped with every imaginable weapon to smack down any unwanted attic dwelling creature.  I followed him around outside as he first patrolled the perimeter of our house.

And I followed him again as he made a second lap, craning his neck the entire time to peer at the very steep roof lines above us.  “We’re not insured to deal with a roof that steep”, he announced.  So, apparently Clark Kent he was not.

Suggesting he take a look inside, I showed him access to the attic.  He and his ghost buster flashlight disappeared into the ceiling for quite some time.  I could hear him, walking every inch of it, from one end to the other.  The ceiling above me groaned as joists creaked from the weight of his boots.  There were brief intervals of pause, making me wonder what he was doing up there.  Finally he descended. Wide eyed as daylight assaulted his pupils, and somewhat disheveled, he looked like the cat who’d swallowed the canary.

“What’d you find?”  I asked, resisting the urge to plug my ears.

“ROOF RATS!” he blurted out, standing taller than he was a moment ago.   No explanation.  Just watching for my reaction with that pity party attitude. Barney Fife came to mind.

Trying to keep the horror from my voice, I suddenly clutched my daughter a tad firmer. “Did you say RATS?”  And like a nature biologist, he launched into an explanation.  It seemed we had the great misfortune of experiencing the infamous one hundred year drought which was occurring at this precise moment in history. Because the water table was so severely depleted, critters both large and small were seeking out water sources, and because our property backed right up against the Santa Monica Mountains, it was the big Ponderosa those beady eyed, dehydrated little ratsters were seeking. Our backyard swimming pool was the ultimate oasis.  After sufficiently soaking up their chlorine fill from the pool gutters, they then took up nesting residence inside our attic.  (Did he just say ‘NESTING?’)

“But how in blazes do they get up there?”, I stammered. “You just said it was too steep for YOU to go up there!”

Roof rats, he explained, can scale anything.  “Stucco, wood, fencing.  No surface poses a challenge.” He said they were finding ways in through small crevices around the roof gables, and the only way to stop them was to plug all those areas up.  “There’s a bunch of areas with daylight coming through, up in that attic” he said. “Once they gain entry (..as if Barney has identified the suspects..) they gnaw on wiring which creates a fire hazard. They tear up insulation to use it for nesting material.  And then they multiply.”

Holy Shit!  Horrified and speechless, I simply stared at Barney.  Sensing my helplessness, he suggested getting a cat.  Which I momentarily considered, but because Man of the House was highly allergic to cats, that wasn’t an option.  So instead we called out a roofer.  Then we called out another roofer, and then a third and fourth roofer.  All of them said the same thing.  Our roof pitch was too steep, and they didn’t (and wouldn’t!) carry the insurance to cover the risk.  No roofer would take it on.   “Get a cat”, they all said.

Instead, we called Barney back out.  He came twice weekly to check and re-set traps, baited with yummy bananas covered in peanut butter.  Each visit yielded a score, and we had high hopes that we were reducing the population growth of the attic colony.  Our monthly bill from Barney was rivaling the monthly grocery expense to feed a growing family of five.  Frustration grew as the months wore on. My sleep was restless, at best.  Man of the House slept soundly enough… apparently satisfied that we were taking sufficient action.

Then, one night, when exhaustion took me into a beautiful and deep sleep, I was in the middle of a canoe dream.  It was rocking in the waves, as loud knocks battered the bottom of hull.  Drifting atop a coral reef apparently- until I awoke with a start, to find my husband towering tall above me, on his tip toes and in his boxer shorts, pounding furiously on the ceiling above us. Trying to maintain balance on the mattress where his warm body had just been snoring moments before, he was a sight to behold.

What the HELL are you doing?” I said too loudly in a strangled panic.

“Those bastards are up there snapping the wires!  Don’t you hear them?  It’s making me nutsI can’t take it anymore!!  This is becoming the house from Hell“,  he hissed.


First thing the next morning, we called Barney for a serious Sheriff to Deputy pow-wow.

“This cannot continue.  It’s costing us a fortune and they just keep on coming, in DROVES!  There has to be a better way!”  Shaking his head in sympathy with that all-knowing ‘I hear ya’ look, he confidently stood a tad taller and then counseled us:    “d-CON”, he said.

Poison.  That’s what it is.  P O I S O N.  Apparently, roof rats aren’t as clever as one might expect those beady eyed rodents to be.  They ingest d-CON, which in turn makes them thirsty.  So, they climb back down out of the attic, in search for water, which they’d likely find in our swimming pool.  And then?  Bada-bim-bada-boom.  Like magic, they simply expire,  just like those dramatic death scenes in the movies.  They gasp, they stumble a step or two, and they roll over. DEAD.

I know, I know.  Sounds cruel, but PETA never crossed our minds, I promise you.  I mean, honestly…we’d become angry, sleep deprived and desperate. Man of the House really took it personally, and decided to promote himself to Sheriff In Charge, immediately dismissing Barney.   No rat was going to disrupt his sleep and get away with it.

Thankfully, d-CON was readily available and we bought it in large volume. Nightly, except for when he was away on business, Sheriff in Charge came home from work at the end of a long day and after a long commute from downtown L.A.  First, he’d rally our three pajama’d kids to ensure they wouldn’t settle back down for the bedtime story they’d already had, and only then (when they were sufficiently riled) would he decide it’s time to change into his attic attire.  Old jeans, old shirt, head-lamp flashlight purchased specifically for the task, and a large supply of POISON bait.  He was on the beat.

One lovely summer evening, not too long after we’d resorted to poisoning the enemy, we were entertaining some business clients for dinner. Sitting poolside with cocktails and appetizers, we were waiting on the barbeque to heat up appropriately.  Our guests had been admiring the patio and pool setting.  “This home is just beautiful!” they enthused.

“It’s actually the house from hell”, I mumbled a little too loudly.

They looked at me with astonishment.  We explained that in addition to rattle snakes, tarantulas, tree toads, mountain lions and bobcats, we were having a nightmare with roof rats.  They had never heard of roof rats.  As Man of the House was explaining what they are, we all heard this thud on the window awning just above us.  All sets of eyes immediately looked up.  Seizuring with four little legs pointing skyward, the Hollywood death scene of that hairless tailed, beady eyed ratster was perfectly outlined in the shadow of the setting sun, which was back-dropped absolutely film screen perfect.

My husband took the barbeque tongs, stretched very tall, and poked the underside of the awning until the stiffened rat corpse tumbled onto the patio, literally at his feet.  “By the way, they’re great grilled with a little sauce!”, he quipped.


That was a memorable evening, even all these years later. But end of story?  Not quite yet.

Ms. Newkirk, you still with me?  There’s MORE.


“What’s that smell?”,  I asked my husband one evening.

“Huh? What smell?” he said.  Looking up to the ceiling, I took a big sniff of air. And then another.

“There’s a funny smell in here”, I insisted.  We were in our eight year old’s bedroom, lording over him while he put his Lego’s away.  My husband didn’t smell a thing.  He tried, but said it was my imagination.  Less than 24 hours later, my daughter crinkled her nose at me.  “Icky smell!” she said, pointing to the wall in the playroom.

The moment my husband came home from work that night, I pestered him to go into that playroom to take a good whiff, and then investigate the attic.  He was annoyed, but like an important Sheriff in Charge, he changed from his business suit into his sleuth attire, and ascended the stairs to the attic.  After stomping around up there for a while, he reappeared with a verbal report.

“There’s nothing to report”, he said.  He couldn’t find anything, but thought maybe a rat died in the attic then somehow fell between the walls.

EWWWWW!” the kids and I shrieked in unison.  Nothing we could do but wait it out.  D.I.S.G.U.S.T.I.N.G.

So we waited.  A day. Two days.  Getting stinkier, but then suddenly…less so.  Life went on, and so did the need to clean house. Vacuum, dust, mop.  On one particular cleaning day, there was no school due to a ‘no school’ scheduled break…so all three kids were home happily self-entertained (the boys with their Hot Wheels and our little girl was watching her favorite video, ‘The Last Unicorn’, for the umpteenth time). Which meant I could do a quick power clean on the house.

I began in the master bedroom.  I changed the linens on the bed, put the spread on, dusted everywhere and was about to vacuum.  But since I’d been working so fast, I got overheated and decided to take a break. I turned on the air conditioning and checked on the kids. They were totally absorbed, so I made the wise decision to tippy toe right out of view.

Feeling cooler, I returned to the bedroom and fired up the Hoover.  The suction on that baby was akin to a funnel cloud in a gulf state hurricane.  I vacuumed my way across the expanse of beige carpeting, leaving tidy  lanes in my wake.  With just a short distance left to go, I glanced back over the area where I’d already been, and noticed some beige fluff sprinkled atop my freshly groomed carpet.  HUH, I thought.  That’s weird…I just vacuumed there.

So, I turned the Hoover off, walked over and picked up a few of those fluff balls. I studied them in the palm of my hand. Sky-rocketing backwards, with hands flying through the air as if to launch them clear of my wrists, I shrieked so loud my eight year old came running as fast as he could.  In my panic to understand what was going on, I told my son to stay back. His eyes were big as marbles as he watched me hone in like a hawk on prey.

They were all over the carpeting, spread in a fairly large area of the room, which meant they had to be coming from higher up.  My eyes jumped to the nightstand by the bed. There were more of them… squirming together right on the corner!  I glanced higher still, to the lamp sitting on that nightstand, and there were two or three MORE dangling from the lampshade and about to fall onto the pile of Sports Illustrated’s that accumulated endlessly.

With eyes stretched wide and eyeballs popping, I suddenly felt something drop onto my head, and became a woman who’d lost complete control. Like a Mexican jumping bean stuck to a pogo stick, I became  hysterical while looking higher up … all the way to the ceiling.   And there, strung from the ceiling vent above our bed, was a whole clump of them. Translucent fat maggots just dangling in the coolness that blew from the air conditioning I’d just turned on.

I grabbed my son as I bolted from the room, slamming the bedroom door behind us. We raced downstairs together, me shrieking as I whipped my long hair from side to side, and him bellowing, purely in support of my shrieking.

I grabbed the phone as fast as I could find it, and dialed my husband at work.  His secretary answered, telling me he was in a meeting.

“Pull him OUT!” I yelled in a shrill voice, much like that of a woman about to become office fodder around the water cooler.  My two younger kids were huddled around me, carrying on like they’d personally just seen the Ghost of Christmas Past.    If they only knew…

Driving the forty-five mile trip home in record speed, Man of the House was pissed.  At me or at the situation, I couldn’t be sure.  Just before he arrived, I gathered all three kids and the dog.  I hustled them all out into the garage and told them we were leaving before I burned the house down. Once safely inside the vehicle and after a brief discourse that sounded more like an enraged battle cry, we made a plan for the rest of the day. Then we were off like a fire drill.  I barreled out of the driveway just as Man of the House barreled in.  I yelled out the window as we passed:  “Burn it down!  I’ve had it with this place! I’m NOT kidding!  …And I’m getting a new Hoover!”

With that, I watched the house disappear into my rear view mirror, as I drove like Mr. Toad on his wild ride, exiting the neighborhood as fast as I could.  My skin was still crawling, as were the hair follicles on my head.

Man of the House braved the attic to remove the rotting rat that had fallen quite dead into the ceiling vent that just happened to be installed above his side of the bed.  He then vacuumed the entire attic with the aid of his industrial-heft flashlight, maneuvering skillfully in heat and humidity that only steep attics in Southern California can produce.

Then, bless his pea pickin’ heart, he went into that maggot infested master bedroom, vacuumed the carpet, the furniture, the ceiling, and stripped the bed.  When he was finished with that, he trashed all of it…linens and the entire Hoover, into the curbside dumpster for early trash pickup the following morning.

By the time I returned home with the kids and the dog, hours later, he’d already driven the forty five miles back into the heart of L.A., and was fully entrenched into the business of business.

Now, back to that spider in Governor Christie’s office.  It must be a slow media cycle for PETA if they’re issuing a statement about this.   Let me tell you, Ms. Newkirk and PETA enthusiasts: sometimes a ‘quick smack down’ IS the ethical treatment.  May your home never be infested with roof rats…but if this curse befalls you, I’d be happy to issue a tweet on your behalf.  It would read:

‘Newkirk clearly wasn’t in a pardoning mood.  She probably killed them without thinking. Some people put roof rats outside, but beady-eyed rats are often scary and that can prevent even the President of PETA from pondering their worth.’

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