In the battle of man vs. pack rat, the pack rats are winning--at least at Catherine's house

A few years ago, we got my son a car. And a few years later, he came home from college and tried to drive the car, which had been sitting alongside the driveway since his departure.

This is some car, and I can more than understand his eagerness to get back to it. Not everybody can boast ownership of a '93 Mazda Protégé refurbished with house paint in forest green and black. However, his driving merrily off was stifled before it had even begun.

I didn't need to open the hood to figure out why. Pack rats.

There were nine abandoned nests, or "middens," across the surface of the engine, battery, radiator and all parts north and south. It was a freaking mess. Said nests contained, among other things, milk-carton caps, pieces of plastic dog toys, dog fur, cactus spines, bits of wooden molding, shiny beads, drinking straws, buttons, chunks of a Domino's pizza box and, of course, loads of wire casing and hunks of plastic chewed from parts of the electrical system of the car.

After having their way with his car, they invaded our shed, strewing birdseed, random papers, shampoo bottles, detergent packaging and a couple of posters from exhibits long since viewed and forgotten, but only after gnawing on every roll of discount toilet paper bought at Costco. I'm not positive, but I believe they attempted to make off with an old television set, but couldn't quite manage it. That's the one thing I wish they had accomplished. It was analog. Who needs it?

For individuals unfamiliar with the wee beasties, pack rats, or Neotoma albigula, are slightly smaller than the common brown rat, known as Rattus norvegicus, or "that gnarly, scary rat that everybody's afraid of." Instead of naked tails, pack rats have slightly shorter, bushy ones and are about a million times cuter than regular rats. This probably has something to do with the fact that their eyes are set a little higher on their heads, and they have never been known to carry bubonic plague.

Left to their own devices, pack rats live in nests built of plant material and pieces of cactus strategically placed to keep predators out. They are primarily nocturnal and vegetarian, surviving mostly on cactus, yucca pods, seeds and virtually anything green and tasty they can find. They reproduce like crazy, with as many as five litters of seven to 10 babies per year. They are ubiquitous in Southern Arizona.

Almost everybody around here has had experience with pack rats, whether they wanted it or not. This experience generally has several dollar signs and swear words attached to it.

Only last spring, one of the little darlings carried off, piece by piece, the windshield-cleaning-fluid reservoir beneath the hood of my car. It cost more than $200 to replace--apparently, it was connected to a bunch of other stuff--and although I'm an inveterate animal lover, I started trying to figure out how to rid myself of these pesky critters. There are several ways to do this, many involving traps or poison, but it's cheaper, easier and nicer to simply leave the hood of the car open five or six inches--or all the way--and hang a work light under there.

I often see pack-rat exterminating trucks driving around our fair city. I think these businesses prey on the notion of Neotoma as "rat," and the idea that any rat is a filthy, disease-ridden rat. Not true. Except for when they're under the hoods of cars and in garages and sheds, pack rats cause no harm to people, and they carry no disease dangerous to hominids. They neither bite our babies nor infect us with boils. Neither do they come rushing out of sewers to terrify neighborhoods during floods. They simply carry whatever junk they can in order to make nests. A pack rat does not know how much an electrical harness of a car costs compared to a milk-carton cap. It only knows both are useful, or maybe in some pack rat aesthetic, "cool."

Neotoma is famous for dropping one cherished item upon coming on another; they particularly like shiny things. So if you take off your earrings while lounging outside and come back later to find one missing, you might want to look under the hood of your car.

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