The Honeymoon is Over When a Packrat Eats Your Floor

Pack rats look like hamsters’ big adorable cousins, but they wreak havoc on a trailer house. (Image from animacenter.org)

The following tale is a western adventure involving a cat, a couple of pack rats, my favorite kitchen utensils, and ends with a crescent wrench. This is a true story. I will not tell you, however, that none of the animals were harmed in the creation of this tale.

Everyone with a little bit of cowboy in them dreams of living on the wide open plains of Montana. Wild, windswept prairie, endless views, buttes rising up in the distance, antelope grazing in your backyard, and empty land…we actually lived that dream. In 2003, my husband took over his grandparent’s 30-year-old scale and feed cart business, and we moved into our first owned home: a single wide trailer set on top of a wide open rise on his grandparent’s land in Broadview, Montana.

We also lived in reality, where drought and well pump problems meant no running water for the first four weeks. Rattlesnakes, mice, and pack rats were our first “pets.” Pack rats are Montana varmints about the size of a big pocket gopher, but unlike gophers, pack rats enjoy entering homes. We quickly enlisted a stray cat as the family exterminator. Pack rats are formidable enough, though, that our cat was afraid of a dead pack rat on her first encounter, until she ate it.

Our cat had a late night roaming habit. In the evening before we went to bed, she went outside and prowled the land. And being a clever kitty, she learned how to get herself let in as she pleased in the morning. Our bedroom was in the back of the trailer, with our bed was against the back wall just below a window.

On the outside of the house, just below that window was a decomposing particle board shelf, installed to hold an air conditioner that we did not own. Our cat discovered, though, that by straining to the limits of her vertical jumping abilities, and after several attempts, she could snag the shelf with a claw or two, slide down and create a raucous, repeat the scenario a few times, and eventually perch on top of the shelf where she would scratch at the window until she got let in.

Every morning just before dawn, her scritchity scratching woke us up, and we squeezed the two window tabs, pushed up the window and the cat crawled in, walked across our bed, and then hopped to the floor. After this became a normal morning ritual, I could elbow my husband, we’d each push a tab and let the cat saunter in and we could be back sleeping before our heads hit the pillow and our kitty’s feet landed on the floor in our room.

One morning, however, after conducting our usual scratch-open-sleep routine, our sleep got interrupted by an unfamiliar crunching sound. After it became too persistent to ignore, I climbed over my husband to see our cat with her head tilted in concentration and her jaw opening wide to gnaw on a pack rat. On the floor, in our bedroom.

As disturbing as it was to see our cat eating a pack rat on our new white berber carpet, it was even more disturbing to realize that she entered through the window with said treasure, and then dragged that dead pack rat past our heads on our pillows, and across our fluffy down comforter before taking her little delicacy to the soft, clean carpet to savor and enjoy.

Reason and logic would suggest that a person, and most definitely two people, would notice a large pack rat in the mouth of a cat sitting on a window ledge at face level directly in front of them.

Sometimes, however, we defy both reason and logic. We had no clue that a dead varmint entered our premises until we heard crunching.

I don’t know what the honorable or dignified solution is when you find yourself in the awkward position of hearing your cat enjoying a pack rat on your carpet, but we opted for no intervention. Neither one of us wanted to pick up a partially consumed pack rat and dispose of it properly. (What is the proper disposal method for a pack rat these days? Are they hazardous waste? Can they be recycled?)

Instead, we just let the cat clean up the mess herself. In the quiet of the early morning, we laid there in bed listening for an extraordinarily long time to the grinding crunch of pack rat bones in our cat’s mouth. Finally, the crunching stopped and she commenced licking her fur, and we snoozed for a few more minutes, assuming it was all over.

We discovered, however, that not all parts of a pack rat are edible. After laying in a bed defiled by a dead pack rat, a shower seemed like the proper thing. Jarred climbed out of bed to head to the shower, and his foot came in contact with not soft carpet, but a wet, squishy thing. I don’t know what the dark green organ is on a pack rat, but I do know that it definitely does not taste good. The cat was kind enough to leave it in the exact foot path of those first groggy steps out of bed.

The golf ball-sized green organ thingy smashed on a foot really just leaves a dirty feeling that no soap can wash away.

No need to worry, though, about the loss of life, pack rats are among the more prolific of God’s creatures, and they continued to grace our lives that first year in our trailer. On the domestic front, you might enjoy knowing that while Pampered Chef spatulas are heat-resistant, they are pack rat-irresistable. As newlyweds, many of our possessions were second hand cast-offs acquired during our college years. That made my fancy, expensive spatula a particular treasure. Discovering deep gnaw marks defacing the smooth tip made my blood boil.

The kitchen utensil carnage continued for several days. Each morning I pulled open the drawer to discover wooden spoons and more spatulas falling victim to the gnawing ways of some blasted pack rat. At one point he chewed a hole all the way up through the subfloor and living room carpet, a hole large enough to plug with a tennis ball. This is true.

If that wasn’t bad enough, in the evenings, the varmint made enough packrat racket in our bathroom that it sounded like someone was doing a bathroom remodel under our tub. Every night we heard scraping of wood that could be heard all the way down the hallway in our living room, with the tv on at normal volume.

I started envisioning a little pack rat with a construction hat and a tool belt conducting his own little This Old Trailer House episode right under our tub. In a pack rat New England accent he’d say, “Now, we need to remove a little excess wood from this arear ovah heah.” (gnaw, gnaw, gnaw…)

Finally, though, that pack rat became the Saturday Night Main Event. One night in bed, we heard the gnawing again in the bathroom. Jarred sprang into action, and removed the access panel to the tub. He managed to get the varmint cornered between the tub, wall, and an Igloo cooler (as per standard pest control protocol).

What happened next is best described as vigilante justice. In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for theft is losing one’s hand. In Montana, the punishment for consumption of Pampered Chef spatulas, my wooden spoons, and our house studs and subfloor is, well…you get the picture. A large crescent wrench is in fact all one needs to control a pest infestation. A few thuds and a triumphant yell later, we drifted off to sleep under the quiet of our starry prairie skies. And of course, we lived happily ever after.

 © 2012

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Backseat Rice Patties and Rotting Celery: Fond Gardening Mishaps

To be honest, we don’t actually know if it was the rice that was growing or if the rice acted as growing medium for some mushrooms to sprout. Just the same, the moral of the story is this: use the back seat more often.

Written February 13, 2012.

The wind gusted a wild, wintery 37 mph while I ran today here in Montana. That’s strong enough to give you a “brain freeze” headache through a stocking cap. More impressively, on the best gusts of wind, my spit sailed ten feet through the air before landing. As I ran on the hard frozen gravel and dodged ice patches, my mind was off in Minnesota digging in warm dirt and planting a garden and flowers. I blame the Gurney’s Seed Catalog.

When the catalog appears in the mail box, I greet its arrival with the same excitement I had for the JC Penney Christmas Catalog as a kid. When I was five, I pored over the toy section in the catalog, absorbing the images and studying the options. I gleefully circled each and every wonderful thing that I wanted. Even then as a young kid, I fully realized that I would not get all of the circled toys, but just the same, the act of circling the toys made them mine. Circling things was deeply satisfying. And so, a few years ago, when my first seed catalog arrived, I restarted my routine of circling everything I wanted. I did it surreptitiously at first, not really wanting my husband, Jarred, to notice that my inner five year-old was wielding a Sharpie, but then I cast that aside and began circling beautiful growing things with wanton abandon. Daisies! Hydrangeas! Bleeding Hearts! Raspberry bushes! These. Will. Be. Mine. Some day, that is.

Finally, that some day is arriving. This coming summer in Minnesota will usher in a new era of planting fervor at our home. We planted gardens in past summers, but I don’t define them as “real” gardens by my midwest farm girl standards because they either were not on our own land or because the gardens just barely grew to a third of their promised height. As I scheme and dream about the magical things I will grow at our new place this coming summer, I’m taking a little time to reflect back on wonderfully fond memories of gardening mishaps of yesteryear.

In our romantic first summer of marriage, our gardening was simple. Simple, that is, because we didn’t plant a thing. We lived in Poulsbo, WA, a gardener’s paradise, but our yard interests leaned more toward sitting around our bonfire pit until the wee hours of the morning with our friends than pulling weeds out of parsnips. Nonetheless, we did unintentionally grow things that summer.

Rice Patties

In the spring, we started with rice. We got married on the pier a few miles from our house, and our family happily chucked handfuls of rice at us as we got into Jarred’s ’67 Mustang to ride off into the sunset. As luck would have it, sometimes classic cars are not wholly water tight. In dryland Montana, that was never an issue, but in water-logged Western Washington, the rain sometimes seeped in a little when the wind was just right. A few months after getting married, we glanced at the floor mats in the back and noticed that the grains of rice that landed there on our wedding day had indeed started to grow. To be honest, we don’t actually know if it was the rice that was growing or if the rice acted as growing medium for some mushrooms to sprout. Just the same, the moral of the story is this: use the back seat more often.

Rotting Celery

That same summer, cleaning out our fridge one day, I found a few long-forgotten stalks of celery lurking in the back. I took the wilted sad things and, standing on the deck, practiced my spear-throwing technique and launched them toward the woods at the back of our house. Natural composting, if you will. To our complete amazement, when we wandered back to the long-forgotten celery a month or two later, we discovered the celery we left for dead actually put down roots and sprouted new celery. We never checked it again, but the way things grow in Washington, that celery might still be alive today.

Grow celery in 3 easy steps: 1. Abandon celery stalks in fridge until disgusting. 2. Hurl celery into woods to die. 3. Wander by months later and harvest the new crop.

Packrats and Drought

After all of that rain, living in a place where we could harvest a bountiful crop of ‘shrooms right off our roof if we had been interested, a year later we settled in the high plains desert of Broadview, Montana. The annual rainfall in Broadview is just 14 inches (for comparison, Rochester, MN, has an annual rainfall of 30 inches). We settled in Broadview, MT during the peak of a long drought, with precipitation four inches below normal in an already arid land.

Overly optimistic, I planted a little garden under the “shelter” of our trailer house hitch. I watered the garden like crazy, and rabbits and pack rats devoured the little that grew (pack rats are gopher-like varmints that love to chew up your newlywed rubber spatulas when they sneak in at night…but that’s another article). The wind eventually shredded the remainder of the garden that the sun didn’t bake away. My mammoth sunflowers that promised 10-12 foot stalks on the package didn’t even grow waist high. Living is tough with little topsoil in full sun, high wind, prolonged 100 degree temps, and no rain.

Not so Beefy Beefsteaks

A few years and a few kids later, I took on a more modest attempt at Broadview, Montana gardening. If the topsoil’s a bit miserable, a container garden seemed like the answer. I dumped some Miracle Grow potting soil in a terra cotta pot, and lovingly planted a beefsteak tomato plant, dreaming of the softball-sized juicy deliciousness to come. I watered the plant religiously, but in the town of Broadview you can’t just use tap water because the naturally-occurring high level of salts dries out and eventually kills plants. Yep, you can kill plants with kindness here, if the kindness is tap water. So, I watered my tomatoes using our drinking water that comes in those big, blue 5-gallon water cooler jugs. At the end of the summer, I harvested a disheartening six cherry-sized “beefsteak” tomatoes. After working so hard to grow them, the tomatoes seemed too special to just gobble up, so I kept them on the counter like a museum exhibit. The water investment alone was about $30, for six tiny tomatoes that slowly shriveled up and then eventually got thrown away. A tomato travesty.

This year, though, things will be different. I will plant my garden in the land of milk and honey, in the black dirt and plentiful rain of SE MN. And of course, I will plant it in the style I learned growing up: Plant with zeal and tend to it closely all the way through June. Then, interest will wane as the humidity increases, and by August, the garden will be left to it’s own devices. In September, I will dig through waist high weeds and with amazement find pails of tomatoes and cucumbers that overflow cake pans. And it will be grand. See you next week.

© 2012