It takes a pack rat to know one

A human collector finds she has something in common with the local rodents.

"Why isn't the phone working?" my daughter called from the kitchen.

I walked over and picked up the receiver. Sure enough, there was no dial tone. I tried the phone in the bedroom - still, no success. The repairman from the phone company gave the final diagnosis: "Pack rats," he said. "Chewed through the phone lines. They do that sometimes. Better watch out, though," he went on, nonchalantly. "Can go for the electric lines and start a house fire."

Rats. In an old volume of 'The Illustrated Library of the Natural Sciences,' the entry under "Rat" describes the creature as a "12-ounce engine of destruction." On the facing page is a sketch of a scene from the London Plague of 1665, in which the town crier, preceding a large cart, is ostensibly calling, "Bring out your dead."

Clearly, my rat problem called for drastic measures, even though pack rats are actually white-throated wood rats, not the brown or Norway variety that are the bane of urban neighborhoods. White-throated wood rats are endemic to the Southwestern United States, having lived here long before we set up stakes in the ecosystem. They are known as pack rats because, like certain people, they have a habit of storing up things that "might come in handy someday" such as orange peels, scraps of shiny metal, bits of phone line, etc.

Pack rats build ramshackle "houses" out of sticks and cactus pads that have multiple entrances and passageways. They hide during the day and store their caches of food and treasure. They also make use of crevices under large boulders - or any shelter that will protect them from coyotes and other predators. If you park a car in your driveway, say, and leave it unused for a few months, pack rats may find that the engine compartment works as well as other havens. This happened to my husband's car when we first moved here. Pack rats stored cactus joints and prickly pear buds under the hood, while managing to chew through air conditioner hoses and who knows what else. His car has never been the same since.

When I walk the length of our property, I spy numerous piles of debris. There also is a little cave under some rocks. I suspect a pack rat lives there because of the collection of saguaro fruit and mesquite beans spilling from within the small entrance hole. In this Aladdin's cave of riches, I also glimpse a yellow marble and the chewed-off leg of a toy soldier.

Besides being rather ingenious hoarders, pack rats have another somewhat endearing quality: They are cute. Being nocturnal, they have big, round eyes and oversized ears. The man in the "Do-It-Yourself" Pest Control Shop said he thought they looked like Mickey Mouse. Not about to poison a Disney-character look-alike, I settled on the purchase of a humane live-catch trap.

My plan was to catch the critters and relocate them somewhere far away. Then I paused to consider that our keeping chickens and having bird feeders functioned as a virtual neon "welcome back" sign for the exiled rats and their legions of brothers and sisters.

As it turned out, I never managed to catch any rats in the trap. They cleverly extracted the peanut butter bait before exiting the cage and were no doubt very grateful besides.

Eventually, however, our cat whittled down their numbers to less than epidemic proportions. For a while, I assumed all was under control.

The other day, though, I went to my car, which was parked in our garage. Living in a semirural area, I sometimes leave my purse and keys sprawled on the front seat with the window open. However, this time, when I opened the car door, while my purse was there - contents intact - my keys were not. I searched everywhere for my missing clutch of keys: Some were shiny, some dull. They were various shades of brown and silver, with little plastic store cards attached - all jingling irresistibly from a key ring made from an antique spoon handle.

There was only one explanation: Pack rats!

I checked beside the cave outside. I looked for traces of dragging across the sand and soil into some hole in the brush. Nothing.

I sat at my desk, the one my husband is always encouraging me to clean, or at least organize. I glanced at the pile of magazines with interesting articles I've skimmed and mean to read more thoroughly "someday." Books. Envelopes. School forms. Folders. "To do" lists. A bowl for holding pennies, stamps, and multicolored paper clips. A glass paperweight with orange swirls and clear bubbles that was so pretty, and such a good deal at a neighborhood yard sale I just couldn't resist bringing it home. Boxes of film for my camera, which I know is around here, too - somewhere.

I sighed, surveying the mess. And there, squat in the middle of all my stuff ... were the keys.

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