Terry Fowler

Of Rats and Men

The old Sealtest plant down the hill about half mile from our house in downtown Toronto, was torn down in the 1980s to make way for some fancy townhouses. Everyone knows that dairy facilities attract rats like bees to honey, and the developers promised to exterminate the resident population before the demolition.

It didn’t happen. Rats spread out across the district, and several ended up in our back yard. They gravitated immediately to my home made compost bin at the back of the lot. It was made of two by six construction grade spruce, with a close-fitting plywood top. I fed it (and the rats) pretty much every other day for years.

True, I made several half-hearted attempts to toughen up the container, setting it firmly and deep into the clay soil and keeping the top good and tight. These measures were mildly bothersome, I suppose, to the resourceful rats, who were nevertheless technically proficient diggers. In spite of a barricade of rocks ringing the outside of the bin, the rats excavated tunnels whose entrances were sometime several feet away, in my neighbour’s yard, and which ended up right under the pile of kitchen scraps that were regularly provided.

Grudgingly, I began to admit to myself that there was a certain symbiosis between the rats and the compost, mostly in the winter. They got food when it was scarce and at the same time they kept the pile warm even in the coldest weather, facilitating the soil-making process. In fact, it kept them warm as well. The pile was still contributing a generous supply of compost to the garden each spring. I called a truce.

Then my new neighbours at the back put in a fancy swimming pool. Several months after the installation of the electrical gadgetry needed for its maintenance, they knocked at my door and politely noted that rats were stripping the insulation off the wires in the maintenance shed, and that the likely source of the problem were the inhabitants of my compost pile.

Reflecting briefly that the rats were probably too smart to eat poisonous insulation, I agreed to their request to remove the compost heap.

But composting, which I’d been practising for 25 years or more, was important to me, both as a modest waste reduction habit and as food for my vegetable garden’s soil. I resolved to build another bin by the side of the house on the pavement of our driveway. The new version again had two by six sides, but it was lined with lucite so the wood wouldn’t rot. The cover was 3/4” plywood with a solid door handle for lifting. It fit so tightly that sometimes it stuck.

The rats returned immediately.

Since the bin was tough to penetrate from below, they attacked the top. That’s right: 3/4 inch plywood developed a cut-out suitable for rodent entry and exit. When it was covered with a brick, another cut-out appeared. My impregnable top started to look like Swiss cheese, until eventually the whole rim was lined with bricks or heavy rocks.

One exceptionally cold morning I came out to feed the compost. Taking off the cover that kept the snow from direct contact with the plywood top, I stared in disbelief. One of the bricks had been moved away from a cut-out.

That’s not the end of the story. Of course, I capitulated. The compost was still composting, the balance of nature was restored. Occasionally, as before, I would see one scuttling away when I took off the cover – rats are not cheeky like mice and prefer their privacy.

Then, inexplicably, I found a dead rat in the garden one day. I disposed of it, wondering. A few weeks later there was another. Was someone poisoning them?

In all events, by the end of that summer the rats had disappeared. As you might guess, I miss them. Over the years I developed not just appreciation but respect and affection for these fellow creatures. If such resilient and intelligent animals are still unequal to all the perils of our urban backyards, we all might ponder our own species’ vulnerability, in part because we don’t have the sense to work with nature. We nurture the fiction that we are superior to her, even separate from her. Rats may smell and they may carry dangerous bacteria, but so do we. A little humility is in order.