By Cyndi Hubach, May 25, 2015

Most creatures on this grand blue-green earth have the good sense to avoid us human beings. Some, though, find some benefit from being in our presence (who wouldn’t want to be an American dog or cat?), some we tolerate in our general environs (birds, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, etc.), and some, like rats, mice, cockroaches, ants, and the like, are really the uninvited dinner guest that just won’t take a hint.

These “pests” (a relative term–from a planetary perspective; there is no question that it is we who are the pests), have been vexing us for millennia, and as with any complex problem, most potential solutions seem to bring with them some other slew of vexing problems, and so it is, perhaps somewhat predictably, with rat poison.

As I said in last week’s post, the favored rodenticide du jour is a powerful anti-coagulant (known as a SGAR) that builds up in animals to such high levels, that the animals in turn become toxic to predators. Even the lower grade poisons can be a threat to pets and other unintended targets. And though the lethal action of the poison (it’s basically a strong dose of the blood-thinner Coumadin – um, hmm) is said to be relatively painless.  The offending rodent is still a sentient creature that didn’t ask to be born and is just doing its best to get by in this cold, cruel world. Does it really deserve to have its capillaries dissolve and slowly bleed to death? No. It does not.

But what to do? I’m all for coexistence and the beauty and sanctity of all life and all of that, but even I draw the line at rats around the house. But as with so much in our modern, I-want-it-now society, maybe this is another instance where we reach too readily for the easy fix. If we’re anxious, we want a pill to calm our nerves. If we’re thirsty, just reach for the single-use plastic water bottle. If we tire of something, we throw it away—wherever that is. And if we have a rat, we want it gone fast, and that usually means poison.

Sometimes, though, just a little bit of thought and effort can solve an issue in a way that doesn’t cause a host of cascading problems down the line. For example,the first line of defense should be to remove whatever is attracting the creature. If you’ve got a basement full of dog food, or your earthquake survival kit is a corner crammed with cereal boxes, get those rat treats into some pest-proof plastic containers and carefully seal any holes in your walls or vents. (Use ¼” metal mesh.  They can squeeze through anything larger).

In the garden, ivy, large bushes and other dense vegetation create perfect breeding grounds and hiding places for rats. Consider planting drought-tolerant natives instead, which in addition to being unattractive to rats, are actually appealing to critters you might like to see around, like birds, bees and butterflies.

If these tactics don’t work, there are capture cages that allow you to trap and relocate an unwelcome visitor (though you are most likely creating a problem for someone else). If you must resort to lethal methods, snap or electronic traps kill with more precision than poison, and are at least quick, if not painless. Glue traps, in which the animal is stuck and dies of exhaustion and dehydration are horrifically cruel and should also be banned.

Of course, there was a time when the domestic cat was considered an ideal agent of rodent control, but as I mentioned in another column, like rodenticides, they too are indiscriminate in their lethality (and are prone to fall victim to predators and other dangers as well). But there is a new movement afoot that advocates for a solution that seems downright medieval: the deployment of the barn owl.

It turns out that if you install an attractive owl-sized wooden box on a tall pole, barn owls will come, and “goodbye rodents!” Now, I myself would worry that the owl might be inclined to cart off my small dog or the neighbor’s cat, but owl advocates swear that rodents are the largest animals they target. Barn owls are already being used to control rodents in vineyards and farms in California, and if the idea catches on, they may help keep rats—and our often-destructive attempts to do them in—under control as well.

And like the sparrows, skunks and squirrels that frequent our backyards, they don’t seem to mind hanging out around us, and might even be a welcome addition to the urban ecosystem we call life in the city.


May 8, 2015 by Cynthia Hubach

Does anybody know who Tom Lehrer is anymore? For those who don’t (and everyone should), Lehrer was a Harvard-MIT professor-cum-piano-playing wag of the 50’s and 60’s, who skewered everything from the Vatican to the Bomb, in two-minute bursts of subversive doggerel. His rapier whimsy was a favorite of my dad’s, and even at eight, I knew it was funny although it often went over my head.

But there was one song that left me not only baffled, but disturbed. Whatever did he mean by the lilting waltz Poisoning Pigeons in the Parkin which a lovely spring day is spent tossing strychnine-laced crumbs (“it just takes a smidgeon”), at unsuspecting birds? I had long dismissed it as absurdist humor–or–heaven forbid, the hint of an actual mean streak. (Maybe nobody cares about animals, not even Tom Lehrer!) But he was, I see now, just way ahead of his time. “We’ll murder them among laughter and merriment, except for the few we take home to experiment.” We might kill them or we might torture them. Either way, we will casually inflict suffering and death on our foolishly trusting fellow beings.

Half a century on, Lehrer has given up the stage, but our propensity for poisoning has only increased (the extermination business is now a $7 billion industry). Of course, we generally don’t condone pigeon poisoning in the park, but we do seem to value the convenience that comes with annihilating pesky things without getting our hands dirty. Whether it’s a rat that’s found its way into the basement, or a line of ants that just won’t stay out of the sugar bowl, it’s tempting to just toss some poison pellets into the corner or take out the Raid and hope the bothersome creatures will retreat to their lairs to expire away from view. No muss, no fuss.

As we’ve learned from, well, everything in life, most solutions come with both muss and fuss. And so it is, surprise, surprise, with   p o i s o n i n g   things. It turns out that the poison doesn’t always stay where (or in whom) you want it. This issue of “poison creep” has actually had a bit of publicity recently, thanks to the predicament of everyone’s favorite urban apex predator, the Griffith Park mountain lion, P-22. This real-life Hollywood cougar recently came down with a nasty case of mange, most likely caused by ingesting prey that had been weakened by rodenticide, or rat poison.

P-22 is just the most famous victim of a problem that has become ubiquitous in its spread. Recent studies show that these types of poisonings have occurred in at least 25 wild species in California, including mountain lions, hawks, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and northern spotted owls. The really nasty stuff, the poisons known as second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGAR’s) have been found in more than 70-percent of wildlife tested. Pets, of course, can fall victim as well.

As the name implies, these anticoagulant poisons interfere with blood clotting, causing uncontrolled bleeding that leads to death. Second-generation anticoagulants are especially pernicious because while they are highly toxic, death often does not occur for 5-7 days. The rodents therefore may ingest several doses of the poison, causing the toxins to accumulate in their tissues at many times the lethal dose, and as an extra bonus, making them slow and weak, and especially easy targets for predators.

So what is the solution? First of all, we could do with a slight rebranding of these maligned creatures. Granted, having rats and cockroaches in the house is a health and safety issue and can be intractable (and horrifying) enough to call for lethal measures. On the other hand, they’re all just trying to get by too, and a few spiders in the corners and the occasional ant invasion might not be cause to call in the big guns. I myself seem to have a rodent of some sort in the backyard with a strong taste for homegrown oranges and tomatoes, and at the moment there is enough to go around. So, live and let live, I say.

As a society, we could also stand to relax many of our rigid rules against weeds, germs, dirt and the occasional mouse, the enforcement of which has created a sterile environment that is actually making us sick.We are a part of nature after all, and deciding to live with a few so-called pests on the periphery, if not necessarily in the pantry, might prove to be beneficial to all concerned.

But when it is time for the ultimate solution, there are methods with far fewer cascading negative effects than second-generation rodenticides, including one that is downright medieval. We’ll look at those in next week’s installment…