(This piece originally appeared in Baltimore’s Urbanite Magazine)
Jim was a rat. He lived with his family under the porch of the house just west of mine, and every day they scampered over to eat our birdseed. As rats go, Jim’s family was pretty nice. They were fastidious: The huge father rat spent most of his time going through the mulch and picking out bits that he carried to their nest. The mother rat would pick just as carefully through the seeds, looking for the best nuggets of peanuts or corn.
And then there was Jim. Even in a family of exceptional rats, Jim was special. While his siblings followed orders, Jim climbed. From the rose trellis he roamed the horizontal beams of the fence. Then he branched out, climbing in and out of the squares of the fence next to our house.
The neighbor to the west wanted the rats gone. The neighbors to the east hated them too, but they were willing to discuss plans to make them leave. In concert, or so I thought, we all agreed to stop putting out birdseed, to reinforce our storage doors, and to trim the bushes so that the rats would have less habitat and just go away. And then I left town. When I got home, Jim was dead. Our western neighbor had called the city, which sent workers out to spread pounds of rat poison around our yard, leaving a third of it (and the vegetable garden therein) encrusted in poison.
When rats walk through the poison, it sticks to their feet. Because they are generally clean animals (and Jim and his family were particularly so), they wash their little paws and faces—and ingest the poison, which destroys their insides and slowly kills them.
Jim died curled up with one of his siblings, licking each other’s noses until the end. I know this because the western neighbor told us. In the days thereafter, I dug out the vegetable garden, now dead soil, earthworms gone or disintegrated. The western neighbor does not seem aware that calling the city behind our backs and killing the rat family—and possibly rabbits, birds, and neighborhood cats—was not OK.
The hard lesson? There are many—don’t name the rats, I guess, would be a big one. The hardest one, though, has been letting go of Jim. His determination to ascend was inspiring. I sorely miss the way his little pink feet clutched and gripped as he pulled himself up, up, up.