Sunday, April 17, 2011

Let's Not Forget the Rats

Rats get a bum rap. These smart, resourceful creatures inspire a rather disproportionate amount of dislike from the general public. Most people who fear them have had no contact with an actual rat. Perhaps they would feel differently if they knew rats could learn their own name, be trained to do stupid tricks, navigate mazes, can form strong social bonds, experience pain, empathize, and learn complex tasks. Perhaps not - it is just so inconvenient to live in a world alongside rats, these wild little creatures who deign to share such intimate space with humans.

So people poison them. They use snap traps to kill or maim them. Glue traps are used to cause a slow and excruciating death. Even the seemingly kindest method, live trapping, has inherent problems. Moving a resident wild animal to a novel environment, especially one they may not be familiar with (like moving an urban rat to a forest) is most likely a death sentence.

Buying a lethal poison is made easy for us humans too. Slip into any hardware, feed supply or big box store and you'll find some of the most deadly poisons for both nonhumans and humans around, sitting innocently in the garden section. Gone are the days of warfarin, a poison that stops blood from clotting. It kills an animal very slowly and leaves their internal body cavity a sea of engorged organs and blood. Not a nice way to go. Its popularity has declined because of nature's adaptivity - rats have slowly, over time, become more resistant to the toxin.

So now there are wafarin derivatives, like D-con. The active ingredient in D-con is far more toxic than wafarin. It has a longer half-life too, meaning once the poor rat finally ends his death throes, it will take up to 156 days to be eliminated. If another animal eats that rat, they consume the D-con too...and it has additive effects, meaning the more poisoned animals they eat, the more like that predator/scavenger is to die from its poisonous affects as well.

Which is what everyone is up in arms about as cute fuzzy predator animals, like baby bobcats, are turning up dead from brodifacoum (or superwarfarin) toxicity. One poisoner opines on how awful it might have been that the owl he found dead might have suffered the same painful death as the rats he so easily disregards and kills. Nearly all the wildlife that researchers have tested for these rodenticides are showing up positive, because it is easy to get poisoned bait.

In 2008, the EPA instituted new regulations that would theoretically prevent kids from, you know, eating those poisoned baits that we so gleefully toss to other mammalian species. And now, come June, federal regulations will theoretically ban the sale of these rodenticides to the general public. You won't be able to buy it at Wal-Mart, but you'll still be able to stop on by the local feed store and get it there. That is kind of a glaring loophole.

While I appreciate the potential threats rats pose, the ease at which people can purchase deadly poisons is appalling. We know brodifacoum is deadly dangerous. We know it has an extremely long half-life. We know it inflicted unnecessary suffering on other species and continues to do so. Yet we spend so little time and energy doing what it takes to exclude rats and other "pests" from our living areas. We take the easy way out for us, the painful, permanent one for the targeted animals (and non-targeted animals as well).

I certainly don't have all the answers for all the so-called "pest" woes. And they aren't pests, not really. We use that word to make it easier to kill them; it reduces them to the class of "weeds", easy to dispose of them without much thought. It only seems reasonable, though, that we should try all other avenues of exclusion and deterrence before ever considering killing another living being. And if you're me, you won't even go that far unless me and my dogs wake up to a rat brandishing a knife.

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