My home is so quiet. No little scratching noises in the walls. No fresh poop on the mantle. The last of the rats is gone, at least I think they’re gone. But then, I tend to think, “This is the last rat” and then am ambushed by 6, then 10 more… I’ve learned to stay open to the possibility that there may be new recruits. They say that if you see one rodent there are at least 20 lurking in the shadows. If that’s the case, my home has hosted over 200 rats this summer. When I tell people about the rats in my house they grimace and share stories about a rat that lived in their garage, or stove, or kitchen and then go on to say what a hard time they had getting rid of him, or her, how it took months, sometimes even a year. This is not that sort of rat story. This is the story of a full on rat infestation.
You can expect some mice and rats and raccoons and lizards to find their way into your home when you live in the country. That’s just country life, especially in an older home. And, I’m not a messy person. I store food in the cupboards, except for the occasional ripening banana, clean up the kitchen before I go to bed and have a below average amount of furniture and tchotchkes for creatures to hide in. The house is thoroughly scrubbed every other week. Still they come. People feel comfortable and safe in my home. Apparently so do rats.
A few years after my cats died I’d see a rat or two, but nothing I couldn’t handle by setting a trap. Occasionally I’d run into one of their poops when cleaning, but I wasn’t too worried. In retrospect I can see that perhaps I wasn’t aware of how bad things really were. Rats are very quiet invaders. The only time a problem called me to action was one winter when everyone in the valley was experiencing heightened rat activity. While on a book tour I got a frantic call from my roommate telling me that there were rats running around the house. I called in a rat professional. After that things seemed to settle down…until this summer. Apparently, over the years the rats have created numerous pathways into my house, usually through holes made by pipes leading to appliances. Everywhere there is a pipe entering the kitchen the rats widened the space and made their way in. Still, I didn’t worry. It wasn’t until a particularly ambitious rat chewed a hole through the ceiling and parachuted down into my living room that I took a deep breath, girded my loins, and prepared for battle.
Before going to battle, like so many warriors before me, I prayed. With a heavy heart I told the rats I was sorry, but they needed to vacate the premises. For a week I brought them to mind in my meditations, wishing them well, warning them to flee, to save themselves and their families, that there was plenty to eat for them outside. Still I awoke to rat poop on the kitchen counter and the smell of rat urine. Reluctantly putting aside my do-it-yourself mantle, I once again called a professional pest removal business. They set a few traps, caught a few rats, plugged a few holes, sent me a bill and gave me the number of a contractor. The contractor scraped off the old ceiling, filled in the hole made by the industrious rat and re-plastered. $2000 later, there were still rats making themselves at home in my kitchen- behind the refrigerator, behind the stove, behind the dishwasher, in the cupboards and behind the washing machine. There was fresh rat poop on the mantle, floor, and counters each morning-and it was increasing.
I set out have a heart traps, but the rats weren’t going for that. So I moved on to sticky board traps. One morning I found two terrified baby rats stuck in the goo and, not being able to free them, my heart broke. I couldn’t bring myself to do that to another living creature. So I chucked the sticky boards, even though they were highly effective, and moved on to electronic rodent zappers. One day I pulled out the zapper trap while a rat was still being electrocuted. It was gruesome. I threw the zapper trap in the trash and moved on to snap traps, which worked well- until the rats caught on and were able to take the bait out without getting caught. I felt helpless and wondered if I’d even be able to win this battle. But loosing was not an option, how could I give my home over to the rats? I needed it for my family and myself.
As one worker after another (none of them stayed for long) uncovered more and more rat’s nests and entry points in the living room and kitchen we’d find little metal containers that once held the tea candles I had around my home. The rats had been absconding with my tea candles for months. I wondered if they might be creating a zendo somewhere in the attic. These rats are smart, smarter than me, smarter than the pest professional I hired and smarter than the three different contractors who hunted with me for entry points. We’d plug up one hole and they find another. They just kept coming. While searching for their nesting spots one day, we turned over my living room sofa and discovered that they had made a nest in the batting! Every night as I sat and watched TV or read or visited with friends they were sleeping snugly under the warmth of my body. We brought the sofa, my favorite piece of furniture, to the dump. Then we proceeded to take off the outside paneling on the side of the house, the side the kitchen was on. There we found pathways through the insulation where the rats had made holes leading inside.
I am a devoted lover of all living creatures, including rodents. When I was a little girl I cherished the little moths that flitted around our lemon tree. I loved the bugs and horned toads that stood in for wild life in the San Fernando Valley. My little brother and I saved our allowances to buy animals at the pet store for a zoo in our garage. I have no fear of rodents or bugs or reptiles and even harbor warm feelings for the rats in my home. They were smart, community oriented and just trying their best to stay alive. But I could not allow them to take over the home where my family lived. The health hazards were too great. I wish I could be like Cinderella who, rather than killing the creatures, sang to them. But I had to face reality. It came down to a cut and dry decision. I had to kill them or they would take over my home. In fact, they already had taken over my home. I was finally pushed to use something I vowed never to use in my home, poison.
I remember discussing the precept not to kill with other Buddhist students. The discussion usually came around to some version of, what if someone is threatening your family with a gun? Would you kill them first? That question was challenging to answer when it was hypothetical, but ultimately the response was that killing is wrong, period. Once this became a question that had real consequences, inquiry into the precept not to kill was even more challenging. In an article in the Guardian, when asked whether or not the killing of Osama Bin Laden was justified, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying that the terrorist deserves our compassion but, “If something is serious you need to take counter measures.” There is a famous story about one of the Buddha’s past lives as a ship captain whose name was Super Compassionate. While at sea he learned that there was an assassin on board who intended to kill all 500 passengers on the vessel. In order to save the passengers from, not only death, but bad karma for becoming murderers themselves, he stabbed the criminal to death. Unlike Super Compassionate, the passengers would have killed the man in fits of rage and fear, whereas he killed in a state of peace and compassion. This story, as well as other’s in Buddhist history and literature, point to the idea that there is a time for killing and that it is one’s state of mind that creates karma, not the killing itself. No one can tell us when that time is, we need to feel it for ourselves through deep listening.
We Westerners tend to think of things in terms of black or white, omitting the infinite shades of grey in between. Given this vantage point we’ve adopted a sentimental view of Buddhist compassion. I discovered that my precept not to kill was more nuanced than I had originally imagined. The Earth’s creatures can pilfer my garden and gorge themselves on my fruit trees but I draw the line when it comes to endangering my home and family. I amended my original understanding of non killing. I would kill to protect my family, and with my eyes wide open. During this battle I was aware that I was committing rat genocide and didn’t try to sugar coat the action with words like “friendly fire” that people come up with to make themselves feel better about killing. I was killing beautiful, natural creatures, albeit reluctantly and with sorrow for their suffering. It’s all very humbling.
Practicing keeping my eyes open during years of meditation left me with no choice but to stay aware during this entire rat fiasco. At times the task in front of me felt impossible but I just kept slogging through it. Moving through a seemingly endless, sometimes hellish, ordeal with eyes wide open garnered wisdom that would otherwise have been lost. What I noticed was that my suffering, the rat infestation, did not define me, or even color my daily experience of reality. When I went to the market I was shopping, when I met with a friend we laughed and talked and made plans. When I was killing rats, I was killing rats.
Miss organic Buddhist has learned quite a bit from this home invasion. I’ve learned that it’s more important to keep my heart open when making tough decisions than to hold to static rules. I’ve learned that, as is written in Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a place for everything, and that, yes indeed, part and parcel of life is suffering-for all living things. We have no control over the fact that suffering is part of each life, all we can do is practice meeting our own personal allotment of suffering with open eyes.