Reflections on Drowning My First Rat

After two very busy months during which I simply couldn’t find the time to blog, I have been pulled back into the blogging world by some exciting news: I just drowned my first rat!

You’ll have to forgive my gallows humour, as my mind is, in fact, heavily burdened with the great significance of what I have done. For the first time ever, I have intentionally killed an animal that I could imagine having a mind – that is, something that exists as a separate entity beyond a series of instinctual reactions to nervous stimuli. I have just drowned, with ruthless efficiency, something that is much closer to my beloved dogs than it is to bacteria, plankton or protozoa. And not only that, but I have already murdered four of them, perhaps with plenty more to come.

As you can imagine (if you don’t already know), Metro Manila is positively overrun with rats and roaches. The roaches create no ethical quagmire for me – they are as vile as they are stupid, even if nature has endowed them with a remarkable set of skills for invading human living space and exploiting it in the most disgusting ways possible. I have murdered hundreds of roaches in every way imaginable: squashing, spraying, and – the least messy and most satisfying option for those encountered in the bathroom – incapacitating them by spraying them with the bidet hose, picking them up by one antenna with a piece of tissue, and then flushing them down the toilet. Out of sight, out of mind!

Unfortunately, the rats create a more prickly conundrum for the animal-loving ethicist. For years I never had to deal with this veritable Sophie’s choice because I lived in condos, and apparently rats are far less intrepid than roaches when it comes to climbing up to the 34th floor. But since I transitioned to suburban bliss in Muntinlupa City, I’ve had to deal with all the pitfalls of having your own house and yard: leaky roofs, constant fear of burglary, nosy neighbours, and yes, rats.

At first the rats engaged in nighttime hit-and-run raids. These ugly beasts, nearly the size of small cats, would crawl in through the shower drain, bite huge holes in bananas, and chew open bags of dog food and potato chips. After tearing them open they would take a few bites, apparently decide that these human and canine delicacies were not to their liking, and retreat back to their Rat Kingdom through the shower drain. Many choice bananas and delectable bags of Oishi Gourmet Picks wasabi-flavoured potato chips were wasted this way. Speaking of delicacies, one of my dogs also developed quite a taste for rat turds, which she swallowed up like scrumptious little gobs of chocolatey goodness (whether chocolate or rat turds are worse for dogs, I can’t really say).

During these early, carefree days of the rat infestation, I derived great pleasure from watching my dogs frantically chase after unseen prey through the living room, or cock their heads toward the ceiling in response to rooftop scurrying. (In general, I would say that a dog in deep concentration is pretty much the cutest thing around.) I nicknamed them the Tunasan Rat Patrol, and although they have 0 confirmed rat kills to date, they certainly can’t be faulted for lack of dedication.

After a while, the novelty of the rat patrol wore off, and I found myself left with only increasingly disgusting piles of rat turds. I figured out how to block the drain to keep the big rats out of my house, but it was only after who-knows-how-long that I realized that they had built an elaborate nest of shredded newspapers in the cupboard underneath my sink. (It’s quite the tribute to my housekeeping skills that it may have taken me weeks to become aware of it.) Along with a lot of rat shit, I was disturbed and fascinated to discover squirmy, pink little rat babies living in this pile of periodicals. These wailing little homunculi were barely recognizable as any organism outside of science fiction, let alone as baby rats. In an act of some cowardice, I scooped the ratlings out of their cozy newspaper nest and dumped them outside to die in the hot Philippine sun. Not my finest hour, and in retrospect I wish I had disposed of them more humanely; but also technically not an act of killing something with its own fully developed mind, as it was difficult to imagine these miniature Eraserhead cast-offs thinking of much beyond their next suckling of rat teat.

With the big rats blocked from my shower drain and the babies ruthlessly euthanized, I was left with an infestation of juvenile rats – Big enough to be recognizably ratlike and kinda cute, but small enough to occupy my house full-time without having to retreat back to their Rat Kingdom, wherever it might be. These full-time guests began to severely try my patience, scattering their tiny turds throughout the house like so many bread crumbs, and keeping their teeth sharp by gnawing open my cabinets, causing insulation that is presumably not legal in North America or Europe to come tumbling out. After weeks of uneasy cohabitation, it was time to bring the war to the rats.

It was not mere procrastination that delayed my declaration of war (although there was plenty of that, too). I’m also cursed with the knowledge that rats are highly intelligent animals: they have distinctive personalities, and are quite ingenious at running mazes and solving puzzles. They are even altruistic, freeing fellow test rats from cages with no obvious benefit to themselves. And of course, it is their genetic similarity to humans that makes them such good laboratory test subjects.

Nonetheless, after the thousandth time spent re-washing plates from the draining rack that had been clean until they were gently sprinkled with rat turds, I realized that it was time to start kicking some rat ass. But how? There are many ways to kill a rat, but none of them seemed especially appealing. For someone as colossally clumsy as me, mechanical traps are as likely to ensnare my finger as they are to catch a rat. Poison could get eaten by my dogs, or a poisoned rat could crawl into its rat hole to die in peace, and then proceed to stink up my entire house. Sticky traps are the most popular option here in the Philippines, but also seem remarkably cruel: the rats struggle with the glue until they’ve ripped off much of their fur, and in most cases are tossed, immobile but very much conscious, into a garbage bag along with the trap. If they’re not lucky enough to asphyxiate, they will slowly die of thirst – surely not an appropriate fate for such a remarkable creature.

But on the other hand, there were rat turds everywhere! So one day I finally went out and bought some sticky traps, baited one with a scrap of pandesal, placed it in the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink, and waited for the magic to happen. In less than 5 minutes, I heard a commotion coming from the kitchen, and the Rat Patrol valiantly rushed over to investigate. I opened the cupboard and discovered a small brown rat desperately struggling to free itself from the tray of glue. I gazed upon it with a mix of pity and curiosity, all the while trying to ensure that my dogs wouldn’t end up with the glue tray affixed to their curious snouts. I closed the cabinet, went back to my computer, and engaged in some deep soul-searching while reading funny Internet articles.

I knew what I had to do to humanely end the rat’s suffering, but I didn’t have the stomach for it. I felt like (BREAKING BAD SEASON 1 SPOILER) Walter White trying to decide what to do with the man handcuffed to a drainpipe in his basement. Luckily for my thorny ethical dilemma, and unluckily for my clean dishes, I didn’t even have time to offer the rat a sandwich before it freed itself from the glue trap and ran off to safety.

The next time I trapped a rat, I acted with less hesitation. I set aside a certain bucket as the Rat-Drowning Bucket –house guests will be glad to know it’s not doing double-duty for traditional Filipino bucket-and-pail bathing in the bathroom – and filled it up with water, dropped the trap in upside down, and let the water do its work. Within 60 seconds the rat was dead, and I tossed the rat, along with the trap, into my garbage bag. (I can only hope that the Muntinlupa City garbage men will, under the circumstances, forgive me for failing to properly segregate my garbage by pulling a biodegradable wet, dead rat off from a non-biodegradable plastic glue trap.)

As countless dead-eyed mass murderers throughout history can tell you, the killing quickly gets easier as you do more of it. I have now drowned my fourth rat, and filling up the Rat-Drowning Bucket for the next kill is starting to feel a lot like doing the dishes after dinner. Each killing has its own distinctive flourishes, like the rat that struggled so valiantly to free itself while upside-down and underwater that it made the entire trap shake. That sad spectacle cut through my numbness long enough for me to feel fresh sorrow over having to kill something with such a strong will to survive. But in the end, I still feel guilty about the ease with which I can now murder animals that – according to one theory – are even capable of metacognition. The fact that I am doing it for humane reasons only provides partial consolation. I guess my new, irrevocable status as a lifetaker will compel me to struggle with the deepest questions of ethics and morality for years to come. But at least I’ll be able to do my soul-searching while eating pandesal off of plates that are mostly free of rat poop.


(Incidentally, the act of taking several lives already has me mentally planning a future blog post with the tentative title of “It’s Never Too Early to Prepare for Death”. Don’t worry – it’s gonna be a real knee-slapper!)

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