Flat Rat


My childhood was spent on a farm; quiet, secluded, well away from the city limits. Gophers a common sight, occasionally a skunk , sometimes a deer nibbling on the fruit trees. Coyotes high on the hills punctuated summer evenings with their unmistakeable wails, though I can’t recall ever seeing one. There were frogs, rabbits, and the owl nesting in a crab apple tree – once a bear followed us home from our school bus.

Other than in a pet store I had never seen a rat. There was the story of the Piper of Hamlin, I knew they carried fleas responsible for “the plague” in medieval Europe, I suppose if pressed I would have said they could be found in garbage dumps or slums.

Within a few days of moving to Vancouver I saw my first rat; not at the docks – running along a telephone wire in a swanky part of town. I quickly realized; where there were people and garbage, rats would come. They cared little for demographics – rats were equal opportunity vermin. Discouraging rats is common sense – contain your garbage, don’t leave piles of brush or garden clippings around to encourage nesting, and in my case a dog – one who’s caught a rat or two doesn’t hurt.

Well used to the notion of rats in the city, I thought nothing of leaving the back door open on a hot muggy day. My son, home sick from school lay on my bed as we watched a movie together. I caught sight of the behemoth from the corner of my eye; I swear this rat was the size of a cat. Perhaps momentary hysterics embellished the girth of my intruder. I leapt for the phone, calling my husband at work to report a rat in the bedroom – “what am I supposed to do about it?” he replied. He had a valid point – it was entirely up to me.

The commotion forced rat into a defensive position beneath the morning paper at the side of the bed. Snapping into “rat slayer” mode I ordered my son not to take his eyes off it as I ran out to the garden. Unsure what I was even looking for, all became clear when a cement cinder block was carried back to the bedroom. Screaming like a ninny, I gauged an appropriate distance for my one shot at a fatal blow.

Never in my life have I been so pleased with myself  making that second call to my husband’s office. I assured him the problem was taken care of, and asked only that he clean up the flat rat when he got home.

The Plague


As a kid I never lost sleep over ghosts or monsters under the bed; clowns were another matter, they gave me nightmares. Not fooled by grease paint and oversized shoes, I was quite convinced clowns were a secret army of malevolent  soldiers, with an agenda of unspeakable horrors, I avoided them like the plague.

Oddly enough, my sleepless nights stemmed almost exclusively from unstoppable diseases or unfortunate calamity. Ebola, a haemorrhagic virus lurking in the darkest of jungles, dissolving your body until death mercifully took you when nothing was left of your former self but a puddle of dissolving mush. Spontaneous human combustion couldn’t be “caught”, nor could it be avoided – night terror central. Tapeworms, black widow spiders,  all delivered gut churning worry. Corners of my mind gathered the dust of circumstance beyond my control – monsters and goblins could be defeated using clever strategy and wits, but try as I might defence against perils of our natural world eluded me. When I learned about Smallpox and how it eradicated indigenous people in the Americas I nearly lost my mind. Since my sister had eczema doctors advised against immunizing our family for Smallpox. My mother’s assurance there hadn’t been a case for years did little for my sleepless nights; I wasn’t buying it – if everything was sunshine and roses, then why were children still being immunized?

As I grew older anguish faded; common sense replaced secret hysteria, maturity delivered me from the curse of night panic. It wasn’t until the early 80’s dropped the AIDS bomb, and friends started dropping like flies that dread invaded my thoughts again. Then came bird flu, SARS, and H1N1.

Now reports of Bubonic Plague identified in Los Angeles squirrels has me thinking – holy crap. Three campgrounds in the Angeles National Forest were evacuated and closed as a precaution after routine tests turned up a plaguey squirrel. It surprised me to learn on average seven people are infected with “the plague” in the U.S. every year, since 1984 four cases of plague have been diagnosed in LA County and none were fatal. Bubonic plague is a bacterial rather than a viral infection. Properly identified and treated with antibiotics the “black death” appears treatable – apparently far more manageable than the black death responsible for the deaths of 25 million people in the middle ages. Transmitted by flea bites, rats were the medieval carriers – squirrel couriers freak me out.

http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/07/26/bubonic-plague-infested-squirrel-shuts-down-los-angeles-county-national-park/

North Americans twenty years ago had never heard of West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever or Bubonic Plague outside fictional stories or the occasional National Geographic magazine in the doctor’s waiting room. Black Death lived in medieval history classes, Malaria and Typhus only happened some place else.

No longer that child, and thankfully not an obsessive compulsive adult with handwashing or germ phobias, I welcome a little  bacteria in my life. Avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, washing my hands with soap and water rather than hand sanitizer, and playing it cool with “antibacterial” everything. A few germs help build immune systems – saving antibiotics for dire situations gives us a fighting chance when nature rolls out the big guns.

The Spanish Flu epidemic began in 1918 and is credited with 50 – 100 million funerals depending on whose report you read. Unlike Bubonic plague, flu is a virus, meaning antibiotics are useless. Thanks to the AIDS epidemic medicine has come a long way in developing anti-viral drugs;  anti- bacterial remedies for the most part can handle assignments, anti-viral drugs work to suppress or minimize symptoms – a huge difference.

The microscopic world constantly mutates and evolves – viruses are nasty business, nastier even than “plague squirrel” that set this ponder in motion. The “holy crap” moment I experienced when hearing the story served as a reminder – I would rather face zombies, a scenario with a fighting chance than be at the mercy of unseen organisms.