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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Revenge of a zoological collector

[The zoological collector's hoard: 13 cat turds, 17 acorns, 25 deer mice, 3 woodrats (1 adult, 2 pups), 3 lizards, 21 millipede segments, a small sampling of numerous wood splinters, and 1 cigarette butt]

Where do all the little mousies and rats go that eat warfarin under your house? Did you ever wonder about that?

I never gave it much thought until last weekend, when the bedroom started to smell rather poorly. Something had died under the house, and I was responsible.

The day before we flew to Virginia last month I put rodenticide in the crawl space. Normally, I trap homesteading rodents. Sorry, but I just can't afford to donate my library annex in the garage to mammalian paper shredders.

Well, the redhead had been telling me about nocturnal gnawing and splintering sounds. Under the house something was going bump in the night.

Obviously, a wood rat had gotten into the crawl space and was collecting materials for a stick nest. I would have preferred to snaptrap the newcomer, but we weren't going to be around for a couple weeks, and I didn't want surprises when we got home.

Well, the poison worked, and this stench was the rodent's revenge. My first reaction was to close the heating vents, and for two days I was feeling quite clever, but then the rodent cranked up the stench and it got worse, a lot worse.

As readers of this blog are fully aware, I can handle stenches better than the next man. After all, I'm a student of mammals, and appreciate the fact that most mammals live in an outrageously rich universe of smells. The mammalogist's call of duty requires the occasional sniff of a scat or scent gland, and the quest for specimens necessitates close encounters with road kill and other ripe carcasses.

But a night of sleeping in that stench had crossed my threshold of tolerance. There was no choice. Whatever it was, and wherever it was, I had to go under and drag it out.

I changed into my field duds, fetched my enormous 2 million candle power spot light, and stuffed a 12-inch forceps, and 2 plastic grocery bags into my back pockets.

A half hour of belly crawling took me beyond the plumbing and ventilation to a space beneath the bathroom, and as the dust settled I saw the ground littered with little bundles of yellow fiberglass insulation and the shredded remains of the box of rat poison.

The dirty work hadn't even started when the spot light started to fade. I had to get out while I could still see. I humped back to the entrance at remarkable speed for a codger. There my granddaughter handed me another spotlight.

Starting over again, I illuminated my destination in 10 foot lengths and groveled in the dark to the littered dirt. (This light had limited power too).

Hmmm. The insulation between the floor joists was sagging in places. I rolled over on my back, and pulled back a corner of the insulation. Acorns, a couple of mummified mice, and a dried cat turd spilled before my face.

In a dozen places the woodrat's zoological collection was sandwiched between the floorboards and the insulation, and the stashes were connected by tunnels through the insulation. This was the resting place for dead mice in the crawl space. The rat also had a fondness for millipedes and cat shit.

Finally, I found the source of the stench. Swaddled in insulation was a soggy and maggot-ridden dusky-footed woodrat.

I felt a little sad that it had to end this way, because I never met a zoological collector I didn't like.


Owlman said...

Chris I completely empathise with your experience. It brought back old memories of the summer of 1954 while working for my uncle Warne Lark in his drugstore (Lark"s Drugs) in Guerneville, CA. The grocery store a few yards down the street had a rat problem. They solved it by putting rat poison under their crawl space. One hot summer day the stench of decaying rats was keeping customers from entering the drug store. Since I was "low man on the totem pole" guess who was chosen to deal with the problem? I will never forget going down into the "hole" with about 2 feet of space and pulling out several maggot ridden rat carcasses in ambient temperatures of nearly 100 degrees F. After that I was known as "the Mole".

Beverly said...

Awww…while there was a sad element, I don’t often howl with laughter or laugh till tears came…but I did with this story! OMG …too funny, though I understand your concern for killing another zoological collector; it’s probably bad juju. I hope this doesn’t mess up your karma!

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks for the feedback. Amazing that you went on into zoology, Terry. People usually try to escape those memories, and didn't Dr Phil or Oprah interview someone who had a childhood mole experience? As for my own karma, maybe a bag of donuts will help restore it.

Beverly said...

Dead rats eat no donuts.


Anonymous said...

I had a woodrat die somewhere near my laundry room. What a horrid odor! Weeks of breath holding laundry. I tried to neutralize the odor with Oust and Ozium. Eau de dead woodrat won!

Anonymous said...


I know exactly what you mean brother. My son noticed a stench in his house and upon investigation found the source to be a dead oppossum underneath. Problem was where it had died was in an area we couldn't get to. What to do? Well I talked to someone whom had a similiar experience and suggested using a frog gig. So I connected one to the end of about 10 foot of 3/4" pvc and gigged the bloated carcass, which by the way exacted its revenge when it expelled its gaseous contents. Like to have lost my lunch when that happened, but to say the least we got it out.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Right on, Jace. Man the tool-user can solve these problems, though nature may exact a small surcharge.

Martin said...

There was a strange smell in our house too... kind of a mix of yoghurt, rotting vegetables and blackcurrant. Turned out it was the kids, AND they've become tolerant to rat poison.