Lesson from a Mama Woodrat

by Larisa White, of California, U.S.A.

We’ve been working over the past dozen plus years on a Native California ecosystem restoration project on our 1/3-acre property, and over the past two years, developing an organic fruit/veggie mini-farm, with small growing areas interspersed with the native habitat area. So, we are both providing for ourselves, and the wildlife. Last week, we discovered a nest with five baby grey-brown rats, and a mama rat in attendance.

Rats!!!

I am sure that popular opinion is that their first appearance should be met immediately with the Dalek-like exclamation: “EXTERMINATE!” followed by outright war. Especially when one is seen among human food-growing beds. As farmers we only wanted to keep them out of our food. As parents of a young child, we were also concerned with the safety against disease-vector potential for our inquisitive boy.

But as druids, we also wanted to respect the life of a devoted mother with newborn babies.  She was trying so hard to be a GOOD mother. And her babies barely had eyes open. And they were put here by Nature, just as I was. And Nature does have a way of keeping pests in balance: owls, hawks, coyotes, etc.

Our solution: we waited until afternoon, when the temps had cooled a bit, and daylight was still strong. Then, we removed the “roof” of their nesting place (boards covering the underground watering system controls), to make them feel exposed and uncomfortable — but with a running head-start before our resident owls go hunting tonight. Then, we went in to dinner. By the time dinner was over, mama rat had relocated her babies to a less inconvenient location for us.

Or so we thought.

The following day, in bright, sunny, blistering heat, I saw the mama out and about, hunting for food and/or water with an air of desperation (they are normally nocturnal) — around the perimeter of our blueberry patch.  She still had not managed to find her way through our veggie-bed hardware-cloth cages, but she was studying them, and I do believe she was working out the math.

So, what was a Druid to do?

Answer: Refuse to panic or take action in a knee-jerk response prompted by fear. Instead, adopt a meditative state of carefully observant, reverent behavior, and consider all options. Watch and listen, and phrase our questions carefully:

NOT: “Eeeek! What is it!?! How do I get rid of it?!?”

BUT: “Hello! Who are you? Why did you come here? What are you trying to accomplish? Can we find a way to live and work peaceably, together?”

It was only upon taking this approach that we discovered, upon closer inspection, that we did not actually have a brown RAT (Rattus Norvegicus — below, on right), but a dusky-footed WOOD RAT (Neotoma Fuscipes — below, on left). And the difference is huge — even though they look very similar, at first glance:

Neotoma Fuscipes (California dusky-footed woodrats) are solitary creatures, except during breeding (once or twice per year), whereas Rattus Norvegicus (brown rats) species live in groups, and breed continuously.

Neotoma Fuscipes are clean animals, pooping only outside of their nests, in dedicated latrines, and using partly-chewn leaves of aromatic plants like Bay Laurel, to keep their nests free of parasites like fleas (and the diseases they carry), whereas Rattus species are dirty animals, and pose serious disease-vector problems.

Neotoma Fuscipes has an important role in our local ecology, eating leaves and acorns, and fungi, and thereby spreading the mycorrhizae critical to the health and longevity of the native plants of our area, whereas rattus species are merely pests and dangers, eating everyone’s gardens, garbage, and pet food.

Finally, Neotoma Fuscipes are just plain PRETTIER than Rattus species: bigger ears and eyes, softer, glossier coats, and furry tails.

More info on the Neotoma Fuscipes can be found at:

http://www.friendsofedgewood.org/dusky-footed-woodrat

Yes, she might eat a bit of our veggies, now and  again, but she is unlikely to breed out of control, or spread diseases to her neighbors (us). So, Mama Wood Rat is welcome to stay.

With our blessings.

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