Marshallese Rat Trap

With graduation on the horizon, I find myself wondering whether I am in fact an adult ready to enter the world.  The answer so far has been a dishearteningly unequivocal “no.” One remarkable incident, however, did show me that push come to shove, I could be the problem solver I expect an adult to be.  

My junior year I spent a term teaching high-school students in the Marshall Islands. It was a meaningful experience—and whatever other clichés you want to attach to a philanthropic off term—but how I learned that I could be an adult was, I think, anything but normal.

The night my saga began I awoke to some strange noises and looked to find my fellow teacher and roommate Reilly sitting straight up in bed.  When I asked her what was wrong she told me she was pretty sure a rat had been crawling on her foot.  Cue perfectly timed scurrying noises. We both jumped on my bed and turned on the light.  After spending a full minute convincing ourselves said rodent wasn’t in the room I finally mustered up the courage to bravely peak under the bed; clearly if it was down there it would claw my face off. At this point I decided the rodent was probably just Cesar, the harmless mouse who lives in our AC unit—in my mind, leader of the spiders and the geckos.

The next night right before we went to sleep I heard my other roommate Robyn scream disjointedly from the kitchen “Jesus!” “Oh!” “Sorry!”. When she had recovered enough to put together a sentence she told us she had just seen a huge rat come out of the cabinet under the kitchen sink and retreat when she screamed.  At this point we could no longer delude ourselves into believing that our visitor the night before had only been a tiny mouse. It was 12:30am which is late by teacher standards.  In order to retain control of the house we decided to trap him.  Taking Reilly’s packing tape, we secured him inside the cabinet. To be clear, one piece of tape on the door was not enough. If we were going to secure the premises, it had to be done right. Each of us suggested a new way to arrange the tape until there was a solid inch of it over our cabinet.  Regardless of pattern or tactic, no rat was coming in or out. When our rodent friend realized he was now our hostage he began to suicidally throw himself against the sides of the cabinet, shaking the entire trailer.  Next we dealt with a deeper question, was it animal cruelty to lock the rat in the cabinet, possibly starving it to death? We decided rats are troopers and we had done what was necessary to regain control of our household. We named him Brutus, the enemy of our benevolent mouse king Cesar.

Brutus made his presence known each night, shaking the trailer and seemingly biting a hole to china.  He protested our best effort to restrict him, but we took comfort that we had gained the upper hand.

A few days later Reilly baked cookies for her class's Valentines Day party.  At around 10:30pm, as was to be expected sporadically on the island, the power went out. To ensure the cookies were kept fresh Reilly wrapped them in layers of tin foil but we could not put them in the fridge for fear of letting out the cold air.  Since we were under the impression that Brutus was well restrained, Reilly left them on the counter.  This was a bad choice.  

At around 3am Reilly and I awoke to the sounds of rustling foil. We followed our usual rat-scaring routine. We banged on the walls of our trailer alerting him to our dominance and superior size (Note: this is also what one is supposed to do if confronting bear), before prudently stomping into the kitchen. I realize that this is an oxymoron, but I can only describe our reaction to the whole situation as simultaneously incredibly aggressive and completely petrified. This attitude prevails through the entire saga. I said to Reilly "did the wind blow the tinfoil around?" and she looked at me, dumbfounded by my obliviousness and said, "Camilla, there are no cookies here."  At this point we realized Brutus was not our prisoner, Brutus was on the loose! He had eaten 35 cookies! We stood petrified, no one was safe, not even in our beds, so we blockaded ourselves in our room by stacking textbooks, dirty laundry, and plastic bags (so we would hear him rustling if he tried to enter—another nifty solution for you) in front of the bottom of our doors. I suppose in a more permanent dwelling, your doors would reach all the way to the ground so rats couldn’t sneak under them, but we were not so lucky.

I realize this sounds extreme, but a rat capable of eating 35 cookies is pretty fucking extreme. Now you might be thinking reading this, don't you think you girls have scared this rat more than he scared you? The answer is simple: absolutely not.  That rat kept us awake for hours.  The only way I could coax Reilly back to sleep was through some pretty questionable logic. "Well the worst case situation is that we wake up with a rat on our face, and that's not as bad as having dengue fever."  This was a rather extreme case of the lesser of two evils, but putting things in perspective has always seemed mature to me. This last ditch effort to justify our sleepless nights signaled the time had come to put an end to Brutus's reign of terror.  

Living in the city I always had a cat which preemptively kept mice away, so I had never been forced to figure out how to catch rodents. But as I had quickly learned on Majuro, when in doubt, ask your students.  The most depressing part of growing up is accepting that you in fact don’t have all the answers, and even as a Dartmouth student (or maybe especially as one) a lot of people are smarter than you—specifically in “real life” situations.  My class looked at me with pity when I told them the story of Brutus and said matter of factly “Marshallese rat trap Ms. Camilla.” Duh. So I asked what this was made of, expecting some sort of palm structure. “Iron Ms. Camilla” they told me, dumfounded by my utter helplessness.

At this point I could tell they were questioning whether I was really qualified to teach them.  My knowledge of geometry was a stark contrast to my complete helplessness in the face of Brutus.  And to be fair, although the former is of greater value in the eyes of western society, the latter proves more practical.  My mother had told me to call an exterminator.  That was not an option. I felt surely I should be able to catch a rat as well. So off Reilly and I went to Ace hardware, and a nice Marshallese man gave us some helpful advice.  1) Rats are smart and probably won' t fall for the classic, take the food and break your neck, trap. 2) The only way to kill a rat is to drown it, or burn it once caught. 3) If you let the rat just stay in the wall and block it in, when it finally does come out it will be as large as your forearm.  Comforting.  We settled on buying a cage like trap my students had described (turns out this is not in fact unique to the Marshall Islands), and two large snapping traps as back up.

The first task was to figure out how to best strategically place the traps.  Our methodology was most technical. We placed a piece of tape over a hole in the wall near where the cookies had been, and sure enough the next morning the tape was broke.  At this point we were getting pretty proud of our resourcefulness and our eyes burned with lethal intent as we felt mere hours from laying eyes on our persecutor.  We put the trap in front of the hole and stacked textbooks on either side to funnel Brutus into the cage.

Not 30 minutes after we had gone to bed we heard a snapping noise. "Guys, we have a rat" we said simulataneously.  Jumping out of bed we stood face to face in the kitchen with our tormentor finally trapped.  FOILED! I went to fill up the bucket in which we would drown the malicious creature (we decided burning him to death was logistically out of our reach and probably crueler). Except at this point Reilly and I had a change of heart.  The murderous glee we had exhibited while setting up the traps was replaced with sympathy.  He wasn't that big, looked so scared, and in a way he was sort of cute. This was the first moment I accepted Brutus was in fact a rodent and not an evil genius. So we left Brutus to sit, now the terrified one, in his cage while we tried to think of ways to spare his life, or more accurately, keep his blood off our hands.  We thought of letting him go across the school campus, but we knew he was smart enough to get back.

Finally Robyn put her foot down and said, "It's ok, we have to do this, I'll do it."  Reilly and I ran out of the room squealing like five year olds only followed by Robyn's screams "THE BUCKET ISN'T DEEP ENOUGH!" Running back we saw a wet Brutus, head above water, clinging to the side of the cage and staring up at us. His fear was replaced with disappointment.  His eye’s said simply, "Really? This was your plan? What now?"  The look I knew too well from my students… Cue more debate about whether we were murderous psychopaths. Without a word, almost in a trance, Reilly walked to the sink, filled a cup of water, and promptly dumped it on Brutus’s head.  “Why are you water boarding Brutus?!” I exclaimed. "I want him to know what's coming" she said.

I’ll admit, we did in fact sound like murderous psychopaths when you reflect on the fact that we’re talking about a rat.  But midnight was late for us, and our reasoning skills were impaired. In the end we compromised by deciding to drown him the bathtub and then hold a memorial service. Robyn walked with the cage to the bathroom saying over and over again " I'm sorry rat! I'm so sorry rat" before dropping him to his certain death.  The only thing I can say about his death (because I had clearly run in the other direction) is that he died quickly, and hopefully rather painlessly.  Re-entering the bathroom we found him in rigor mortis to the side of the trap. We threw his lifeless body off of our mini front porch and I presided over the service saying we hoped he would be reincarnated as something better (my mother suggested a baker) in his next life, and concluded with "we will not miss you, but we will not forget you."  And just like that, the saga of Brutus was over.  

So perhaps knowing how to blockade myself in a room or trap a large rodent won’t come up again soon.  Maybe this isn’t an appropriate story for an interview. But I proved to myself that I can in fact outsmart a tormentor, even if he was just a rat.