Town Mouse

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Tom Hodgkin­son

If there is one thing that Town Mice are afraid of and loathe more than any­thing else on the planet, it is rats.

While it is com­plete non­sense that in Lon­don you are never more than six feet away from a rat – as the ur­ban myth has it – rats are nev­er­the­less widespread.

And un­like mice, which re­ally are wee, tim’rous beast­ies, they have courage, en­ti­tle­ment and bold­ness in spades. They just don’t care. Hence, I sup­pose, our fear.

Rats have in­fested a small park that I cy­cle through on my way to the of­fice. Mean­while Gar­dens is a wor­thy com­mu­nity project which was cre­ated in the early Eight­ies out of a piece of derelict land. It abuts the Grand Union Canal, and at one end is a lit­tle road bridge which goes over the wa­ter.

It is the area un­der this bridge that be­came rat par­adise. At any time of day, you were likely to see small gangs of the un­ap­peal­ing crea­tures feast­ing on piles of rice and bread. Their num­bers seemed to swell daily.

Rats are hard to shift. We once had an in­va­sion when I lived on a farm. The rats would hide and watch while I fed the hens and then join them when I left the yard. One day, I found one trapped in the feed bin. I got my air ri­fle out, let him out but held him down with my foot on his tail and shot him in the head. Just be­fore I did so he started bit­ing and at­tack­ing the bar­rel of the air ri­fle. Fear­less crea­tures!

So I was re­ally pleased to see a gang of rat-catch­ers ap­pear in Mean­while Gar­dens. They were busy set­ting traps and putting up warn­ing no­tices. They ex­plained to me the sys­tem that the rats had de­vel­oped. Es­sen­tially, the pi­geons and rats worked to­gether.

‘Peo­ple come and feed the pi­geons. The pi­geons swoop down and start peck­ing. The rats, who have been hid­ing in the bur­rows un­der­neath the bridge, see the pi­geons and come out to feed with them. Pi­geon and rat eat side by side.

‘If we ap­pear, or they are frightened by a dog, the pi­geons fly into that tree and the rats go back to their bur­rows. When the coast is clear, the pi­geons swoop back down and the rats see them and come out again.’

Now who on earth would be so ir­re­spon­si­ble as to feed the pi­geons in this way? First, restau­rants were dump­ing their left­overs in the park. Se­condly, men­tally ill peo­ple in the area like feed­ing the birds. They may not re­alise that, in fact, they are feed­ing the rats. Re­ally there should be signs say­ing, ‘Please do not feed the rats.’

Some have a mis­guided view of the equal­ity of all God’s crea­tures. My friend Ray re­mon­strated with a pi­geon-feeder the other day. This per­son said, ‘Rats have fam­i­lies, too.’

Some­times peo­ple will creep into the park with a plas­tic bag of old bread, dump it sur­rep­ti­tiously while no one is look­ing, and then scarper.

‘Thanks to this food dump­ing, there now are 200 rats liv­ing there,’ said the rat man. As we were chat­ting, a girl and her boyfriend stopped to see what was go­ing on.

‘There is a rat colony over there,’ I ex­plained. They looked and be­came grad­u­ally more hor­ri­fied as their eyes fo­cused on the crea­tures – there must have been six or eight nib­bling away – and she started scream­ing.

The rat man and his no­ble col­leagues put up signs bear­ing a pic­ture of a rat and the leg­end ‘Se­ri­ous rat haz­ard. Please – no food dump­ing or pi­geon feed­ing here.’ They cor­doned off the rats’ main for­ag­ing ground with for­bid­ding-look­ing tape dec­o­rated with yel­low and black stripes. They also put down five baited traps and a few sprung rat traps.

A few days later, I bumped into the rat man and asked how it was go­ing. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘Look – no pi­geons.’

He said that they had ex­plained to the rogue pi­geon-feed­ers that they were wag­ing a war against the rats and to please stop feed­ing the birds – and had en­joyed some suc­cess.

Alas, just this morn­ing, I no­ticed that there were five or six pi­geons feed­ing on a pile of dis­carded baguette crusts. If this car­ries on, I may take a bin bag with me and put the bread in it.

‘We’ll never get rid of them com­pletely,’ said the rat man. ‘But at least we can keep the num­bers down.’

It got me think­ing about what a great job ro­dent-killers do and how sat­is­fy­ing a pro­fes­sion it must be. I’d just been read­ing a new book called Bull­shit Jobs: A The­ory by Pro­fes­sor David Grae­ber, an an­thro­pol­o­gist at the LSE. It’s a sur­vey of 200 ac­counts he re­ceived of peo­ple in the UK com­plain­ing about the mean­ing­less­ness of their job in mid­dle man­age­ment or in a call cen­tre.

No such prob­lem af­flicts the rat men. They are do­ing some­thing gen­uinely use­ful.

Ro­dent-killers are a bit like the AA – you are al­ways so pleased to see them.

I re­mem­ber many moons ago, when I was a coun­try mouse, call­ing in the mole man. ‘Best job in the world!’ was his cheery re­frain.

‘There were six or eight rats nib­bling away – the girl started scream­ing’

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