The Rat Came Back: Musings on Biodiversity

     Funny thing about biodiversity—it’s great in principle, but when things start to get too, well, diverse, one’s feelings on the matter get a bit muddled. Allow me to explain. Back in the early days of A Rocha’s first Environmental Centre, we had the usual diversity of biological life: chickens, cows and a myriad of plants and veggies on the farmy bit; frogs, salamanders, newts, shrews and at least forty species of birds in the wetland/forest bit; and homo sapiens in the shape of staff, volunteers, interns and school children throughout. We celebrate this kind of biodiversity.

     That year, however, things got too diverse—too diverse by two species. The first, Canis latrans, was spotted the previous spring, drawn by our chickens, who being free range apparently seemed a free smorgasbord for our canine nemesis. The coyotes (for that’s what they were) picked off two of our lovely heritage breed chickens, most notably Miss Mullet, a Black Polish cross with a crazy hairdo for whom we all mourned. So the rest of the chickens went back into the coop. But the farm was so much farmier with the “girls” scratching about, and so we let them out again. In short—and in short order—the coyote took three more chickens. Now the four that remained were only let out under the strictest supervision. But since the allure of chicken-sitting wears off after about fifteen minutes, they spent most of their time behind bars. Alas, what can you do when you live in a zoo?

     The second species to appear uninvited that year was Rattus rattus (that’s really its Latin name). They took up residence in our basement that fall when the weather turned chilly. After chewing up numerous plastic buckets and figuring out quickly what the rat traps were all about, they took advantage of renovations on the main floor to sneak up into OUR living space. By the evidence they left, they boldly scurried up the stairs, visited every room in the house and even started building a nest in our green corduroy couch. This last atrocity occurred while we were away for a week, and, needless to say, shot us into serious rat-eradication frenzy, which we eventually won.

     To our shame, I must admit that we used the appearance of these two species to our unfair parental advantage. When our daughter Maya (aged four at the time) showed signs of dashing without permission from our house to visit the interesting interns at the Main House, we casually would chirp, “Watch out for coyotes,” which, of course, sent her scampering back to our sides. And when little Bryn (then two) sauntered into the living room with a crumbly piece of toast in hand, we’d lightly draw for her the connection between crumbs and the onslaught of hungry rats. And so in their impressionable minds, coyotes were beasts to be feared above all others, and rats were so resourceful that at the mere scent of something delicious they flew from the basement to snatch the crumbs falling from one’s mouth. Law and order in the here and now versus a battery of counselling sessions for our girls years in the future—it was a tough call.
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