Considering Chicago’s Dead Rats — An Existential Discovery

By David Himmel

Recently, I watched a rat die naturally and it nearly broke my heart. It’s a strange feeling since I have taken the lives of so many rats before.

In our house, we refer to the summer of 2014 affectionately as the Summer of the Rat. Three out of seven days a week during that summer when I would take our dog, Eddie, out for his morning constitutional, I’d find at least one dead rat in one of the several rat traps we had set in our yard. While Eddie did his business, I tended to the business of disposing of the rat. I was always prepared to find one so I’d pick up the trap gingerly by its edges and drop it into the plastic trash bag I’d brought out with me. When Eddie was done, I’d use a smaller plastic bag to scoop up his poop and drop that into the rat bag, tie it up and walk it to the dumpster behind our apartment building.

At some point during the previous winter or spring, rats had made their way into the walls of the first-floor apartment below where we lived. At dusk, when rats are their busiest, it was more common than not to see one or two or three run across the yard into the street or into one of the many holes they had dug around the apartment’s perimeter. My wife, Katie, gladly gave me the responsibility of taking Eddie out at night, too.

My uncle Jon, who owns a farm, gave me a large box of your standard rat traps. I baited and set them in front of every rat hole I could find. We didn’t want to use rat poison out of concern for Eddie and the neighbor’s dog and any city rabbit rascally enough to make a snack of it. Traps, when baited and set properly, are the most effective way to get rid of the problem. And the problem was made of some big bastards. From snout to tail, they measured the length from my elbow to the tip of my middle finger and were much fatter than my forearm. Their deaths were bloody. Sometimes the trap would catch their neck, snapping it and sending blood out of their mouths. Sometimes it would catch their skull, crushing it, and the blood wood seep out onto the paver stone walkway and patio of our building. I should have asked the landlord to purchase a power washer that I could use to clean up the stains.

To some, this rat was a criminal. To others, a victim. To the author, a spirit animal.

To some, this rat was a criminal. To others, a victim. To the author, a spirit animal.

One afternoon, while tossing the tennis ball in the yard with Eddie — pop flies only so he wouldn’t accidentally trap his foot — I saw one of our next door neighbors walking out of her place. At the same time, I glanced a fat rat walking slowly along the concrete base of that property’s fence. The young woman saw it, too, and shrieked.

“Hang on,” I said to her. “I’ll get him.”

I quickly grabbed the snow shovel with the metal edge I kept in the foyer of our building and walked to her front gate. “It’s OK if I come in?” I asked. She nodded a frantic yes, otherwise frozen with fear. I thought it was strange that a rat would be so bold to parade itself like this in the middle of the day until I realized that it must have been sick, having likely gotten into some poison set out on some other property. It was moving slow enough that I had no trouble reaching it and slamming the edge of the shovel down onto it.

Over and over and over. I hoped the first thrust would decapitate it or sever its spine. But rats are tough fuckers and the thing just squealed until finally, it stopped. The neighbor thanked me. I scooped the thing up and carried it to the dumpster.

A week or so later during the same time of day, Eddie and I stepped outside for our afternoon pee and poop and ball tossing. He bolted down the steps as per usual but instead of heading out to the grass at the front of the yard, he bolted straight to the property-dividing fence at the bottom of the steps and buried his head in the neighbor’s foliage. It didn’t alarm me because dogs like to smell things. But he wasn’t leaving. Eddie was onto something. There was something in the foliage. I ducked down, scooted Eddie out of the way and pushed the plants apart. He had been snout to snout with another fat rat.

I rushed him upstairs and tossed him in the tub for a good scrubbing. I don’t know how much actual contact he had with the rat but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I figured that this rat, like the one from the week before, had also ingested poison. As Eddie soaked, I called the vet and asked if I needed to be concerned. “Probably not. Give him a bath and keep an eye on him. If he acts strangely, call us back or bring him in.” He was fine — more annoyed at the mid-day bath than anything.

I grabbed my best butcher knife from the kitchen and returned to the fence hoping the rat was still there. It was. I stabbed it with the knife. It didn’t shriek or even move. It just let me kill it. As I did, I wondered if the rat and Eddie had communicated at all. If the rat had confessed anything to my pup while on its deathbed. I wondered if it saw me as a savior — an angel of death sparing him from the lengthy agony the poisoning would have caused.

(I washed the knife with soap under the hottest water half a dozen times then ran it through the dishwasher on the HEAVY setting. I never told Katie about this, and I’m hoping she’s not reading this. Please, no one mention it to her. She may divorce me if she knows the truth. Or worse, I’ll have to buy a new set of knives, and those things ain’t cheap.)

Later on, that summer, toward the end of the rats’ reign, I noticed a sticky pad set up along the wall of our building not far from what I am convinced was the rats’ front door into the first-floor walls. Sticky pads are terrible traps for rats, Uncle Jon told me. Most of the time the rats will step on it and are strong enough to free themselves, not caring that they often leave behind a limb in the process. Rats are survivors and vanity doesn’t register with them. A gimp rat with a missing leg may well be a rat to be honored among the mischief. I figured one of the guys downstairs must have dropped the sticky pad, and that was as much as I thought about it. Until the next morning when as Eddie was pooping in the grass, I saw two kitten rats — baby rats are called kittens in a wonderfully ironic twist — caught on the sticky pad.

They were squirming trying to free themselves. I felt sorry for them. The poor things were likely the last of their swarm, and with having killed so many adult rats, I had left them without any adult supervision. Not having been taught the skills to navigate the world’s dangers, they couldn’t have known to avoid the sticky trap. Eddie did his business, we tossed the ball around for a bit and then headed back into the apartment so he could get back to napping on my office couch and I could get back to work.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the baby rats. The fear they must have felt. The confusion. The suffering. I went back outside with the intention of stomping them out. Me, the kind Angel of Death there to make it quick and painless. I grabbed the rusty hedge clippers from underneath the first-floor apartment’s porch. I was surprised to find a third rat kitten in the sticky pad.

Maybe they were siblings, three brothers. Maybe the two went out in search of food while the third stayed back to guard the nest. When the first two didn’t return, the third brother went in search of them. Seeing them stuck on the sticky pad, he, of course, wanted to help them. “No!” the two trapped brothers screamed at him. “It’s a trap! Stay away! Save yourself!” But he refused and in his young, foolish brain, he thought he could save them. And there they were, three little rats, squirming together, huddled up with one another as if they were comforting each other.

I couldn’t help but think of my brothers, Eric and Steven. How scared we would be if our entire family was dead and it was just us alone in the world to fend for ourselves, and now we were trapped, scared, hungry and hurting, knowing death was the only conclusion.

The clippers weren’t sharp enough to pierce them. I only managed to bludgeon them, hurting them more. They squealed. They cried out. “It’ll be OK, my brothers!” the oldest one may have said. Finally, after several minutes of beating the three rat kittens with the handle of the clippers, they died. I picked up the pad with the shears and carried it to the dumpster. I tossed the shears in, too. I went back upstairs, washed my hands and snuggled with Eddie. Then I called my brothers.


A few days ago, I was walking into a bookstore in Evanston. Before I got to the door, I noticed a small rat that I first thought was a mouse scurrying around the sidewalk’s high concrete planters. It was 11 a.m. and nasty, nasty cold. This rat should not have been away from its mischief. Judging by its size, it was a youngling, a teenager who had perhaps, in a moment of defiance, stormed out of his family’s nest. It couldn’t climb the concrete. It would leap, get hold and then fall back down the six inches to the sidewalk. It looked like it had a bum leg. Broken maybe. Frozen perhaps.

I heard a little girl scream, “Eww!” She was sitting in a minivan parked along the curb. The windows were down. The engine was running. She and her brother shared the front seat. “Is that a mouse?” she asked stretching farther out of the window.

“It’s a rat,” I said.

“You should help it. Pick it up.”

“I’d love to help it but rats are really dirty and it could bite me. He’ll figure it out. He’s a smart little creature.”

“It’s so gross! I hope it’s OK.” She and her younger brother jostled for a better view of the gross rat she wanted to help.

I spent an hour in the bookstore. I hoped I would either see the rat still trying to climb or not see it at all because it had made its way to wherever it was trying to go. Instead, I found it dead against the planter. I stopped alongside it. It looked peaceful but I know it died frustrated, which is the last way I want to go. I pondered its existence in a moment of silence and allowed myself to feel sadness over its death and its disappointing final moments.

Generally, I hate rats. They’re ugly and dirty and dangerous and destructive. When I was single, I patrolled the alley behind my apartment with a bb gun hunting the nasty bastards. This activity was the first conversation and debate Katie and I ever had. “They have a right to be there, you know.” She was right. Rats are only here because we’re here. And as long as they stay out of my home’s walls and my yard and away from my neighbors and my dog, I’m fine with them. As fine as a rat’s merchant of death can be, anyway.

But I felt sad for the bookstore rat for the same reason I felt sad about the three kittens on the sticky pad: I can relate. I saw my brothers and I on the sticky pad and I saw myself in the bookstore rat. Their youthful zest for life stopped short because of conditions beyond their control, because of circumstances they were unable to improve. They tried and they failed. Their ultimate undoing was a result of their desire to do something despite the odds. It’s the same risk I try to run every single day.