I think my favorite Key West tree rat experience was years ago at Blue Heaven. Before they were as busy as they are today, they used to play games in the back corner of the yard. This particular production was “Saint Joan” by George Bernard Shaw. My friend Kathleen Balselmo conducted and my friend Scott Elliott performed Saint Joan herself. (I think Richard Hatch was in the cast somewhere, but maybe I’m confusing him with the productions of “The Tempest” and “Peter Pan” they also did there.)
I had helped promote the show a bit and volunteered as an usher for a few nights.
There was a battle scene in the play – a sword fight in which Joan of Arc attempts to lead her troops to defeat the enemy for the greater glory of France, as well as the role defiers of gender assigned around the world – and every night during this scene, at the exact same spot, a tree rat would make itself visible on the power line suspended above the stage and race down it at full speed, like a hero in a movie. ‘stock. My wife got to see both the coin and the rat, and for a long time afterwards we were like, man, the tree rat was awesome.
Years, probably decades later, I was lying half awake in our living room late one unseasonably cold February evening when I heard some sort of scratching at the kitchen door that we weren’t. had never used. I sat up and it stopped, so I lay down and went back to sleep.
A few minutes (hours?) later I heard kibble being chomped on, not by our dog’s canines, but something that took much smaller, faster and more frantic bites. And when I sat down, I saw it – a tree rat sitting on the dog food bowl. I got up to chase it and the thing ran towards the wall and disappeared.
I moved the bowl and behind it, at the base of the door, there was a field of woodchip debris and a perfect Tom and Jerry mouse hole, maybe an inch wide and two inches high .
Until then, like most Key Westers I spoke to, I had thought tree rats were those benign little creatures that, at worst, added comic relief to early 20th century plays about how things could go horribly, horribly wrong even when people all thought they were doing the right thing. But now they had forcefully invaded our house. So I did some reading.
The main thing I learned is that tree rats are just a lie we tell ourselves.
There is no tree rat. Or arguably, a tree rat is, at best, a euphemism for the black rat, aka rattus rattus if you want to be scientific and binomial about it, the world’s most basic trash-munching rat.
Seeing a black rat run into someone’s yard and say “aw, look, a tree rat,” is just another of Key West’s collective rants (although my editor tells me she was on their game years ago).
Black rats have a small reputation. The complaint against them is that they spread bubonic plague across Europe a few times during the day, although there is an argument to be made that it was the oriental rat fleas that actually carried the bacteria that caused the disease, and the rats just carried the fleas. But the other biggest black rat zoonotic diseases are typhus, trichinosis, toxoplasmosis, and something quite charming called rat bite fever.
A species account I read about them refers to Homo sapiens like a rattus rattus
“mutualistic species”, but a mutualistic relationship between species implies a counterpart. We do a lot for them, but I don’t know what they really do for us. Apart from infectious diseases, they are also known to destroy crops and food supplies – along with their cousins, the Norway rats – as well as occasionally chewing through household wiring.
That said, the fact that rattus rattus is one of the most widespread species in the world – they are found on every continent – is quite clearly the fault of humans. Black rats are thought to have evolved in Southeast Asia, but first made their way to Europe by traveling the trade routes of the Roman Empire. Some believe their population plummeted when the Roman Empire collapsed, but experienced a resurgence in the Middle Ages when more stable trade routes were established. Once they arrived in European port cities, they managed to invade the holds of every ship crossing an ocean and spread all over the world.
An article I read said rattus rattus arrived in North America in the mid-1800s, but I have not been able to find the source of this information, and it seems likely that they would have made their way to the continent much earlier.
I have to think of the whole rattus rattus thing the other day because our ice maker died. The previous owners of our house had kindly left us a binder full of manuals for all the kitchen appliances, air conditioners and so on, so I flipped through it to see if I could find a manual with troubleshooting tips for the ice machine.
I found the ice maker manual, and it turns out the ice maker was, in fact, dead. But I also found a yellowing eight-page pamphlet from 1992 from the University of Florida, distributed by the Monroe County Extension Service, which was basically a guide to the rats and mice you’re likely to encounter in Florida. It lists both house mice and Norway rats, but also so-called roof rats. Which turned me on for a second. ‘Cause maybe it wasn’t rattus rattus I saw all the time.
But before I even started googling, I knew that. The roof rat is just another name for the roof rat. Like the ship rat, like the fruit rat, like the domestic rat.
After the dog bowl incident, it took a little while, but we managed to trap all the rats that had raided. But we left the mouse hole Tom and Jerry. Because it looked awesome. And also because if we cover it, there is a good chance that any rat wanting to enter the house will gnaw another hole.
I haven’t seen a rat come into our kitchen in years. But if I ever see one again, at least I’ll know what to call it.