Intro: Anima School is developing a number of focused niche websites with changing, dynamic content. The following article is your advance look at one of the kinds of pieces that will be featured in the newsletter for the ReWilding & Libertarian site (name to be decided on!). It features down home language and practical instructions, combined with deep ecological insights and a deeper point about our potentially conscious place in the Gifting Cycle. In three parts, the Part 1 tells the in some ways humorous story of my relationship with rodents, as their champion and advocate more than occasional nemesis. Part 2 is a fact-packed description of Pack Rats and their rat lifestyle, while Part 3 take a serious look at rats as not only survival food but as part of a healthy and humble primal diet. Easily disturbed vegetarians may want to enjoy the first two parts, and then drop down to the very last paragraph and its emphasis on connecting to the give and take of life through not only what nature has to offer but on our responsibility to offer something in turn to it. Your comments, appreciation or dismay or appreciated as always. -Wolf
EATING PACK RATS & PRAISING RODENTS:
Survival Mindset, Reconnection, & Responsible Participation in the Food Chain
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
Part 1: The Good, The Bad & The Fuzzy
“You dirty rat,” the actor James Cagney is supposed to have snarled in one or more of his 1930’s movies, presumably right before slapping or shooting some guy failing to exhibit the minimum standards of honor and style expected of an upright criminal. Go ahead and let the schmuck have it if he deserves it, Jimmy-boy, but kindly get off the rats’ backs.
Before we begin to consider rodent nature, any problems coinhabiting with the species, or their inarguable culinary value, let us first have done with the vulgar myth that rodents are unclean. Libelous! This, like so many other generally accepted “facts” of nature, is simply and utterly untrue. Yes, house mice lack the public relations sense to go outside to defecate, which makes for an unsanitary addition to any silverware drawer. Rats do sometimes host fleas that themselves carry diseases like Hanta virus and Bubonic plague, which on rare occasions is transmitted to what prove to be highly unfortunate people. But let’s begin this conversation by giving the lil’ buggers their due: most if not all species of the fuzz bottomed, bucktoothed creatures – from miniscule predatory wolf mice to big-city Norwegian alley rats – can at the very minimum be counted on to be well washed.
One could even call it a grooming “fetish” that they exhibit. Anyone who has ever raised a white or saddle-backed laboratory rat knows not only how incredibly affectionate they can be, but also how they are likely to be busy cleaning themselves any moment of the day or night that they’re not sleeping, eating, fighting or engaging in wild eyed carnal excess. Every inch of fur gets regularly, obsessively licked and fluffed. They can often be seen washing between their toes, and how many of us human types ever think to do that? Mice are even more fanatic than rats, stopping whatever task they’ve been tending to in order to immediately clean off the slightest bit of sticky food that ever musses their well kept coat. There was in fact a thankfully brief period in my early childhood when friends and family wondered if I might grow up to be an animal abuser… and all because of how much I enjoyed daubing a little bit of peanut butter on the bridge of my pet mouse Ebeneezer’s nose, laughing until the tears flowed as the poor little beasty performed multiple backward somersaults in its frantic attempts to lick it off.
My understanding of and continuing warm feelings for such nose wiggling rascals makes ending their lives for any reason difficult, let me tell you. I get a jolt any time I hear a mouse trap go off in the night, picturing yet another personable Ebeneezer suffering a slamming wire bale, for having committed no greater crime than to seek a bit of spilled rice with which to fill its belly. Be that as it may, I’m still not inclined to allow anything that much smaller than I am run roughshod over us. As nuevo-aboriginal as I’ve become, I’m still civilized enough to find defecating in the kitchen – even odorless black mouse droppings – unacceptable and potentially punishable behavior. And our very survival depended then as it does now on the able protection of our foodstuffs. Just trying to do a better job of sealing up our old cabin wasn’t helping much, since it seems as if mice can squeeze through the eye of a needle. Nor does it apparently matter if we left any tempting unswept crumbs behind or not, making me wonder if they came in for the company instead. For the warmth. The ambiance and fine music. Or given how many utensils and decorations are still rearranged each night, perhaps they enter in part to stir things up like trouble-loving, fur-tailed Dennis the Menaces or palm sized rodent versions of the Navajo’s trickster coyote!
I first tried to make things easier on both myself and the mice by purchasing a high dollar “live trap” that promised painless “catch and release.” The instructions said that you just wind it up and then every curious mouse who enters would be “gently spanked” into the cage. Supposedly the squeaks from the first would then attract others until one had a cage full of them, ready to be released where they could either find a new home or at least be killed by snakes, owls and rival mouse gangsters instead of by soft-hearted me. Sorry to say, we never got to test their claims about the squeaks drawing in more mice, since the only one that ever ventured into the darn thing was slapped so hard it didn’t have any squeak left in it.
Then there is the primary subjects of this story, the beer bellied Wood Rats or Pack Rats of the rural West, who while considerably cuter than their cappuccino-sipping urban cousins, can be even more of a proverbial pain in the rear. Looking a lot like like hamsters, only with tall round ears and adorably huge black eyes, it becomes hard to reconcile their appearance with their problematic impacts. One of the more infuriating of these impacts is the way they infiltrate outdoor sheds and storage areas, quickly filling them up with nesting materials as well as (in the Southwest at least) the painfully prickly cholla cactus joints that they drag home to feed on. Whatever stored personal belongings of ours that they don’t chew and damage are still in danger of being urinated on, with rats in the arid regions conserving water by expelling an especially thick fluid. This can harden into an amber varnish lasting in some cases 50,000 years or more, encasing middens of feces along with captured plants and even Native American artifacts. An unexpected benefit of this process is the ancient pollen and plant matter stash, as well as a trove of well preserved archaeological evidence, providing the best known record of climate changes over the millennia, and increasing understanding of the effects such changes have on vegetation and livability.
Sheds can potentially be made rat proof, of course, even if not often totally mouse proof. Far more felonious would seem to be rats’ habit of crawling into the impossible to seal engine compartments of parked vehicles, making nests that are only evident on the highway as they begin smoldering from the engine’s heat. It is while nested under the hood that they famously chew the insulation off of expensive spark plug wires and other essential electrical components, either seeking to ingest some undetermined mineral or simply acting mischievously as a predictable result of some sort of clinically verifiable Bored Rat Syndrome.
My initial response once again was to set live traps, this time a peanut butter baited, falling door “Have-a Heart” type which did indeed harmlessly do its work of incarceration. Having once spent time in a Juvenile detention center, I tend to feel considerable empathy for any caged being, one result being my checking the trap first thing when I got up each morning. Almost without fail there would be a Pack Rat customer awaiting me there, neither cowering in the corner nor charging my fingers when I stuck them through the wire, but looking remarkably comfortable with its fate instead. Each time my daughter would make sweet noises at it before carrying it a couple hundred yards away for a friendly release. Always the inmate would appear unperturbed, unreasonably content, with the same engaging look and expressive breathing same rat time after time… a little too much the same, I finally began to realize. Only after spray painting its rump was it finally confirmed, that we were indeed daily hosts to the same repeat diner, having returned for its accustomed night time snack. And only after considerable experimentation did we realize just how developed the homing instincts of rats really are, requiring that they be taken a mile or more away.
It was after our resident Pack Rats had damaged our vehicles several times, and after they’d glued together the pages of our bird identification books with pee, that I finally opted to use deadly force. Research turned up California recommendations that included Exclusion (good luck!), Toxicants such as Zinc Phosphide and Anticoagulants that cause internal hemorrhaging (no way!), Live Traps (see experience above!) and Deadly Traps. With so few acceptable methods, I opted for both a series of primitive wire snares, and some vintage wood snapping models purchased at our local Jake’s Grocery Store.
What’s odd, was that while the snares worked fine, we didn’t hardly catch any rats in these snap traps designed for them. And we ended up bringing to an end the lives of a number of mice even though the rat trap package claimed that they’d be too light weight to set off the stiff triggers. A visiting friend of ours wondered aloud if it could actually be the work of the very pack rats we were hunting, however cute and inoffensive they might appear to be… tossing one protesting mouse after another into its metal jaws like Mayans pitching vested virgins into the mouth of a smoking volcano to placate a heathen rodent god. But even if true, it would have to be pointed out they’d done so wearing their finest coats of fur, with every loose hair carefully removed, their faces spit polished and inexplicably smiling, with both the tossers and the tossed acting out their parts in the drama immaculately groomed.
Were such a fantasy the case, however, it would have more likely been the kitchen’s murderous human guardians that the rats sought were so determined to appease, wearing our blue jeans coated with canyon dirt, needing to be reminded to wash our hands before sitting down to a freshly snared rodent supper.
Part 2: Pack Rat Facts
What we call the Pack Rat is none other than the widely spread Wood Rat, any of a number of species of the family Cricetidae, order Rodentia, genus Neotoma. We popularly refer to them as Pack Rats due to their penchant for collecting odd bits of material for their nests, especially anything shiny or brightly colored. Others call them Trade Rats, for the way they often leave something behind when they steal something, such as removing an earring and leaving in its place an aluminum gum wrapper. Such trades have nothing to do with comparative value, but are the result of a kind of rat Attention Deficit Disorder, in which one precious object is dropped and forgotten in favor of a new trophy. 22 species have been identified in Central and North America, from southernmost jungles and desert lowlands up into the Juniper/Piñon forests of Western mountains such as where our sanctuary and school nests, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans and northwards to the most icy extremes of Canada, from below sea level to over 8,000 feet in elevation.
Pack Rats are a soft buff, gray or reddish brown, usually with white undersides and feet, with hairy or “bushy” tails. The ones we live with average 9 inches in length including a generally 3.5” tail. Adults weigh 3/4 of a pound or more. They build nest up to 4 feet across at the base of cliffs or trees, using a combination branches, twigs and peeled juniper bark. The cactus parts that are in some regions distributed around their nests, serve the added benefit of helping dissuade explorative rat predators like coyotes and foxes. When they’re most vulnerable is when they are out foraging, at which point they can become a quick meal for any snake or canine, hawk or owl that comes upon them. Essentially nocturnal, they leave their fortress nests after dark in order to feast on and collect the necessary amount of spiny cactus fronds and yucca pods, berries and bark, nuts and acorns, greenery and seeds. They get their necessary amount of water directly from eating the cactus pads, being one of the few creatures able to navigate among a latticework of spines without damage to itself.
Relentless nocturnal voyagers, Pack Rats forage more or less constantly from sun down until sun up, moving back and forth through a limited range, covering the are in a veritable grid along well used, scent marked lines. Because of this, predators who depend on them for sustenance are able to predict and intercept their meals, and pit vipers need only wait long enough alongside one of the well used rat routes. It’s only a matter of time before the local stud comes scurrying by, on its own hunt for food and a warm furry body to hotly embrace.
The consequence of such insuppressible passions is an impressive reproductive rate, decreasing with population pressures but increasing in times of high juvenile mortality rates – up to 5 batches per year, with as many as 5 young per litter who will themselves be sexually productive within 60 days. While some may remain mated for a breeding season, they are for the most part opportunistic, rodent libertines whose passionate drive ensures species survival regardless of the numbers that are hunted and killed… an evolutionarily healthy trait given how many are regularly munched by a large assortment of fur bearing and feather flapping carnivores.
Part 3: Rodents On The Menu: How to Catch & Cook Pack Rats
Wild animals are not the only predators of rodents. Every species of Rodentia have been hunted and consumed by humans for as long as our kind have existed, and continue to be relished as a delicacy in over 100 countries today. Farmed Guinea Pigs in South America. Tasty 40 pound beavers from New Mexico to Alaska. 8 pound water rats in Southeast Asia. Tree Squirrels in the Southeast. It is perhaps Squirrels that we should be thinking of when we consider the possible place of their rat cousins on our plates, not as alley vermin but as clean and harvestable protein sources so darling they are hard to kill, as flavorful entrees potentially on par with seasoned Georgia Squirrel Stew.
As much prestige as the successful hunter of large game like deer and elk would have gained in primitive tribes, the majority of the animal protein in indigenous diets came from small game. This was true in part because they are more plentiful, and part because they are simply easier to catch. This was certainly the fact for the Mogollon pit-house dwellers, the first peoples to settle in the Gila bioregion where Anima School and Sanctuary sits. Based on the bone remnants found near the underground living quarters, their primary meat sources were Wild Turkeys that they captured and partially domesticated, and Cottontail Rabbits, Ground Squirrels and (yes!) Pack Rats that the women and children may have had the job of snaring.
Snaring remains, along with the box trap, one of the most effective ways of harvesting. Unlike the box trap, the snare ensnarls, hurts and often kills before the hunter ever comes up the animal. This is a reason for faithfully checking what are called the snare “sets” every morning early, so that no creature has to suffer in anguish long, and so that no meat is left long enough to spoil. Once constructed of twisted plant fibers, today’s trappers more often use either fishing line or piano wire that is heavy enough to hold whatever the desired prey, while thin enough to be passed off as natural plant matter by the approaching game. A small loop is tied at one end, and then the length of line, wire or cordage is run through the loop, forming a larger loop that – depending on how high it’s positioned – the animal is intended to either step into or be caught by the neck by. The snare is placed in a strategic spot on a known trail, attached to a stake, root or limb at the other end so that the quarry is held fast. In the case of PackRats, the cordage or filament is set at a spot where their trail is narrowed by foliage on both sides, preferably where overhanging brush forms a restrictive tunnel. No bait is needed for consistent catches with a well considered trail set.
Box traps are another effective method, sometimes involving a heavy wood box resting on a Figure-4 stick trigger, but more often these days featuring the afore mentioned metal screen traps with doors on one or both sides poised to fall when a bait tray inside is depressed. Any vegetable matter with an odor will usually bring them in, from fruit slices to a drop of anise oil on a piece of bread. Most common, however, is the application of what is peanut butter apparently as irresistible to rodents as it usually is to children.
Unless being released live miles from the site, the trapped animal must be quickly dispatched, preferably by a fast twist of the neck or a sharp blow to the head, the intent being to promptly put them out of pain. Anyone concerned about carrier fleas should use long gloves. Then for the sake of the best tasting meat, the rat needs to be immediately skinned, gutted and washed, the object being not only to remove bitter fluids but to allow the flesh to quickly cool down. The strong “gamey” taste of any wild meat is most often the result of adrenaline caused by it being tormented, or else not being quickly enough dressed and cleaned. To dress the rat, a slit is made just beneath the skin from the chest to the groin, the paunch carefully emptied so as not to spill the contents, and the skin worked off the body the way you might remove a coat. It can then be cut up into pieces or stretched whole onto a spit for open fire grilling. Native Americans sometimes pounded the entire animal, bones, organs and all into a mush they’d sometimes combine with nuts and berries, getting more needed fat, vitamins and minerals that way, but for those transitioning into a primal diet or lifestyle the gutted method may be preferred. Tasting a lot like rabbit and providing several ounces of meat, the only problem with Pack Rat is how tough it can be. The remaining key to a delicious rodent meal is to either braze the meat for a very short period of time on very high heat, sealing in the juices, or else slow cooked in seasoned water and made into a gravy. Pressure canning is another way of tenderizing, while simultaneously preserving the food for future consumption.
For some, adding Pack Rats to their diet would be a matter of overcoming a culturally impressed revulsion, either against eating rodents or against killing any animal. For others, the stretch is to take the life of what appears to them unsettling sweet and cute. In each case, what is needed is a shift in perception in which we learn to see ourselves as essentially inseparable from what we consume, and each plant and creature inseparable from the land that contains and feeds it. In this way of looking at the world, there is no one who escapes causing harm, nor anyone not meant to bring benefit to others. We are all culpable equal to how aware we are, but also deserving of and able to best enjoy the blessings and rewards.
The most healthy diet for humans is one that closely parallels what we evolved eating for however many years of our development, a vast stretch of time with almost none of the high carbohydrate intake associated with the processed grains and corn syrup additives of the so called civilized diet, common in only the last 50 to 100 years, feasting on a large percentage of fresh plants with a smaller amount of fresh wild meat. Taking that animal protein from low on the food chain is generally a wise move ecologically, is most sustainable for a large groups of people due to the animals’ numbers, and involves the least effort for the greatest chance of success. By foraging small game or even insects for each day’s meals, preserving meat from spoilage becomes a non-issue, and greatly lessens concerns about getting sick from related bacterial infections.
Whether farmers with their own lush gardens and grass fed cattle or urban dwellers seeking a sense of self sufficiency and empowerment, the at least occasional trapping or hunting of small animals gives us an honest sense of being a responsible link in the food chain, of being more able to survive in the event of a collapse of the current economic system and government control and aid, and of being a capable part of the natural world we all in one way or another draw our nutrition from, and owe our lives to. To have taken the life of another being, even or especially one that we honor and love, feels a necessary wake up call and moment of responsibility and communion for anyone who ever eats meat from a package. And it feels like opportunity for unapologetic union for everyone, with the natural cycles of the eater and eaten, heeding in the blood and flesh a call to not only wildness but wholeness, and not only what we are given but to what we in turn have to give.
(Please RePost and Forward Freely)
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