We The Rats
Of all the rooms in the Lorax Manor, the first floor bathroom is its most expressive. The walls are thick with free speech, lewd cartoons, and stoned philosophy. Here’s a limerick about George W. Bush using the Constitution as toilet paper. Over there is a discussion thread about ghost sightings in the house. Up near the ceiling is a painting of Gandalf exhaling a plume of purple smoke, that morphs into Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”. The words and images flow into one another, covering the walls like a radical tapestry.
And then, just above and to the right of the toilet paper roll, a single sentence leaps out in jet-black Sharpie: “This house voted democratically to poison rats on March 9th, 2009.” Below, scrawled in ballpoint pen, someone adds, “Thank God.”
I moved into the Lorax in the summer of 2008. I was a junior in college, fresh-faced and eager to draw on walls. A staple of alternative living in Eugene, Oregon, the Lorax Manor Co-Op houses roughly twenty-five students at any given time. People here are focused on living environmentally - and we’re not talking about re-useable grocery bags and Priuses. We’re talking rainwater catchment systems, grey-water toilets with flushing guidelines, a community garden plot, and a tandem bike with a trailer for house supply runs. We had no landlord and were damn proud of it - paying for a room meant you owned your portion of the house and had equal influence in its operation. Therefore, all decisions regarding the house were made collectively, forged with unyielding commitment to cooperative ideals.
Those ideals crumbled in the fall and winter of 2008, when our path to co-op salvation took a bad turn. For seven months, a rat infestation crippled our community and challenged us to walk the talk we were known to preach. Along with disease, the rats carried with them a complex social game that would take us 7 months to play...and ultimately lose.
The rats arrive in the twilight weeks of summer - a fertile time for spawning. And at first, the rat sightings are simply anecdotes shared at mealtimes.
“Man, this rat ran out from behind the screen printing station today...so crazy!”
“Oh yeah, I saw one too, out by the bike shed. Probably the same one.”
Months later, when we finally catch a glimpse of the queen rat - big as a healthy loaf of bread - these comments will prove to be downright laughable.
By the time school gets going in late September, it’s already too late to clean up our act - but we don’t know that yet. During the school year, residents divvy up house chores that include cleaning every floor, putting away clutter, organizing the food pantry, scrubbing the bathrooms, and keeping the compost pile healthy. In the summer, however, these jobs aren’t enforced because there are fewer people living there and nobody around to crack the whip. These chores are usually kept in check at a weekly house meeting, but again, that meeting only happens during the fall, winter, and spring terms, not the summer.
Without this crucial bit of structure, the summertime house quickly descends into a colorful jumble of abandoned craft projects, spilled quinoa, and stuff people were playing with on mushrooms the night before. Plus, it’s so nice out! Let’s grab some PBRs and go pick blackberries! Nobody wants to clean. Factor in the nooks & crannies a house this size provides, combine that with a no-cat policy because of allergies, and the storm becomes perfect.
But for now, as school commences and the leaves change color, it’s just a temporary nuisance. The rats come up at one of the first house meetings, and right away several residents are adamant we don’t use lethal methods like snap-traps or poison. It’s the reason they live in a community that practices eco-friendly living. They won’t kill animals, even if it’s vermin. Personally, I think rats are valuable urban creatures as much as mosquitos are valuable forest wildlife. You could swat a million of them and nobody would care - including the mosquitos.
Nevertheless, the house agrees on several actions we can take to curb the problem, including using live traps, staying vigilant about crumbs and food scraps, upping the chore frequency, and clearing out our compost pile. We catch a single rat in the live trap and convince ourselves it’s working. Somebody builds covered shelving for our grain storage and another guy leads a full-scale cleaning of the basement. The compost pile is coddled and brought to the perfect temperature. We report this progress at the next meeting, dusting our hands off and patting ourselves on the back. But in reality, these preliminary solutions are like using a Band-Aid for internal bleeding.
A key player in this tragedy is our house’s operation by consensus; a method of decision-making in which all participants must agree on the motion. You may have heard about this during the Occupy Wall street movement. Remember all the sparkle fingers and hand signals? That’s us.
Here’s a quick crash course. Let’s say I’m fed up with our crappy toaster and want to get a new one, I’ll put forth a motion at the meeting to spend $15 of the house budget on a new toaster. The meeting facilitator - known colloquially as the Whip - will say something like “The proposal is to spend $15 at Goodwill on a new toaster that Alex will have by next Sunday.” Then, on the count of three, all house members vote by way of thumbs. A thumbs up means “good for me, good for the house.” A sideways thumb means “not good for me, maybe good for the house.” A downturned thumb means “bad for me, bad for the house.” If there are three sideways thumbs or a single downturned thumb, the motion is denied and we go back to the drawing board.
Keep in mind there are over 20 people involved here. That means a single stubborn person can veto a motion, but that rarely happens; people keep themselves in check and things are generally harmonious. But now and again, small disagreements and clashing egos can derail the issue indefinitely, even over minutiae like a toaster. Is it efficient with electricity? Is a toaster-oven a better option for our needs? Don’t toaster-ovens get dirty really fast? What if someone reheats pizza in there, and cheese drips off? Plastic waste is a big issue, shouldn’t we buy a used one? Yeah but shouldn’t we also spend more for a nice one that won’t break for a long time? If something as innocent as a toaster can spark this kind of discourse, imagine killing animals.
I know this debate intimately. For the two school terms this rat plague persisted, I was The Whip. It’s one of the few elected positions in the house, but it’s a bloated one. In a consensus-based environment, the meeting leader is merely a tool to maintain order, much more the gavel than the judge.
During those few hours a week in which the house was consumed by process-based meetings, I sat above the fray, interpreting hand signals and keeping track of who was supposed to speak next. Thanks to this, I was largely absent from participating in the debates themselves, even though I still had my vote. Being the Whip did, however, give me ample time to examine the nuances of our function, to catch the subtle glances and micro-expressions that exposed the fissures in our foundation.
* * * *
It’s early winter now, and the rats have become undeniable, increasing every day in number and audacity. Among us, a sense of urgency develops that wasn’t there at the beginning, and sides start being taken.
Representing the anti-poison side are a couple named Robert and Leslie, who are adamant that a combination of monitoring the compost pile, setting more live traps, and living cleanly will stop the problem.
On the other side is Carson, who believes the rats have already outsmarted us and gutted any notion of compromise. He says he’s been through this before and there’s no way out except using force. Leslie responds with a story about her childhood dog accidentally eating rat poison and the traumatic experience of watching it writhe in pain and die. She never wants to see another animal killed. Carson doesn’t want someone to go to the hospital because of rats we chose not to exterminate.
Herein lies the heart of the matter: neither side is wrong. We do live in a house that preaches anti-cruelty in all forms and we did sign up to be here. On the other hand, rats like these carry life-threatening diseases. So here we are, half the house willing to kill THE RATS and the other half willing to sacrifice health & hygiene to save them.
As the house’s solidarity starts crumbling away, the rodents are getting out of hand. The most egregious moment happens in January, when a squeaking rat dashes across a mattress while a couple is having sex, its tail brushing against bare skin.
Here’s a few more examples:
A housemate discovers a rat in the compost pile so fat and lazy it cannot run away from her. It just rolls out of the pile and shuffles away, glaring like his nap was rudely interrupted. It’s like Templeton from Charlotte’s Web retired and moved here for the complimentary buffet.
Things get medieval when a rat is captured and brought outside to the alleyway between the Lorax and the Campbell Club, our vegetarian, cat-friendly neighbor co-op. A cat is procured from next door and placed in front of the cage where a rat trembles inside, shaking like a prisoner on his way to the guillotine. People gather around, leaning off porches in the brick alleyway to watch a bloody rat fight like some sadistic Norman Rockwell painting.
One day, a 5 gallon tub of brown rice syrup is opened to reveal a dead rat petrified within like a prehistoric insect in amber; its sedated eyes expressing its final thought: this must be heaven.
Karen, the earliest riser in the house, flicked on the kitchen lights one morning and there she was - the queen rat, swaddled in a blanket of her own excess fat. And almost as if she knew how repulsive she was, the Queen looked up from her meal of scraps and stared blankly back at Karen until she retreated from the kitchen. It was painfully clear now - we were living in their house.
Some residents remain passively involved, doing little to solve the problem while simultaneously sporting strong opinions come meeting time. Others, like Carson, work hard to eradicate the problem. He and another house member make it clear that if they see a rat, they’re going to kill it. They stay up in the attic all night, one person sleeping while the other sits there with a five iron, waiting for a rat to scurry by and meet their maker. I’m not sure if they ever hit paydirt with this method, and if they did they surely destroyed the evidence immediately. But for a pro-poison advocate like myself, it was the finest direct-action activism I’d ever seen.
On the other side, experimental pest control efforts are in full swing. The live traps that had been previously championed are now gathering dust - the rats figured them out long ago. One resident has taken to researching and ordering bizarre traps off the internet, like an electronic one that emits noise at a frequency rats can’t handle. Another one is a liquid you place around the house that the female rats eat and causes them to become infertile. Of course this sets off a debate that sonic torture and forced infertility are no more humane than killing them.
Meanwhile, our meetings have become a tedious affair, usually ending with no resolution and lots of frustration. As the Whip, I stay on to the bitter end of each meeting to summarize motions and encourage people to wrap up their speeches. At times I’m the bad guy, stepping on people’s toes to keep things moving along. I don’t care any more. This needs to end. Some folks start leaving meetings early, choosing instead to do homework, have a cigarette, drink a beer, fall asleep, or all of the above. I don’t blame them. Apathy is so, so tempting.
I start spending less time in the house, preferring instead to dwell in the college libraries or at my friend’s rat-free house. When all this started, I was on-board with non-lethal pest control, but that tactic simply didn’t work. Why are we still trying? Of course I respect my housemates’ beliefs, but finding middle ground is getting increasingly difficult.
A turning point comes in February when a long-time resident named Lavender tearfully puts a motion on the table to use rat poison. Despite all the back-and-forth, we’ve never officially voted to use lethal methods, so the weight of it feels immense. When asked about it later, Lavender said it felt like betraying her housemates to propose poison, but she knew it had to be done. Nurture had met nature, and they wouldn’t shake hands.
The official vote to use poison is quickly thumbed down by a few members in the house, but now a line has been crossed. All illusions of finding a consensus solution are gone. At this point there is a group of people who say they’ll move out if we use poison, and another group that says they’ll leave if we don’t.
So we head out into the uncharted waters of democracy. For us, that means we must first vote by consensus to vote democratically. I’d like re-iterate that. We voted by consensus to vote democratically. The motion barely passes with two sideways thumbs, with the agreement to vote by majority next meeting.
Fast-forward one more rat-filled week, and it’s time for the decision. There will be one final democratic vote to close the issue once and for all. We gather for the meeting, everyone closes their eyes for anonymity, and, on the count of three, puts their vote out.
As the facilitator, it’s up to me to scan the meeting and tally the votes. As I gaze around the circle, I see the many faces of this issue. Some scrunch up their faces, closely holding the anxiety and stress of the situation. Others are relaxed, taking solace in the fact that at least a decision will be made. And everyone looks tired, ready to move on from this festering purgatory.
The vote comes out in favor of using poison. Just like that, it’s over. Those against the motion are left to pick up the pieces of their ideals; those for it must slay the rats. True to their word, a small group of residents - people I and many others consider good friends - silently walk back upstairs and begin packing their things to move out.
What just happened? I feel like I just walked out of the rat maze and discovered we’re the ones in a lab test. A test to see what happens when chaos is introduced into an ideological environment that’s obsessed with their own process.
At that moment, I’m struck by a humbling realization: the rats won. Faced with their now-imminent extinction, they will go down as one, united in their commitment to food and filth. Conversely, the university students will fracture apart, united in nothing but the sudden understanding of a harsh lesson: a compromise between life and death does not exist.
Days after the vote, two housemates laced peanut butter with poison and positioned it throughout the house. We soon noticed a sharp decline in the rat population, but later that week, the fallout began. The rats, living in a vast network of tunnels throughout the house, began to die, producing an overwhelming stench that seeped from the walls and hung heavy in the air. With this, the rats’ mission was at last complete: to smoke us out once and for all, taunting us from the grave while they laid down to rest, finally, mercifully, at peace.