You not-so-dirty rat

Baby wood rat
Baby wood rat

Mark Twain was first credited with the quip that “golf is a good walk spoiled” in the Saturday Evening Post in 1948.  Oddly enough, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his real name) died in 1910, so either the author of the Post column was a medium or mistaken.  I’m betting on psychic ability since we all know columnists are never wrong.

I had my own good walk spoiled the other day when I stumbled across a juvenile rat in the middle of the MURT (Multi-Use Recreational Trail.)  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, this is a paved path beside the roadway that bikers and pedestrians can share to avoid vehicular traffic—particularly when there aren’t adequate bike lanes; i.e. all of Charlotte County.

Many bikers, especially when travelling with their “gangs,” seem to prefer to use the road.  If they are using common sense and obeying traffic laws, there is nothing wrong with that.  But there are times when it would seem prudent to me for the bikers to use the stinking MURT.  Like when they are on a blind curve, idly cruising along, a mere six inches away from the MURT, while someone in a vehicle behind them is trying to get to work and is forced to drive two #@%&749& miles per hour!  But I digress.

At first, I thought the young rat might just be a bit of trash that had been thrown from a passing car.  (Don’t even try to get me started on that tirade!)  I had tried to rescue the surviving babies out of the pouch of a dead opossum a few days earlier, only to find out the “corpse” was actually a T-shirt.  In my defense, I don’t wear my glasses while walking.  Maybe I should.

The baby rat was hunched over in the middle of the sidewalk.  He didn’t attempt to flee as I passed him, so I assumed there was something wrong with him.  I walked a few paces before finding a discarded bag (finally a practical use for litter!) to scoop him into and turned around to head home.

Once there, I examined the little guy.  He had a clubbed foot—a possible birth defect, since it didn’t look like a recent injury and he seemed too young to have had such a grievous injury like that heal already.  I didn’t see any other marks on his body, so I treated him symptomatically.  By that evening he was eating and drinking and pooping up a storm.  All good signs.  My motto is, “If you want to live, you have to eat.”  Some animals (and people) want to live a lot!

Some of those same people may wonder why I would go through all this for a rat.  Most people are usually looking for ways to kill rats, not nurse them back to health.  New readers of this column may be questioning my sanity at this point, while faithful followers have turned my irrational antics into a drinking game.  This is why you want to ask you health care and banking professionals if they read my column before relying on their advice, especially on a Thursday morning (when WaterLine comes out in print.)

But here’s the thing:  Rats might just look like rats to you, but they’re not all the same.  Woodrats are entirely different animals from the rat you’re probably thinking of.

Eastern woodrats are native to the central and eastern U.S., from southern New York to the Florida Keys.  They are sometimes referred to as pack rats for their propensity to build large, elaborate nests using branches and leaves as well as cast-off (or stolen) man-made items.  Unlike invasive species of rats (Norway, black, or so-called roof or attic rats), woodrats prefer to live outdoors in their natural habitat.  They rarely come uninvited to houses and cause the destruction that their Old World counterparts are so infamous for.

Woodrats are vegetarians, eating a wide variety of plants, nuts, fruits, vegetables and grains.  I suppose since they don’t consume any dairy products, they should be considered vegans, but please don’t hold that against them.  They won’t try to ruin your dinner party by loudly proclaiming themselves to be better than the rest of the guests because they only eat food without faces.  They are also not considered a threat to farmers, like some other rodent species that can devastate entire fields of crops.

Baby woodrats from a destroyed nest
Baby woodrats from a destroyed nest

Invasive rat species have litters of up to 12 pups that are weaned and capable of reproducing themselves by five weeks of age; while mom can be pregnant with her next litter before she even weans the current one.  In contrast, the woodrat is not sexually mature until eight months of age.  Litter sizes usually consist of only two to four pups, and a maximum of two to three litters can be produced per year.

Most of the orphaned or displaced baby rats received at PRWC are found when trees are being trimmed or removed, especially cabbage palms.  Sometimes burn or brush piles can harbor a family, so take care to check for young before discarding or burning yard waste.

If you consider rodents to be a pest species that must be removed from your property, please consider carefully before using any bait type products.  Most of these contain anticoagulants and can take up to a week or two to kill the target species.

For those of you who do not care how the rodent dies, just as long as it vacates your property, this is not the end of the story.  When the rat is in a weakened state or after its death, there is a good chance that it will fall victim to a predator—perhaps your or your neighbor’s dog or cat or a wild hunter, even an eagle.  The predator that eats the poisoned rat will then be poisoned itself, and often die.

Eastern woodrats are a native species here in southwest Florida and have many natural predators, including snakes, birds of prey, raccoons and many other mammals.  They serve a role in seed dispersal for many plants.  Their homes help protect many other species that share them or take them over when the rats move on.

As a slow-growing and slow-breeding prey species, their numbers are well maintained naturally.  If you inadvertently disrupt a nest, leave it as close as possible to the original site and mom will care for the babies there or move them to another safe area.  If one or more of the rats has been injured, bring them to PRWC where we will care for them until they are healthy and old enough to be released.

This beneficial native species doesn’t deserve the irrational fear that has been thrust upon it.  As Mark Twain also said, “If man could be crossed with the rat, it would improve man, but deteriorate the rat.”  Or did he?

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM