During the fall of Hannah’s third-grade year, she decided to participate in the school’s science fair. Since this was not a requirement, I was pleased with her enthusiasm. She and her partner chose a project that monitored the effects different genres of music had on rats. The understanding was that her teacher wanted to keep the rats in the classroom when the experiment was over.
Once the project was complete, Joe and Hannah broke the news to me. The teacher in fact did not want the rats. This is how we came to own Oreo and Sugar, two domestic rats.
Both rats were female. Oreo was white with large black spots. Sugar was a muted yellow. They had long black tails and yellow teeth. Their cage took up the entire expanse of Hannah’s desk and shavings from the bedding were constantly scattered on the floor. I tried to like them. Really I did. But it was not long before I was googling “life expectancy of domestic rats.”
Fast forward two years and the rodents were still alive and well. Except for one thing. Sugar had developed a growth in her groin area. I did some research and found out a couple of things. 1) The lump was a fatal tumor and 2) there are countless web sites devoted to the love and care of domestic rats.
I was pleased this was the beginning of the end.
However, Sugar did not immediately fall into a peaceful slumber—and the tumor continued to grow. Soon Oreo developed a tumor and it began to grow. The rats continued to live happily. And live. And live. The tumors grew larger. And larger. Eventually the growths were so immense, the two fat rats could barely haul their massive butts around the cage.
It was time to do something. It was time to euthanize. Surprisingly, there was a rat-loving web site that gave step-by-step instructions for the peaceful way to Kevorkian (may he rest in peace) your rodent. It involved caressing, chloroform, and talking your rat through their journey into rat eternity. That was not going to work for me. However, for Hannah’s sake, I needed to make it look like the rats had fallen into a heavenly coma. That threw out any options offered up by my redneck ancestors. (Besides we did not own a pitchfork.)
Rat poison was an obvious option. However, the grandfatherly associate at Home Depot, after patiently listening to my dilemma, could not assure me that the poison would not cause the rats to cough, sputter, gag or bleed out of random orifices. The last thing I wanted was a loud, gasping, painful death, which would cause my daughter lifelong trauma.
So I was on my own. First I tried Benadryl. I thought if a teaspoon could knock a toddler out for an evening, a healthy capful would send a small critter to their demise. It did not. From then on, each evening after Hannah was asleep, I would visit the medicine cabinet. I tried various mixtures of over-the-counter drugs. Nothing. I tried mixing cocktails of prescription medications. Nothing.
My last resort was to sacrifice several of my treasured (prescription) Xanax. I carefully ground the delicate pills and placed the powder in a bowl with a small amount of rat food. I expectantly placed the bowl into the cage and went to bed. The next morning the bowl was empty—and Oreo and Sugar were still dragging their tumors happily across the cage. I gave up.
A few weeks later, they died. Sugar first, then Oreo. They are buried in the back yard (with a landscaping rock placed on top of the graves so the dogs would not dig them up). As a grave marker, Joe made a cross out of scrap plywood. He painted it black.
I periodically look at the shrine and remember Oreo and Sugar. I could claim that the monument stands as a reminder of the hidden fondness I had for the creatures, or the longing I have for the time when Hannah loved all things great and small. But it doesn’t. It represents my failed attempts at extermination. An exterminator… that is who I should have called.