Oh Rats!

January 28, 2021 – Listening to Kimmie Rhodes “Send Me The Sun.

Kimmie’s story about her battle with rats is more than a tale of extermination. It is a lesson in resilience and bouncing forward and finding resources to help you get through the things you have to get through. And coming out on the other side.

When Joe Gracey’s cancer returned after more than a decade of remission, he and his wife of nearly three decades, Kimmie Rhodes, faced it head on, with their team of warriors at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.  They closed their home in Austin’s Briarcliff on Lake Travis, and moved into a long-term hotel in the hospital district for this final tour of duty that would last nearly four years.

Kimmie and I are dear friends. More than that, she has been my #1 widow mentor. Is that a thing? Yes. We have soaked in the pool until nearly sunrise, played cards from morning till night, and driven the backroads of West Texas.

A lot of tears and even more laughter. Is that okay? Yes. There is nothing more frightening to outsiders than widows chortling at the kind of gallows humor that can only be earned when you are left to pick up the pieces. 

Kimmie wins the pitiful widow lesson championship it comes to one-upmanship with her Rat Story. It begins with French cadmium oil paints and ends with an unlikely hero.   

Well, I will share the story just as Kimmie told me:

For years, I have collected beautiful oil paints.  I have a house in France and had been traveling and touring there regularly. I love to go to an art store in Paris called Sennelier that has been there since the 1880s. When you go into this store you can just feel the magic, walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest artists in the world: Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Monet….

This paint is not even the same as paint you can get here. Their Cadmium Red is so much more vivid. Apricots, flesh tones, burgundy all come alive. It’s made with safflower oil and organic stuff.  The colors are so rich, and just make me happy.  Instead of bringing home souvenirs, I would bring home tubes of paint, and had accumulated more than 100 tubes of oils in different stages of use in my upstairs art studio at home in Austin.

Backstory: in the middle of touring, my husband, a thirty-year cancer survivor, came home from the dentist with the news that the cancer had come back. Life got in the way of our dreams.

We went back to M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston and embarked on what turned out to be a three and a half year residency in Houston with occasional short treks back to our hill country home. I would come home for a few days and then go back to M.D. Anderson to be with Gracey.

All the while, our home was turning into a haunted house.  The wisteria I had planted near the front porch and faithfully trimmed back every season had grown up and into the eaves. Spiders were taking over with cobwebs everywhere, and everything had a layer of dust on it. And I thought I saw tell-tale signs of a rat. Or maybe two.  But that was not my priority. I’d come home, grab a few things, and go back to Houston.  

During that time, Central Texas was experiencing one of the worst droughts in memory. We live at Lake Travis and the lake dropped about 75 feet.  Then, in the heat of the summer of 2011, some power lines collided and sparked a brush fire that burned more than 6500 acres and destroyed more than 60 homes.

Gracey and I sat on the bed at the Zsa Zsa Hotel, where we were “living” at the time,  and watched The Weather Channel. Only instead of tornadoes or snow flurries, the reports were of the huge fires that we could follow on tv,as they came closer and closer, beating a path to our Briarcliff home.

The last house that burned was only a mile from our house, and then the wind changed and blew the fire back the way it had come. After eleven days of terror, the fire put itself out.

But between the drought and the wildfires, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, and all sorts of animals cut a path to run away from the fire, and what had begun as a small rat problem in the house had become a HUGE rat problem.

The thing about MD Anderson is that once you are there, you feel safe and you don’t want to leave. I’d leave Gracey and come home for a little while and then want to race back to Houston to be with him. On one of those quick trips home, I noticed these curious Easter egg colored pellets all over the house. Beautifully colored rat shit.

It was because – it turns out –rats like fat. And grease. And oil.

And I had a whole lot of really beautiful oil paints in my studio, made with safflower oil. And all these rats had come into the house through the attic vents and the wisteria vines and crimps in the roof and they found the oil paints. Since no one was living in this abandoned house, there was not any other food for them. So they got into my beautiful, vivid oil paints.

And I had zero time to deal with this. I didn’t have time to even buy a trap, let alone set a trap and wait for them to die. It was not a priority.

My husband dying was a problem. Rats were not on my to-do list.

Every time I would come home, there would be more multicolored pellets all over the house. But I did not see the rats. I did not even go upstairs. My brain was not connecting. I did not think about this being a Real Problem. It simply did not sink in. I saw these  brightly colored pellets, and wondered about it for a half second and then left.

My good friend, Beth Nielsen Chapman had lost her husband to cancer a few years before, and she was helping me through this. She flew to Houston to be with me at the hotel for a few days while Gracey was in the hospital, and I needed to go home and get some things. So we drove to Austin to spend the night, planning to drive back to Houston the next day. This was in the early days of The Infestation.  We stayed up talking well into the night, and were standing in the kitchen when I saw a rat tail sticking out from behind a broom in the corner. I moved the broom and there was this little injured rat. One side of its body was wounded so he was scooting sideways across the floor.

Now, I am out of my mind and my husband is dying and I am not paying attention to much of anything, and Beth is jumping and saying “Ew Ew Ew!”

At this time, we had been at M.D. Anderson for a year or so, and I had seen so much worse than this. I had seen so much suffering. So I was pretty hardened to pain.  Beth said, “I know! Get a shovel and we will scoop it up and take it outside, and some hawk will have a good breakfast!”

I got a shovel and looked at that rat and said, “You know, Beth, here’s what we are going to do.” And in one fell swoop, I just bludgeoned that little crippled rat – and put it out of his misery. I said we are NOT going to take this rat outside and let him suffer. I killed him instantly and scooped him up and put him outside.

Beth was horrified. She said, “Oh My God! I saw that look in your eye! I cannot believe you had that in you!”

And I said, “I just cannot stand to see anything else suffer.”

Long story. And then, my husband died.

After three and a half years, I came home to this haunted house. The lawn is dead. The garden is grown over. The house is full of rats. The wisteria vines are like Jack and the Beanstalk, and  have grown into the eaves and destroyed the porch, and what had been tearing the house down was now holding it up.

I was not in any place to rebuild. My heart was broken. I was having nightmares and trauma. Gracey died on November 17, and I came home to live with the rats. I was not thinking clearly, and I did not even know where to start.

Things just go over your head when you’re grieving like that, and the rats kind of seemed appropriate.

I remember waking up one night to get a drink of water. I walked into the kitchen and they were grazing. A rat came out from behind the stove. He was just looking at me. I looked at him and he didn’t even run. He was studying me from about five feet away. We looked each other in the eye and I said, “I WILL get you, but I just can’t right now.”

That really said where I was. I did not have the strength to deal with it.  But I was going to play on the Delbert McClinton Cruise in January and then Emmy Lou Harris had invited me to take part in her 25th anniversary celebration at the Grand Ol Opry. I planned to be gone for five weeks.

So I hired a guy to come in and plug up the holes and fix the vents, and get rid of the rats, clean up the mess, and paint the walls.  Everything was going to be clean and fresh and taken care of when I got home. He finished the job and locked up the house and reported that it was all good, and I wasn’t due home for ten days.

Right before I came home from Nashville, my son Gabe called and said, “There are rats all over the house! And they have torn it completely apart! They’ve wrecked the pantry and chewed through the lids of your liqueur bottles and eaten all the electrical cords!”

What people don’t know is that if you don’t know what you are doing, you can trap rats INSIDE the house – and that is not good. I had just paid $4000 to get rid of the rats and plug up the holes and the rats were trapped inside the house and had gone insane.

What I didn’t know then was that rats are smarter than dogs. It was like if you had twenty German Shepherds trapped inside the house trying to get out.

So I took a breath and said, “Okay, Gabe. I will pay you $25 for every rat you kill. We have to start all over on the house because it is ruined.”

He called me back the next day and said, that one of the rats had fallen in the commode and drowned. I said, “Okay, I will give you $50  for every rat that drowns.”

 He would call me every day with the rat report.

Meanwhile, I decided that this was war. I am going to get them.”

I went online and found the name of a rodent control guy with Five Stars. The best.  I booked him to come to the house on the day I got home. I flew in and drove straight from the airport to the house and met him. It was a real eye-opener.

His name was Rio Tenango.

Rio Tenango calls himself an urban wildlife remover. He has a brown beard, a round shaved head, strong teeth, and round brown eyes. He arrived with his wife. They are a couple who are passionate about rat killing.

Rio Tenango is very clever – and thinks like a rat. It turns out you have to be very clever to get rid of rats.

He immediately recognized the problem and explained that we had trapped our rats INSIDE the house. He put on gloves and those little slippers over his shoes and started scrambling all over the house. He scurried upstairs and into the attic. He pulled out the dryer and looked behind the stove.

I just sat in the living room like I was waiting for the test results at a doctor’s office. He finally came back into the living room and gave me the news.

He had discovered two populations of rats in my house, and they were probably not even aware of each other. They were co-existing without knowledge of the other colony. He said I probably had 17 rats. I don’t know how he came up with that number, but he was confident.

Then he went around the house and told me all the mistakes we had made. He was a rat expert and I paid him a lot of money.  After all, he had Five Stars. I was not going to get some three star rat man. 

Jeff, the guy who had been working on my house, had plugged the holes all right, but he plugged them at the wrong time of day. And if rats cannot get in, they cannot get out!

Rio Tenango explained that you have to plug the holes at a certain time, when the rats are out.  He said we’d need to unplug the holes and let the rats out. Then he walked me all around the house and showed me all the places rats could get in through my corrugated tin roof. It there was a crimp that I could put my finger in, the rats could squeeze themselves flat and long and wriggle into the house that way. So, after we got rid of these rats, we would have to put steel wool and caulk in every nook and cranny.

But for now, we had a rat jail.

I think I just had bad rat karma. Or good rat karma. I am not sure which.

Back to Rio Tenango. He vacuumed all the rat shit from the attic and put rat poison up there and left a place for them to escape.  After rats eat poison, they want to go outside to get a drink of water and then they die. So they needed an exit.

As he was explaining all of this to me, it occurred that he was starting to look positively ratlike. He could do great rat impersonations.  as he explained that rats are smart – and strong. He said most people don’t know how intellegent rats are. They are smarter than any other animals. He knows the way rats think. Most people don’t get that. That’s why they use rats in laboratories for scientific tests. They’re gonna hit the cocaine button every time. They’re smarter than rock stars.

And then he told me what I needed to do to get rid of the ones that were still in the house. I had pets and grandkids in the house so I didn’t want to have poison downstairs where they might get into it. 

Rio Tenango said, “Now look. I can charge your $400 to do this or you can do it yourself.”

I said, “I want to pay you to do it, but tell me anyway.”

And he wanted to tell me. He is all about rats. Have I mentioned his Five Star rating?

Rio Tenango said, “Here’s how you catch a rat.”

He said to get the old fashioned wooden traps – the seventy-nine cent kind. Not the box they climb into that is sticky or the new plastic traps. Get a dozen of big wooden rat traps, at least. And remember that rats want fat. That’s why they got into all that oil paint.

He said to use the rat traps as feeding stations. And remember that if a rat sees another rat get killed in a trap, you will never catch that rat in a trap. So you have to  train them, and catch them all by surprise.

For a week, you use the rat traps as feeding stations.  Yes. Feeding stations.

Set them up all the way around the room next to the walls. Never in the middle of the room because rats don’t walk into the middle of a room.

Every day for a week, at the same time, you feed the rats a piece of cheese in the UNSET trap – feeding stations. Then, on Day 8, you put a piece of cheese with a thin piece of fishing line tied to the trap and SET the trap. They will all go to the feeding station at the same time, because rats are easy to train and are creatures of habit. On Day 8 they will all go to the feeding station at the same time and this time, they will ALL get caught in the traps.

I left Rio Tenango the keys to my house and went far away. And they went to work.

Once the attic rats were poisoned and had left the building, and the downstairs rats were trapped in the feeding station/traps and disposed of, Rio Tenango had his people put steel wool into every corrugation, and sealed it with a special NP1 caulk that rats don’t like.

Rio Tenango knew exactly what to do.

He proved his Five Star rating.

And he gave me a four-year guarantee.