The following short story is, unfortunately, based on real-life events. I may have taken a few liberties in assuming the thoughts, words, and actions of the main characters. Since I did not actually witness the tragic event.
“I have a treat for the rats! Who wants a treat?”
Yes! Just like clockwork. I got up on all fours, stretched, and poked my head out from under the nest I had built underneath the shed.
Which the humans seemed to have built especially for me.
Being a rat, I’m one of the most clever animals in the forest. Per my intelligence, I know they didn’t exactly build the shed just for me. But instead of placing the bottom of the structure right against the ground, they built it so that there were several inches of space between the ground and the bottom of the shed, which is the perfect height for a packrat like me. And so I think they had my species in mind when they constructed the little building. That they wanted to help us out by providing us with a safe dwelling.
Also per my intelligence, I had trained the female human who lives near me to feed me her kitchen scraps.
And those words called into the front opening of my home let me know that she had not forgotten me that day.
Used to be that to collect goodies such as apple cores, pieces of carrot, fruit tea bags, and butternut squash seeds, I’d have to traipse from my nest under the cozy shed all the way to this pile of trash several yards away. And I’d have to do it in the middle of the night, when owls, coyotes, and bobcats wander around looking for a tasty bit of meat.
My relatives have often been that tasty bit. Though, being Florida woodrats and therefore on the large side of the rat spectrum, the bobcats tend to leave us alone.
Be that as it may, I never liked having to expose myself in such a way to get to the snacks that the wasteful humans leave.
And so, I trained the lady to leave her tasty bits right outside my home. How did I do it, you ask? Easy. One day when I heard footsteps going by the shed, I poked my head out just long enough for the person to see me. As I ducked my head back in, I heard the person – who turned out to be the lady – say, “Jerry, there are rats under the shed again!”
Now, my relatives tell me that such words when spoken by humans are usually spoken with dismay or disgust. Not so for this female human. For some reason, her words sounded glad, almost excited.
And starting with that day, I began to hear her voice by my front door, announcing the arrival of “treats.” Now, generally speaking I like to sleep during the day. But being the clever creature that I am, I knew that if I wanted to train her to continue to leave the tasty morsels at my door, I would have to rouse myself whenever she called and go retrieve them.
So it happened this day. She called out to me, I counted to ten, and then I went to the front door to see what she had left that day.
Ooo, my favorite! Baked butternut squash skin with some seeds and squash. There were also three date pits, and apple core, and one fruit tea bag. I had it all pulled under the shed and near my nest in a manner of two minutes.
It was almost too good to be true.
I ate to my heart’s content, and when I was full, laid down to rest again. Of course the treats weren’t quite enough to fill me up for an entire day and night, so I would still have to go out and forage for a little while that night.
A few hours later, I woke up, yawned and stretched, and waddled to the front door. As I did, I heard the sound of munching. I stopped and sniffed. Apple. Oh, that’s right, I’d left one piece of apple near the hole for later.
And now…someone else was eating it!
I got angry. But being smart, I knew not to just march on out and confront the thief. First, I had to figure out what manner of thief I was dealing with.
My sharp sense of smell had it figured out in no time flat: a skunk. While skunks are not known for attaching large rats such as myself, I knew that they nevertheless had to be approached as cautiously as I would have to approach a cat.
I shuffled to the front opening of my home, and cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but I believe that’s my apple core you’re eating.”
I tapped my left front paw on the ground. “Did you hear me?”
“Yes, I heard you.” The smooth voice sounded unrepentant. “And did you never hear that one shouldn’t speak with food in one’s mouth?”
“I’ve never heard anything of the kind.”
“Hmmph.” My vision is bad, but at that moment I could see the skunk’s nose come close to my own. “Of course you haven’t. Rats are such a vulgar bunch.”
I took a deep breath, trying to hold my temper. I knew I had to at least remain civil, or risk dire consequences. “Just so you know, from now on if you see a piece of food at my door, it’s mine. The female human who lives around here gives all her kitchen scraps to me.”
“Is that a fact?” The skunk shoved her nose into mine.
Startled, I backed away as her eyes appeared before mine. “Oh, my, this looks like a nice place to live. How rude of you not to tell anyone else about it.”
At that, she poked the claws from both her front paws into the dirt and began to dig.
“Wha – what are you doing?”
She laughed. “Why, moving in with you, of course!”
Instinct kicked in. I leaped forward and bit her on the nose.
She shrieked, yanked her head out of the hole, and whipped around so fast with her tail in the air that I barely had time to realize what was coming. Her instinct had kicked in.
“NO-O-O-O!” I began scuttling backward, but it was too late. A stream of nasty, burning liquid squirted me. I leaped out of the way as quickly as I could, bashing my head against the bottom of the shed, but the stream kept coming.
I won’t horrify you with the gruesome details of how the next few days proceeded. Suffice to say that rats lick themselves in order to keep themselves clean. I wanted to run to the human’s house and beg for a bath, but three things stopped me. First, I had no idea where their house was. Second, being a wild rat I couldn’t trust them. Third, the humans didn’t like the stench anymore than I did.
I found this out the next day when the human came to the shed early in the morning. “Eew, skunk!” And then she said a lot of words I’d never heard her say before as she stomped around above me for about five seconds. Then I heard her open the shed door again, but not close it.
Despite the stench, she continued to come and give me treats. But after a few days, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to find a new place to live. That night I moved out of my cozy, warm house and sought shelter under a brush pile that wasn’t too far away, but far enough away that the skunk stench hadn’t touched it.
The next day, I heard the lady calling. “I have treats for the rats! Who wants a treat?”
I wanted to come out and show her my new home, but I didn’t dare. It was daylight, and instinct made me think that I couldn’t be sure she wasn’t hungry for roasted rat. I think she was as sad about my move-out as I was, because I heard to say to one of the other humans that she missed the rat. I, at least, could still find the treats piled up in the woods as long as I got there before the raccoons did.
My new home isn’t nearly as nice as my old one, but I’ve learned an important lesson. If you’re going to argue with a skunk, do it far, far away from your home.