I know this sounds frivolous, but I’m really disappointed that the tree house I stayed in last week wasn’t more photogenic. It was a stunning place perched at the edge of a conservation park in Cairns, Australia and completely surrounded by the rainforest. The structure itself was almost entirely open, the rooms blending into one another and then the trees themselves.
It was all pretty idyllic… until the wildlife invaded.
Day 1: Under Siege
I woke up at 4 a.m. to a rustling in the kitchen. The house didn’t have a front door much less a security system, but I wasn’t concerned that someone had broken in mostly because that would necessitate an intruder finding it in the first place. Besides, one of the first things my host, Colette, mentioned when I arrived was that bush turkeys occasionally wander up the steps at night. She said this as casually as you or I would tell someone where the extra towels are kept. “Or it could be the white tailed rat,” she suggested. “We sometimes get those.” I must have looked alarmed because she quickly added, “Well it’s technically not a rat. It’s a marsupial.” The pouch didn’t make much difference to me, but I just let the whole thing slide – much like whatever animal was now outside my bedroom door. I’ve never before prayed to find a live turkey in my living room until that moment and I hope I never have a reason to again. I didn’t dare open the door to find out for sure.
Day 2: Return of the Wildlife
Same bad time, same bad place. Except this time, the skittering on the floor made it painfully obvious that I was not dealing an oversized bird, but the white tailed rat – or more accurately, several of them. This was a marsupial invasion. And judging by the sound of things, they were arriving by tank.
Day 3: The General
I casually mentioned to Colette that the first floor turns into something of a rodent playground in the hours before dawn. “The bathroom or the house?” she asked. I failed to understand the distinction, but it was a moot point since the answer was both. Unfortunately for the rats, she responded with three of the most dangerous words possible: “I’ll tell Jeffrey.”
Jeffrey is Colette’s husband, the man who built the house by hand from the ground up. He’s a metalworker by trade, and in his spare time, he likes to build custom boats, make his own vodka and look for power tools that he left in the rainforest. One of the first things he said when we met was that he didn’t trust anyone else to tile his bathroom because “They’ll do a shit job.”
This is a long way of explaining that Jeffrey wasn’t about to stand idly by while some punk marsupials chewed his wiring. Several “relocation” traps were baited with bananas and peanut butter and placed strategically around the downstairs. The tank rats didn’t know it yet, but they had earned a one-way ticket to the middle of the forest.
Day 4: A Two-Front War
When the rats made their way into the house tonight and noticed Jeffrey’s banana traps, they did the logical thing: they went upstairs.
It was there that Colette saw one run through the master bedroom, scramble onto the bathroom counter and then leap from the second-story balcony into the night. It was, without a doubt, the most dramatic thing a rodent could do without the benefit of being in a cartoon.
Day 5: Operation Improvisation
I decided that I could not leave the tree house two days from now without seeing a white tailed rat in action. I wasn’t properly equipped to undertake such a mission, but I made do with what I had, that being: a headlamp, cell phone, Nike high tops and a golf umbrella.
The plan was relatively straightforward. When I heard the usual rustling in the morning, I would sneak out the side door of my bedroom, tiptoe past the pool and hang a hard left into the kitchen. Once in position, I would stun the animal with the headlamp, take its picture and then stomp-chase him down the stairs and into the driveway. The umbrella could be used as a club or a shield, depending on the circumstances.
Exactly none of that happened because just as I was pushing open the side door, I noticed a flash of movement on the back porch. A few seconds later, the animal reappeared and then sat calmly at the sliding glass door. It actually looked and moved more like a possum than a rat, but was cursed with the long, skinny tail that gave it a bad name. The animal was neither cute nor small, as I had been led to believe. More importantly, it did not look like it was going to throw itself off the porch anytime soon. Actually, he looked quite cocky from behind the safety of the glass. We both did really.
Day 6: The Reinforcements
Tonight Jeffrey unveiled a far more intricate, and somewhat unsettling, plan to combat the rats. Like most good generals, he began his research on YouTube.
“They had a similar problem with this animal in West Africa,” he explained to Colette and me over a glass of wine. “But then they noticed that the rats have a very good sense of smell. So when they caught them, they decided to train them to detect tuberculosis.”
Scientists did this the same way they would train any other animal: they introduced the disease in a controlled environment and then rewarded the rats with a banana whenever they alerted to the scent. Over time, the rats became so good at the task that they could detect the disease’s presence in humans with more accuracy than traditional health screenings. With that problem solved, scientists moved on to detecting explosives.
“They trained them to recognize TNT,” Jeffrey explained. “Now they’re out there clearing land mines.”
This, by the way, is all totally true.
“So I think that’s our answer,” Jeffrey concluded.
“Land mines?!” I asked. I was no expert, but bombs seemed like the last thing this house needed.
“No,” he said, doing a double take across the table. “The scent. We’ll never catch them with food because they’re not hungry. So we have to deter them. We need to introduce the smell of a snake.”
I exchanged a look with Jeffrey’s wife. If land mines were at the bottom of my list of solutions, snakes were a close second – and even that order was subject to change depending on what kind of snake Jeffrey had in mind.
“I don’t like where this is going,” I said. “I leave tomorrow at noon. Do you think you could you just wait until then to introduce the snake?”
“I’m not going to introduce a snake!” he argued. “I’m going to introduce the scent of a snake.”
It was an answer that only raised more questions.
“And how are you going to do that?” I asked.
“I know snake people,” he shrugged. I looked at Colette again and held up both hands. Clearly, I didn’t have what it takes to keep up.
“So you’re going to borrow a snake?” she asked.
“No. I’m going to ask for some of the hay where they keep the snakes,” Jeffrey replied. “That’ll have their scent and act as a barrier against the rats.”
“But then we’d have loads of hay all over the place,” Colette pointed out.
Jeffrey sighed and shook his head. Our collective lack of imagination was too much for him to bear.
“You make tea with it!” he said. “You just boil it down and then chuck it out the back.”
I’m actually quite disappointed that I couldn’t stay another week just to see how Jeffrey’s plan fared. I have faith that it would have worked. After all, what problem isn’t helped by a good cup of tea?