I caught a live rat a few days ago, and I mean it was alive when I caught it and alive after I caught it. No spring-loaded thwackers here, on account of my not wanting to kill our Pekin bantams or give a cat a raging headache, so I set a cage trap with a spring-loaded door instead.
And there, looking at me in the chook pen in the morning, was a fully grown rat with twitching whiskers, adorable big eyes and a cute nose. What to do with it?
Well, before I answer that question let me tell you about the possums I had visions of catching in a bigger version of the same trap some few weeks ago. There were three of them in the roof, arriving and departing a few days apart. From the glimpse I could catch they too had twitching whiskers, adorable big eyes and a cute nose, and one had a baby possum in her pouch. If ever I knew, I'd forgotten that possums are marsupials until I glimpsed the tail hanging out from mum possum's midriff.
The galloping across the ceiling alerted us to the presence of something big in our roof, and we were hoping it was a possum. We often see ringtail possums, with their curling tail walking along the power lines in our street, and we assumed that if it was a possum in the roof it was a ringtail. The three were brushtail possums, much bigger than the ringtail, and that was a surprise because we've never seen a brushtail near our home of 25 years.
We borrowed the trap from a friend, who told us that half an apple did the trick every time, and some little time after this I learnt that while it is not illegal to have a possum trap it is illegal to catch a possum without a licence and illegal to relocate it more than 150 metres from the point of capture.
Anyway, when that first possum departed we thought our problem was solved, and we thought that for just three days until we heard more galloping. When that second possum departed we assumed again that our problem was solved, until three nights later we heard more galloping. This was mum possum, and when she departed we dared to think that, surely, we were possum free.
I'd not been able to find how the possums were getting into the roof but we'd either exhausted the possum supply or they'd learnt not to gallop.
It occurred to me that the rat did me no more harm than the possums ...
So, what to do with a possum? My friend with the trap said he released his possums at Blackbutt Reserve, and I had vision of doing just that with the first possum, in the car park off Carnley Ave, because a reserve with thousands of possum-friendly trees did seem like a happier place for a possum than my roof. I envisioned doing exactly the same thing with the second possum, and later I imagined taking mum possum to frolic among the much closer possum-friendly trees at Murdering Gully at the top of Merewether Heights.
Then someone told me that it is illegal to catch possums without a licence and illegal to relocate them, and I was sceptical. So I googled "NSW possums law" and there it was at the top, the NSW government telling me that it would throw the key away if I caught a possum without a licence, which are available free from a NPWS office, or released a possum more than 150 metres from the point of capture. We could put a stopwatch on the possum's 150m sprint back to my roof, I reckon.
Relocating a possum to, say, Blackbutt Reserve will not solve my problem, the government says, because another possum will take its place, and the relocated possum is unlikely to survive because the bush is unlikely to have any vacant possum territories.
So the government tells me I should block possum access to my roof, after dusk lest I lock the possum in the roof, which would be regrettable, and I have found and blocked the possum's entrance to my roof, a corner gap in an eave. The government suggests I buy or build a possum house to install in a nearby tree, but its link to instructions for building a possum house did not work, which I think should be illegal too. Alternatively, I suppose, I could hope the possum gets into a neighbour's roof.
I told my trap-owning friend that he had been acting illegally, by the way, and he assures me he is remorseful and reformed.
So, the rat, and I thought it wise to google "NSW rats law", and from the top to the bottom I was urged to kill it. Nobody cared how I killed it, how much suffering I caused it, or how far I moved it from the point of capture before I killed it.
It occurred to me that the rat did me no more harm than the possums, and I suspect the rat ate less of the fruit on my backyard trees than the possum. My wildlife camera had caught a number of possums, which I'd thought were ringtails, eating my persimmons but only one rat. And what would be achieved by killing the rat? One less rat would change nothing in the rats' world or my world, and as surely as a departed possum will be replaced by another a departed rat will be replaced by another.
Is a rat's life worth less because we don't like rats? Because its forebears arrived on a sailing ship just a couple of centuries ago? How many indigenous generations are required for an ordinary rat to enjoy the same rights as a native bush rat or a possum? Its one opportunity for a life happens to be as a rat, and we relish snuffing out that life even though we should realise that a rat lives its life as innocently as a possum lives its. The malice is in us, not the rat. And I suspect the rat's life is as precious to it as the possum's is to it, and mine is to me.
Lest there be a law I'm unaware of, I may or may not have released the rat into bush, this time bordering a nearby suburb to share the joy around, and I hope it leads a happy life until nature rather than human malice takes its course.
Jeff Corbett is a former Newcastle Herald journalist. He contributes regular opinion columns to the pages of the Herald each week on Saturday.