Friday, August 16, 2013

Some Thoughts on Rat Bounties

I came across a news item about the township of Southgate, Michigan and its problem of an infestation of rats.  The story doesn't specify, but I notice that the town abuts the southern edge of Detroit, which immediately brings to mind that perhaps even the rats are electing to desert this urban equivalent of a sinking ship.

At any rate, the story describes one resident's improvised method of trapping the varmints: a bucket two-thirds full of water with some grass clippings spread on top, baited with peanut butter, and a small wooden strip of wood serving as a rat ramp to provide easy access, a microcosmic drowning pool that would appeal to the lemming in every rodent.  His tally so far that day was fourteen. 

His is a small example of the compulsive drive that seeks to better himself and thereby also others.  He was motivated initially by the idea that he should take his harvest of vermin to city hall in the hope that the fetid mess would provide some negative motivation for the city to "do something".  He was further motivated by somehow discovering an old law from 1919 (shown in the televised story) that put a bounty of 10¢ a head on rats, a not-insignificant sum in those days and one that would still appeal to the gentleman in the story due to the target-rich environment.  The mayor is interviewed and replies that (1) he is predictably "unaware" of such a law but more importantly that (2) the city is somewhat constrained in the magnitude of services which it is supposed to provide for the commonweal and instead suggests that the citizens may wish to take it upon themselves to eradicate whatever rats that are thereabout to the extent that they may – nothing after all prevents people from taking their own best interest to heart in circumstances such as these. 

The gentleman is moved by the offer of a mere dime per head, yet other communities offer far more.  The nearby Oregon settlement on Puget Island (served ironically from the state of Washington), offers from $5 to $8 per rat, and Louisiana (as we were recently reminded by that cunningly popular Duck Dynasty) offers $5 for Nutria, a particularly insidious rat Goliath.  Other states and communities offer such bounties, and even St Claire Shores, only a few miles from Southgate, is considering a $5 bounty as well. 

Nutria (Did I say 'big'?)

His remarks remind me of the aftereffects of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, a category 5 storm and one of the top three hurricanes of the 20th century, which smashed through southern Florida (receiving an enormous amount of press coverage) and then crashed into Louisiana (which did not).  I put together a church group of volunteers that traveled to Berwick, Louisiana to aid with the cleanup, and the contrast of the attitudes between what we saw in Louisiana ("Another hurricane.  Well, let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.") and the televised reactions in Florida were striking.  What stuck in my mind as an example of Florida was the scene of one woman sitting in front of what had been her house, complaining that the government simply wasn't quick enough in providing aid, and cited the fact that there were dead dogs around that needed to be disposed of.  My mental reaction was that, if getting rid of dead dogs was a priority for her, then maybe she should consider getting off her duff and burying them herself, because everyone was rather busy trying to restore civilisation.  At that moment, my reaction was tinged by the fact that I was almost literally "up to my ass in alligators", and I dwelt on the fact (as I have so often had the opportunity to do) that a strong dose of reality has a way of focusing one's mind on the truly important priorities of life. 

In thinking on the pest control improvisator in the story, it brings to mind the famous observation of the great Adam Smith and his classic Wealth of Nations, wherein he says: 
Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of society as great as he can.  He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it.... He intends only his own gain, and he is, in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention.  Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it.  By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.  I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
In doing so, Smith reminds us that the individual most commonly must surmount "a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operation."

Yet Mark Twain has another observation on the subject, and just as germane:
[T]he best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps.  Then every patriot goes to raising them.


  1. I'm surprised the animal righties (actually lefties) have not risen as one to deplore this taking of life. Animal life, of course, they not being interested, anymore than black "leadership," in the daily killings of young blacks in, say, Chicago. We also have rats in Austin, but the local Bug Master puts out and periodically replenish plastic boxes of poison. Where the dying rats go, I have no idea, but we haven't smelt any decaying carcasses yet. Just skunks. But that's another story.

  2. Dead rats, dead skunks -- it's all the cycle of life. One year you see a score of dead possums, the next year dead armadillos, the next dead raccoons, then dead deer, then dead snakes, and so on. Eventually, the cycle repeats. I expect the Chinese developed their zodiacal calendar (this being the year of the snake) based on the same observation.


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