My wife and I used to live in an old building on the campus of the school at which we work which carried with it many established problems, including ants. And I don’t mean a couple of ants in the kitchen; I mean rivers of ants, dark, oblivious, moving trails that deflated my human-centric ego until I felt like an outsider in my own house. This was just after we’d graduated grad. school and really started on our careers; we’d officially tiptoed into the realm of the middle class, and as such, we were suddenly surrounded with influences we didn’t understand. Whereas, once upon a time, we’d have simply killed every ant we saw, questions of co-habitation and environmentalism were raised: Must I kill everything that annoys me? Sure, these ants might get into our food, but really, they were just trying to live, and if I DO kill everything that annoys me, what kind of person does that make me?
The question was soon answered when some friends came to visit: I am the kind of person who doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of my friends by having thousands of ants in my house. So I went to the store for some ant spray and traps.
I grew up using traps and bug spray—we had roaches and spiders in my dad’s house from time to time. We killed everything that wasn't invited. When wasps nested in the eaves, we’d douse them with chemicals and watch them drift lazily to the ground and die. My father used to joke that when he put peanut butter in the mouse traps, he found me with purple fingers.
At the grocery store, while looking at the poisons, I saw glue traps and poison for rats and mice with pictures of rats eating poison. The rat and mice models on the covers of the packages were fat, happy, well-fed, groomed, and clearly trained—I mean, how else to get them to model? Someone trained that rat to stand there and pose while the lighting, angles, and all the other necessities of photography were worked out. And that kind of training required nurturing, a gentle touch. Someone fed the rat, kept it healthy, cared for it and then used it to model for poison. It seemed bizarre. Imagine training your cat to be a cat-poison model.
I bought the ant traps and set them out. But I kept thinking about that rat on the box. I used to work at a bank which used glue traps (which aren’t very effective) for mice, and poison outside. Squirrels would get into the poison. Of course, some people think squirrels are nuisances. My father raised cattle and shot dogs whenever they came close enough to bother the cows, worried that they'd start a stampede and injure the cattle. He didn't stop to check for collars or tags. Neither do poisons stop to check for collars and tags.
And, those who are in the know will tell you, poisons just cause the bugs or mice to adapt, so they become stronger and more resistant. This leads to population booms of resistant bugs or mice. This is what I hear. It makes sense, but I’m certainly not an expert on vermin adaptation, regardless of what some of my exes might say.
When the friends left, I did some research. There are all kinds of home remedies for getting rid of ants, like making a line of chalk, for example, because ants don’t like to get their feet dirty. This seemed difficult to believe. Other friends and family members suggested more drastic poisons that killed the ant queen—the only way to really get rid of the ants. We were frozen at the idea of whole-sale slaughter, but the ants came back. How were we going to live in our new roles as enlightened WASPS with ants in our kitchen? And real wasps in our eaves?
We woke one morning to banging on the door. The decision was taken out of our hands; the school had hired an exterminator.
We spent the next year as vegetarians, shooing wasps outside, gathering ladybugs and releasing them into the wild to live free, but I kept thinking about our ant-apocalypse. Clearly, when the chips were down, we would abandon our new-found patchouli-ism. I felt like a fraud. We bought eco-friendly cleaning products, but they cost more and didn't work as well as soap and water usually would. The following summer, we found a really good sub shop with a great Italian sub, which ended the vegetarianism. The truth is: we like meat. I still put bugs outside sometimes, especially in winter, so they’ll just go to sleep. The truth is: I don’t mind most bugs, as long as they aren’t in my house.
But I’m still bothered by that rat model, by questions of profound morality as demonstrated by ones actions, but this was a much more complex issue than simply whether to relocate pests or use dye-free toilet paper. My new ‘influences’ had nothing really to say about the ethics of this.
The truth is, I don’t think I’m cut out to be middle class. I cuss and tell dirty jokes, sometimes even when I’m sober. I’d rather have fried things in big portions to eat than exotic stuff that tastes bad. We moved out of that house after a couple years and moved into the one we’re in now. This one has mice, but it’s okay; the snakes keep them down. Don’t think I won’t kill either if they get in my way, but at least I won’t dress them up and use them as models first.