Quinn and Keeley, in their Introduction to California Chaparral, U.C. Press, Berkeley, 2006, blithely note that wood rats (Neotoma macrotis) are the signature animal of mature chaparral. Who knew?

Certainly not the casual observers of chaparral from car windows, or even day-hikers; I ran on trails in the Will Rogers State Historical park which backs up to the Topanga State Park for ten years, often in the early morning dark, and never saw a wood rat. I also never knowingly came across a wood rat nest - which can be five feet high and and ten feet in diameter.

Now I live amongst them in my metal stud, stucco and sheetrock box, they in their elaborately woven twig-stacks. They're everywhere. Morbidly afraid of the light (they even shy away from moonlight) they hide behind the fire-doors and live under our ipe hardwood entry deck. They live in the pool cover vault and gnaw at the deck framing above it. They carouse in the pool equipment corral and eat the the brooms, brushes and the plastic netting on our pool leaf rake. Or did. Until we got two feral cats.

They built nests in our cars. They ate the hosing of the air suspension system in our Land Rover LR3 (causing the air-compressor to burn out and the suspension to fail catastrophically). They made a nest in the heater hose of the car, where they died and the smell of dead rats suffused the champagne cow-hide, brushed aluminum and wilton-carpeted interior.

They are ubiquitous and highly industrious. One night, after having the car repaired from its latest evisceration by the rats, we forgot to garage it. The next morning we popped the hood to find the beginnings of a nest sitting on top of the engine. In the night they had eaten the wiring harness - eaten, digested and disappeared the wiring harness. That's when we called our local feral cat procurer.

Caroline, a writer, owns an equestrian estate low on the north slope of Sulphur Mountain (Wild Thing). Rats are a problem in stables where they share the horses' bedding, shelter and food and are not above nibbling on their hooves. Although there are a number of dogs who are 'ratters', of which perhaps the Jack Russell Terrier is the best known, Caroline has solved her problem with serial populations of feral cats. They are lower maintenance than dogs but also more transitory, at least in these urbanwildland parts, where they can quickly be caught up in the food chain. She imports them in bulk - mostly from the vacant lots of the Los Angeles netherworld - where a lawyer and wild cat fancier captures them, has them neutered and innoculated and sends them to rustic homesteads in the shrublands where they will have their fill of rats as long as they can evade the jaws of bobcats and coyotes.

The City of Los Angeles has dealt with urban feral cat populations using a policy of Trap, Neuter and Return - the theory being that these sterile communities will eventually die out of their own accord, but researchers have shown that 70–90% of cats must be sterilized before cat populations decline thus the theory depends on the thoroughness of the plan's execution. Late last year, six conservation groups won a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and its Department of Animal Services to stop the practice of encouraging feral cat colonies until the legally required environmental impact reviews are performed. (Ammoland)

Ted Williams, in the Audobon Magazine Blog, writes that

"The American Bird Conservancy estimates that 150 million free-ranging cats kill 500 million birds a year in the United States. And according to a peer-reviewed study published February 24, 2009, in Conservation Biology, TNR causes “hyperpredation,” in which well-fed cats continue to prey on bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian populations so depressed they can no longer sustain native predators".

Margot, our biologist neighbor warned us darkly that we should be prepared for our own silent spring by introducing feral cats which would decimate the surrounding bird and lizard populations. She sits on the Los Angeles Audubon board and is thus a party to the lawsuit restraining Los Angeles from its TNR policy. She has threatened to shoot our cats should they encroach on her property and I am in complete sympathy with her right to do so. But thus far, the score for the indigenous wild life (excluding rats) versus the exotic, introduced species, is one-zip.

There has been no evidence of bird kills and our friendly, local front-door lizard has lost a section of its tail but no more. The other day I watched it take advantage of a spall in the concrete slab and retreat inside the aluminum base window molding - entirely safe from predators.

However, walking with Lorrie up the trail towards the west meadow the other morning I saw a slim white eyeless mask with curved needle teeth sitting on the laurel sumac mulch which defines the path. I picked it up and saw it was a cat jaw that had been severed from the skull very recently: there was still the pink of the rough sandpaper palate and flesh wedged in the nose cavity. There was no sign of other cat parts, no fur to indicate whether it was the black or calico cat which had succumbed. We have seen no coyotes recently but this morning, Lorrie saw three bobcats, two juveniles and an adult, skulking around the wood pile which is about 40 yards from where we had seen the cat jaw. Bobcats tend to calmly appraise human presence before slinking off into the bush, such was the case this morning: Lorrie thinks she saw the droop shouldered demeanor of a guilty conscience as the adult ambled off.

The Big-eared Wood Rat has, as Quinn and Keeley report, "large ears, bright eyes and a pleasantly intelligent look about the face". In the normal course of events I am reasonably well disposed towards them and wish them no harm. One of my early experiences on the property was of retrieving a cardboard box which had blown off the building site during construction and lodged in a mountain mahogany on the far side of the seasonal stream.

I pulled the box out of the tree and clambered up the bank back towards the garage; when I reached level ground I realized that there was leaf litter at the bottom and I up-ended it over the ground to shake it out - the leaf litter fell to the earth followed by two rats. One scooted quickly off into the brush while the other followed more slowly dragging, as I thought, another rat along behind her. I then realized that I had disturbed the family in the process of giving birth to a baby rat. In a spasm of guilt, I gathered up the leaf litter and arranged it in a pile close to where the first rat had disappeared in the undergrowth with the thought that perhaps they could reconstitute their nest and the female, attended by her mate, could complete the birthing process.

The fate of junior has haunted me on and off ever since. At the same time, I viewed with equanimity the two baby drowned rats I fished out of the pool that were, I figured, new members of the family that had decided to nest in the pool cover vault. Furthermore, I set a trap outside the vault and eventually snagged the parents. But the sight of mother rat disturbed in her labor brought out all my instinctive love for the poor and downtrodden - I was, in a sense, the rats' landlord and had literally tipped them out of their cardboard shanty.

We are not clear at this point whether the second cat has survived or not. The last couple of days the cat bowl has remained suspiciously full of kibble. By tomorrow, if the food remains untouched, I think we can chalk up the off-ing of two exotic, feral cats to the natives. Some out there will be enormously relieved.

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