Befriending Rats

One of the things that struck me while reading this book was the freedom that comes from being a wildlife biologist – or any outdoors related scientist (particularly a well published and widely respected one, like Mr. Hutto).

In my experience, making friends with rats, squirrels, chipmunks, deer and other ‘vermin’ are something that most farmers and ranchers simply don’t do. If they were to participate in the kinds of activities Mr. Hutto describes, they wouldn’t admit to it publicly (or even privately).

The few wildlife ‘friends’ I’ve seen or heard discussed invariably turned into easy meals for the humans handing out the treats. After all, what better way to fatten up and trap a squirrel than to feed it off the back porch and then shoot the poor thing when it stops by for a visit?

This sounds brutal and, in a way, it is. But farming and ranching tends to be brutal work. At one point Mr. Hutto mentions his relief at being able to maintain the ranch without requiring an income from the effort. In other words, he is not ranching (or farming), he’s living on a ‘hobby farm.’ This is an important distinction because the competition with the animals, both predator and prey, is primarily academic. For people who survive off of a farm (or ranch), competition with these furry friends is primarily economic – and can easily become brutally Darwinian in nature. Some would say this is a matter of good (or bad) farming/ranching practices, others would say it’s God or weather or fate. Regardless, the perspective toward wildlife creeping onto the farm or ranch tends to be the same: it’s us or them.

That said, the book includes descriptions of locals stopping by the ranch and meeting the deer herd Mr. Hutto manages to ingratiate himself with and I do not doubt the reactions he describes are both real and sincere. Being able to touch and interact with a wild animal, without all of the pressures of ranching/farming concerns is more than the wonder of interaction with wildlife, it’s freedom from work and the pressures of survival.

This is the subject that came to mind when I read the following quote because I could not help but see these words being spoken to a collection of ranchers and farmers standing around the local diner (or wherever they gather for casual socialization). In my mind’s eye I saw the listening crowd shaking their collective heads and chuckling while muttering ‘scientists’ under their breath.


“Leslye has also cultivated a relationship with the remarkable rodent known as the pack rat, which often lives in accommodating rock shelters, but also loves old barns or derelict buildings. Large and beautiful rats with un-rat-like bushy tails, they are extremely intelligent and display a complex social life. Leslye can call a name, and a pack rat will emerge from a hole in a log wall of the barn, walk out onto Leslye’s lap, and casually take a horse cookie.”

-Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch by Joe Hutto

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