When evolution gave humans their big frontal lobe, things became at once very interesting and decidedly uninteresting. It drove survival of our species into the realm of thought, which is invisible and not at all majestic. But before this, for many species, just biting something was top-of-the-line technology. How did it get that way?

I ask this now because I have just had one of the cat’s fangs plunge all the way into my thumb, and for an instant of white-hot pain I was on the wrong end of the same implements that the animal once used to maim a competitor or to kill food.

Why was my thumb in the way of the cat’s fangs? Apparently even hunters, the pinnacle of million-year refinement, get bronchial infections and need pharmaceuticals. I was trying to pry open the mouth of the cat to insert an eye-dropper full of antibiotics that are supposed to taste like mint, as if a cat cares what they taste like and as if mint were it.

This required trapping the animal in a kind of fake TV wrestling move on the floor. My method was to press in from each side of the mouth with thumb and forefinger until “Lily” couldn’t bear the pressure on her gums. Then she would snap her mouth open and I would squeeze the dropper in the miniscule timeframe in which this had a chance of working. This way I was able to get in a dose of something called Clavamox, which is manufactured by Pfizer in Hyderabad, most of which came back out of the cat straight away. There I sat with Lily gagging health all over me.

Suddenly my thumb slipped into her mouth and into my flesh went the fangs, to the hilt, as I mentioned earlier. The pain was beyond description, a satanic mix of avulsion (when flesh is torn away) and stabbing (penetration with a sharp or pointed object at close range). It is only a cat, yes, but my hand is only tissue and that little jaw can generate pressure well out of proportion to its size.

My hand was now stuck on the cat’s fangs and I was on the floor in a kind of pretzel configuration with Clavamox spraying everywhere and no way to let go easily. The cat was half under my left leg and trying to slink out backward while I was wedged up against the door frame for support.

So I took the natural course of action: panic. Panic is how I chose to deal with a leech attack in Borneo in 2009.  The animal had made its way onto my foot through leech boot, leech sock, and my new cargo pants. I ripped the leech off and my foot bled for four hours.

Now it was a cat’s fangs.

I jerked my hand out of Lily’s mouth and blood came streaming out with no interest in stopping. Lily is a Himalayan. I don’t know what that means except that her fangs are curved, like an Asian upland scimitar-type thing, rather than straight like a European-style pike. So the opening in my thumb was as long as the entire curve of the blade.

I sat there agape at the wound that the cat had just induced in my hand. But then the shock mysteriously evaporated, driven away by fascination at the process that gave this animal rigid, calcium scimitars in its mouth. These were tools aeons in the making, used to puncture, disable and then disassemble a far less well equipped being, all aided by equally destructive hooks protruding from each of twenty digits, and sometimes more if it’s one of those cats. I stared at my hand, transfixed as the blood radiated through the creases in my skin.

Charles Darwin found that when species are successful this is because random mutations in their form accumulated doggedly over immense time scales produce a favorable trait. Something that gives the animal an advantage, like enormous, sharp teeth. Reproduction passes the mutation on to offspring, a process finally mapped by Gregor Mendel in 1863. The offspring benefit from it in the same way that the parent did and in turn pass the trait on to their offspring, multiplying this modification exponentially until they outnumber whatever form of the species it was that initially produced them. Then they themselves become a “species”.

What causes the mutations then? Although environment appears to be the greatest source of pressure on living things, to say that evolution is simply adaptation to it misses the mark. The first life on this planet had to emerge, again, doggedly, from lifeless, organic molecules, which implies chance. The breeding ground was only part of it.

Are mutations then cosmically driven and therefore subject to the imperceptibly slow rate of change you would expect if baryonic matter, that is, the tangible stuff, is really only five percent of all the matter in a universe that has been expanding for 13.7 billion years at light speed at least? In miles that’s 13.7 billion times about about 6 trillion, or an 82.2 with twenty zeros after it.

Remember Carl Sagan sitting in a cave with a Geiger counter saying that cosmic rays from across the galaxy are piercing everything, all the time, including the cells in you and me right now, and that this causes mutation? If this is true, then at what rate? And are cosmic rays the only driver?

One standard answer for why mutations occur is still “errors introduced into the genetic code” as strands of DNA are unwound and strapped back together to make new strands by proteins in cell nuclei. What causes this, then? And why, if natural selection rewards favorable modifications, have successful species gone extinct unless something in their environment made their supposedly superior form unfavorable? Or was it just by more accidents of mutation that they then lost whatever element gave them the advantage and died a death as long and slow as their gradual rise?

What is certain is that somewhere long ago, an animal like a cat was born. It had slightly longer teeth than its predecessors and found that these longer teeth aided the ripping of the flesh of other animals, which put a meal into its mouth, which increased its chance of survival, which increased its chance of producing offspring with the same teeth. Over tremendous time scales these fangs grew into meat hooks, the sabre-toothed cat for example, whose sabre teeth were the key to success. The animal grew large and strong and lived a long time, until something changed.

We’re still trying to answer the question, “Why do living things change and how does this occur?” Current research being conducted in the tropics, where biodiversity is greatest, has found that some species may even be re-evolving traits that they once lost, which dramatically challenges the ‘one-way’ idea of evolution. It is likely that living things retain the genetic architecture that they have accumulated like a journal of this wandering process. Which would make every house cat still a wild predator inside, which seems to argue in favor of random mutation but still doesn’t answer why the mutations at all?

Cut to about 1,500 BCE. Sabre-toothed cats of any sort are long gone and Egyptians are mummifying their descendants. From that point, dispersion of cats as house pets follows civilization mundanely westward through the Hellenes and Latins, down to the animal that shredded my hand at about 9.30 this morning.

When I was growing up (no story about pets would be complete without a “when I was growing up”) we owned a large, black cat with white paws. The unimaginatively named “Sylvester” was the son, among 10 or 12 others, of a feral calico who we took off the street in 1976, called Lola. In Sylvester’s later life my mother would call him “the Thing from the Cellar” because he would retreat to this, his lair, every evening and maul any dog, in our case two extremely stupid setters, that dared poke their giant snouts down the stairs.

Sylvester was the heir of the entire sweep of evolution. But he was the last of his kind. What happened to me today, fang ripping flesh, instigated not by a struggle for survival in the cellar but by the routine administering to a house pet of a tri-hydrate amoxicillin clavulanate potasic something-or-other, was just an outburst perpetrated by an animal named for a flower that I’m allergic to. We’ve sought to administer nature and have rendered her fangs just something not to get stuck into your hand. What will we do with this power?

Year of the Rat

March 24, 2009


This post is about a rat that lived under the sink in my kitchen, until one hour ago, when I caught him, stuffed him in a bucket, and threw him into a lake.

The animal made its presence known three days ago when I came downstairs and witnessed him scurrying across the living room floor toward the kitchen and then disappearing under the cupboards. He was a smallish rat, not like the mammoths you see in the sewer grate or at the seashore. He was about the size of my hand and moved somewhat arrogantly that first time, prancing strangely across our simulated hardwood. He seemed clean enough and not so belligerent, though, so I only mentioned it to my wife through the stairwell.

“I don’t want to kill him,” I said.

“Can’t we get some of that sticky stuff to catch it and just peel it off?” said my wife.

“No. That kills it. It crawls across the sticky stuff and its feet get stuck. Then it dies there. Do you want to peel it off?” I said.

“And I don’t want one of those (I made the snapping motion of a standard rat trap with my hands). That’s disgusting.”

We discussed asking the maid to go buy some kind of have-a-heart trap, and then realized the folly of that notion considering the place we live, Hanoi. There are rats everywhere. They walk around in broad daylight eating garbage and sneering at pedestrians. When the Vietnamese catch a rat they throw it into the street where it is immediately run over by 50 Honda motorbikes. The body is macerated instantly and by afternoon has been ground to molecules.

I had grown used to rats long before coming to Hanoi. They were prevalent in another crowded city where I used to live, Washington, D.C. Only in D.C. they just flitted about momentarily and spent most of their time in the Metro trying to figure out how to get up to DuPont Circle through the drains. Here in Hanoi, rats are just another denizen, part of a seething mass of living things drifting through space on a wayward planet. They figure heavily in East Asian lore and aren’t always bad. This is, in fact, the Year of the Rat. I asked a friend with six years in the country why rats are even regarded in Asia. She said, “because they are highly intelligent animals”. That’s not to say they are kept as pets. But the Vietnamese have resigned themselves to the fact that there will always be rats.

The one now inhabiting my flat, however, would have to go. I had visions of the maid crouched on the stove, saucepan in hand, screaming and whapping the countertop to bits as the animal danced below. I began to survey the routes of rodent ingress and egress under the kitchen cabinets and under the refrigerator, and devised a model for trapping the animal that would be touchless, instant, and as nonviolent as possible.

The next day, a Sunday, there was the animal again as I came downstairs, travelling the same route, from the living room toward the kitchen. Only this time I visually confirmed that it had gone under the refrigerator, which is actually outside the kitchen, next to the kitchen door. I located my Maglite in the lighting equipment drawer of the dining room hutch and peered behind the refrigerator, where I saw the rodent looking impassively back at me.

Rats are not pleasing to view at close range. They have black eyes that lend themselves too much to the animal’s reputation as vermin. By now I had enlisted my wife to help throw some yellow curtains, long balled up in a cabinet, around the base of the refrigerator.

I peered in from the other side and confirmed again the rat’s presence. Only this time he squared off into the light of my torch and actually made to leap out the very opening I had made to look for him. I recoiled and closed the gap. My wife and I then went out to run some errands and discuss strategy. When we returned, the rat was gone.

The next day I called the landlady, who sent someone to squeeze caulk into the opening under the sink where I believed the animal to be entering and exiting. That made the house smell like caulk. I asked, “Since it always retreats in the same place under the cupboards, shouldn’t we nail strips of wood over those places?”

“But what if the rat dies in there and starts to smell?” asked the rat-catcher-caulk squeezer, who wasn’t a real rat-catcher-caulk-squeezer, but the landlady’s brother.

“I still want something here,” I said.

He nodded yes, which, in Vietnamese, means “no”.

We dined that night unconvinced, and were confirmed when I came downstairs one last time before bed to see the rat picking at a small sack of rice that we had placed two shelves up on the dining room hutch. The animal could scale sheer surfaces! It bears mention here that we don’t really have a living room or dining room, but one space of about 50 square meters with dining furniture at one end and living furniture at the other.

Again the rat shot under the kitchen cupboards near the sink. The caulking had trapped him in with us, or us in with him.

This morning was quiet. I reconnoitered the kitchen. I would take it upon myself to savage a spare piece of shelving, saw it into strips with my Leatherman, and drive the strips into the openings under the cupboards. Note: The locking mechanism on a Leatherman is designed to behead your finger if you try to force it.

But this would trap the animal under the sink and starve him there, or it would trap him in the open where I could descend from above. He had been about in the night. I saw that a bag of coriander seeds had been chewed open, the seeds shelled and only the soft flesh inside them removed.

It took two hours to erect my barricades. Morning passed into lunch and lunch passed into after lunch. I knew the animal was there. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him leap across the counter. I quickly shut the door, put on my shoes, a pair of ski gloves, and my bicycle helmet (visor down), and covered every bit of exposed skin. I wrapped an orange scarf around my neck and collected the blanket, which I would use as a rat net. I sealed myself inside the kitchen and seized a pair of tongs so that I looked like a bike messenger on the way to a barbecue in winter with a blanket.

When the rat saw me, he scaled the edge of a mirror behind the wine glasses to the top of the cupboards. In two lurches I was up on the counter peering at him. He was under a polished stainless steel fry pan. Immediately the tongs became impractical and I threw them away. I attempted to get him in the blanket instead, but failed. He then skirted the cupboards to the other side of the room and tried to hide under a set of nested plastic salad strainers.

I caught my breath and pounced again. Still the rat was too quick, and here I saw something that terrified me. The animal launched himself from the cupboard and flew seven feet to the kitchen floor, like Voldemort. I saw him frantically searching between the cracks of my barricade. But I had built it too well.

He led me on two circuits of the floor, and I momentarily despaired that he had an emergency exit somewhere in the door frame. Then there was another terrifying demonstration. He positioned himself in front of the lower panel of our corrugated aluminium kitchen door – not corrugated aluminium like on the roof a tool shed, more like an indoor kind of nice kitcheny corrugated aluminium – and crabwalked right up it, gripping microscopic ridges left in the aluminium at the time of forging, on his face a look of utter focus, if rats can be said to have a face.

Now the rat was just running to run, however. The vertical walk up the door required all of his resources and I hurled my blanket at him, knocking him to the floor. Even with my blanket on him he managed to wriggle free once, but then he seemed to tire, and fell. I closed my hands around him like a spider and stuffed him, blanket and all, into the bucket. The only thing visible now was that hairless tail.

I removed my protective uniform, put on my Ray Bans, and went out into the street carrying my bucket. The route would take me about 200 meters out to the small lake in my neighborhood.

At the water’s edge I positioned the bucket between my feet with the mouth pointing seaward. I held a corner of the blanket tightly and whipped it over the water. The rat flew out sideways and sunk so quickly that I thought maybe he had suffocated on the trip over and was just dead. But then he surfaced a meter or two offshore, paddling out into the stream like a tub toy. I watched him out to the middle of the channel hoping he would reach the far shore. He swam fast for an animal with sticks for legs. But then there was a gust of wind and I lost sight of him.

I walked home. The house seemed somehow diminished now, too quiet and too clean. The animal had brought activity to a mundane life and had given me something to grapple with other than how to get Microsoft Word to automatically put the same margins on all bulleted lists. We’re still jealous of our place at the top of the taxonomy and will not countenance anyone from below. This hairball of an animal with a small brain had taken three days to catch, and even then it was never certain until I had him stuffed into my bucket. Victory now mocks me, King of the Rats.