My favorite encounters with non-human mammals (my sense is that only mammals encounter one in the way I am going to describe) happen when an animal sees me, really sees me and I see myself being seen. I am so used to wandering this amazing semi-wild town—Santa Cruz—and its environs, watching, unseen (or so I imagine), the non-human life around me (and here I mean all the bugs, beasts and birds, as well as the flora, that populate, and sometimes overpopulate, this place), that I am completely startled when a non-human looks back. For a moment I see myself as one of them, a mammal, and for a moment I think I see him or her gauging the danger I represent. I rarely regard non-humans as dangerous—I’ve never met a mountain lion, but there isn’t much else, except the Black Widow (and she’s not that poisonous), the Brown Recluse (who definitely is), and the occasional skunk (because of the startle reflex that is so noxious to humans and other mammals) that represents a danger to me, the clear top-of-the-food-chain predator in this ecology. But humans in Santa Cruz are generally a friendly lot, when it comes to so-called Nature: most cherish being able to live among the wild ones to whom this place belongs, and so represent no threat. In any case, if I am still and if I carefully arrange my body and my gaze in postures of passivity, submission or general non-threat, the creature overcomes his or her fear and simply looks.
But one encounter in particular from recent years haunts me.
I had a rat problem. I live in the country, and, well, rats do too. They live here, with or without the rest of us (unlike the rats of New York City or other urban areas who, should those areas ever be emptied of humans, we are told, would quit the premises within a week or two). My house is an old house and not airtight. It is also built into the hillside: parts of it are underground, separated from the earth by what are called “rubble” walls, river rock with very little cement between in order to permit the rock to breathe in a rainstorm (it leaks, but only a little) and, presumably, to shift but not collapse in an earthquake. One winter, when it was very cold and wet, the rats, especially, I think, the moms, decided to move in. Now, the rats here are gorgeous, with clean glossy brown coats, nothing like the scary caricature of dirty urban vermin normally conjured when there’s talk of an infestation. They are also huge, big enough for my dogs to attack but much too imposing for most of the neighborhood cats. The problem I’d been experiencing had to do with sound (they shrieked and hollered in my walls at night; rats are very loquacious), and with smell. Rats, especially nesting mothers, produce a strong unmistakable—and to the human olfactory senses, very unpleasant—odor. After a week of setting traps that worked for the first two days (after which the rats, intelligent beings that they are, changed their routes, foregoing the delicious peanut butter and cheese lures I had prepared), I used—once and only once, I swear, and never again, I promise—poison. And then, one day, I came home, and as I approached my kitchen I saw, perched on the counter, a very large rat. She sat there, aware of my presence, and looked at me. I stood there, aware of hers, and pondered my dilemma. I had no idea what to do. As I walked cautiously toward her, she moved away, returning to the crevice from which she had apparently emerged. And as she departed, I noticed a smear of blood trailing behind her and knew that she was dying. Rat poison causes internal bleeding; that is how the rat who ingests it dies. Now, I know that humans hate rats with a passion, and I know that I, though not hating them, did not want one in or near my shelter. But I did not, till that moment, know how viciously sadistic human methods of eliminating them, including my own, could be. As it turned out, the rat exacted her revenge, albeit unwittingly; she died behind my kitchen counter somewhere near the rubble wall, and for weeks I could smell the rotting corpse, reminding me of what I had so willfully and yet so thoughtlessly done. But there was that moment when we exchanged gazes—she with the eyes of a dying mortal, and I with the eyes of a murderer, newly conscious of the enormity of the crime I had committed against her.