By A. J. Oxford
Copyright 2014 A. J. Oxford
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It was the rodent. All this time we feared man faced extinction from a variety of causes: N1H1, terrorism, global warming, global cooling, mutually assured nuclear destruction, and even the mysterious disappearance of the honey bees--many feared it would be the zombies. But it was the rodent, again. But this time it wasn't by the rat spreading the Black Death, but by succumbing to it.
Twelve years ago. It came quietly and spread quickly, but no one cared. It began in the summer heat when the New York City sewer rats began dying. NYC believed its eco-friendly extermination attempts were finally succeeding. No one noticed that rats were dying in untreated areas. When the disease spread to other cities we were unknowingly grateful but oblivious. It wasn't until the bats began to disappear from the tourist cave systems that ecologists began to take note, not that the bats were anymore loveable but at least they were more fascinating.
Against public opinion Congress allocated millions to the University of Southern California to research the cause of the rodent extermination and any possible environmental effects. It was too late when researchers discovered the virus, too late for the rats and too late for us. While it was no longer relevant whether there was a better mousetrap the existing mousetraps were not capable of capturing the residual problems.
The disease began with the rats but moved to mice, and other related animals such as beavers and squirrels. We never heard how the disease jumped from the rodent family to the bats and then to the insect eating armadillo, but it somehow even reached domesticated gerbils and hamsters that had no contact with the outside world--there was a lot of crying children and panicked parents who could not find a replacement in time…or ever. What we did hear is that while the New York City sewer system was ground zero, the disease quickly passed through the ports overseas and down the rivers intercontinentally, spreading inland like the waves trailing a speedboat. The how was curious and never determined, whether passing airborne or through feces, blood, or saliva. Even then, how could it possibly reach the family pets? The only certainty was that it spread quickly. The government thought the worst was behind us when the researchers determined the disease was not transmittable to humans. But losing the rodent was actually devastating, eventually, to humans.
I remember hearing as a child about how we had to save the endangered species. I remember stories about fisherman catching dolphins in their tuna nets, hunters clubbing baby seals, and poachers slaughtering elephants and rhinos solely for their ivory. The late twentieth century witnessed the largest "endangered species" preservation attempts since Noah. It was way too late to save but we immortalized, toyed, and cartooned the extinct dinosaurs as if coexisting with them would as pleasurable as an amusement park. In fact, the only way humans could coexist with a carnivorous and voracious raptor would be during a time when we hunted them to extinction, or vice versa; the only way we could exist with 65 ton Dreadnoughtus and its oversized Keds would be to live in caves over which they could not traverse. At least the rat couldn't trample us and, normally, wouldn't eat us.
We have always hated the rat; no one anticipated actually mourning the rat, but the death of the rat, and the other small animals that were and were not its kin, led to the starvation of the snake, and the near starvation of the medium sized animal predators and the birds of prey. The owl and the hawk became more aggressive toward smaller birds, but the owls and hawks seemed to fade while the seed and insect eating birds seemed to flourish. The fox, wolf, and brown bear became more aggressive and turned to the human population. The naturally resulting hysteria of seeing these animals systematically invade towns and cities led to "vigilante" hunting parties to control the encroaching predator population.
The government, led by the vocal environmental minority, tightened restrictions on gun and ammunition sales. The "tree-huggers" championed the rights of the red fox and the natural habitat that the humans stole by "manifest destiny". They marched and protested even, and especially during, the controlled thinning hunts--that is, until the national press broadcasted the Lexington March that was met by a pack of wolves that chased the marchers indoors until the hunters rescued them. The hunters laughed for days in the bars, lodges, camps, and Sheriff's office. All but a handful of protesters left as quickly as the hunters' dispatch, just much more quietly than they came and the dispatch itself. A few protestors mourned the "senseless killing", throwing themselves on the dead wolves and rolling around in the blood and debris until the Sheriff's office forcibly removed them. One protestor fell to her knees and cried "It should have been us". A few by-standers shook their heads but quietly agreed.
In the years to follow the predators declined and the plant based fowl flourished. Having essentially advanced up the food chain the bird population grew too rapidly for the seed and berry harvests. Like the birds, the deer began invading the farms. The deer ruled the night pastures. Hunting could control the deer during the day but the birds overwhelmed even the living scarecrows. The more crows and starlings farmers killed the more that followed. We learned to tolerate eating crow, even as tough and gamey as it can be; they say it is all in how you cook it--probably code for "add more peppers". The grains and greens became scarcer as we battled the birds and deer, but the roots and tubers were ours.
The cable news talking heads were convinced that once we could control a food source, we would survive--some of us would survive. There simply was not enough for food for everyone. The corporate farmers began hoarding all they could harvest so the governments seized control of the farms by military force, even in the republics. Farmers abandoned their crops to government mismanagement and incompetence.
Mass migration began toward the shores, oddly, where civilization began and it where it appeared it might end. The fisherman were fortunate enough that the seas, lakes and rivers continued to teem with fish, except that after filling their holds the mounting population pressure awaiting the boats' arrivals regularly closed docks until fish spoiled while fisherman waited to unload. The government was eventually successful in pushing the population back from the docks and shores, and intelligently resisted seizing the ocean crops. We gratefully added larger quantities of sea life to our diets until overfishing pushed the fishermen farther and farther away from the shore taking them longer and longer to return with fewer and fewer fish.
The human population contracted. At first countries fought over food, but the countries that depended upon food aid couldn't--they lost first. Our government eventually collapsed but we generally suspect they are simply hidden in well stocked bunkers. As communications and information waned we ceased to depend upon or wait for help. I quit broadcasting when we lost electricity. Actually, I pretended to broadcast for several days thereafter because I didn't really know what, or have anything else, to do. We never learned why we lost power. Some say the plants exploded but we never heard, saw or felt such. Others say the plants are generating power but it can't reach us because copper stealers broke the lines--a likely improbable cause since there is no one left to buy the copper. The most plausible reason is that there was simply not enough people to keep the plants running.
Today we live in small g
I traded food for a small solar powered charger that would charge small electronics so I continue to listen to the same songs I recorded on my MP3 player before I no longer could. The solar charger is handy but batteries slowly exhaust and soon I fear my MP3 player will lose charge all together. I was able to save the music to a tablet so they are not lost forever, but the tablet does not charge well. It will charge enough to transfer to another MP3 player, when I find one, though.
We have plenty of deer and it is always a blessing to see a doe with two fawns. We also farm. We actually over farm. To be sure we have enough, we must. Occasionally we are invaded by small bands of brigands. We called them a variety names at first but one of the children set on "brigands", from an old animated movie, and we let it stick. We can't afford to waste resources on those who only want to take, but we do have to protect ourselves from the brigands taking everything. I use the buckshot for the birds, but I save the rock salt for the brigands.
Bands of migrants pass through as well. We over farm for them. When we determine they only want food, we let them take enough for a few days on the promise that they will return, one day, with seeds of something we don't have. One returned with sunflower seeds and another with pecans; most never return, or, perhaps, just haven't yet. It was impossible to keep the birds out of the sunflowers so we quit trying. The pecans will take years but with the loss of the squirrels, there should be plenty.
We survive. While we do have to watch out for brigands and migrants from time to time it remains a daily fight with the birds. The crows are emboldened in groups and will not wait for the last breath of life but instead will peck at any sign of sedation. We don't nap outside. We don't even sit to rest unless we do so next to someone else moving about. They are not aggressive enough to crash through our windows like Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds".
And, of course, there remain the four legged predators. They are more brazen and aggressive, but usually if we wound one, the others will take that opportunity to their advantage. We can also down a crow (usually always waiting) overhead to provide a quick wolf meal so that we can make a quick escape. The home remains a safe sanctuary. But we still have to eat. We still have to hunt and farm. The luxuries are gone but we make the most of the remaining battery power and tissue we can find. I type this as my tablet will hold power because paper is too valuable for its better use. I'm afraid in years to come there will be no more print and all we will have is the history our fading batteries can provide.
We survive in what is now a much simpler time. We store our crops easily protected from the birds and the deer, as long as we can harvest it. We no longer worry about the mice, rats, racoons and skunks finding their way in, and neither do we mourn them. We do mourn the rest of what we lost. But we lost it because we lost the rats. It began with the rats and civilization was lost because of the rats; the least desirable animal became the "endangered species" most worthy of protecting. Perhaps we do mourn them.
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