Friday, October 19, 2018
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Looking Back

Candida, and snakes, as rat-catchers

Prewar Philippine magazines had many housekeeping articles with advice on “modern” rat traps, rat bait and rat poison, while anthropologists in the Cordilleras pointed out “rat guards” on house posts. Philippine cats, the natural enemy of rats, were not as reliable as house snakes, as described by Joseph Earle Stevens in his delightful book “Yesterdays in the Philippines” (1898): “Nearly all of the older bungalows in Manila possess what are called house snakes; huge reptiles generally about 12 or 14 feet long and as thick as a fire-engine house, that permanently reside up in the roof and live on the rats. These big creatures are harmless, and rarely, if ever leave their abodes. Judging from the noise over my cloth ceiling, a pair of these pets find pasturage up above, and I can hear them whacking around about once a week in their chase after rats. They are good though noisy rat-catchers, but since they must needs eat all they can catch, their efficiency appears to be limited by their length of stomach, and one night of energetic campaign is generally followed by several days of rest, during which the snake sees if he has bitten off more than he can chew.

“If the Philippine cats were more noble specimens of the quadruped, I should try to place half a dozen up in this midnight concert hall, but they are so feeble that I fear their lives would be in danger. It is hardly to be wondered at that these native cats are modestly retiring, when you wake at night to hear your shoes being dragged off across the floor by some huge rice-fed rodent, and I don’t blame them at all for having right angles at the end of their tails. The only way to get rid of the rats seems to be to buy more snakes, and this is simple enough, for you often see the natives hawking them around in town, the boas curled up around bamboo poles, to which their heads are tied.”


Nick Joaquin’s chatty “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino: An Elegy in Three Scenes” (1950), down to its latest incarnation as the musical film “Ang Larawan,” depicts the proud but impoverished Marasigan spinsters discussing a government reward of 50 centavos for every rat caught. Paula describes Candida as the expert rat-catcher in the family: “Oh even at night—even in the middle of the night—if any of us heard a squeak, we would cry out; Candida a rat! Come, Candida a rat! And Candida always woke up. She would come, we would hear her prowling about, peering here, peering there; and then we would hear a sudden dash, a brief struggle, a faint squeak—and nothing more—only Candida sleepily walking back to bed. She always got her rat!”

Candida applied at the Bureau of Health where she was laughed away, threatened with being thrown in the nut house.


How does one dispatch of a captured rat? Campbell Dauncey in “An Englishwoman in the Philippines” (1906) counted the ways (which I first excerpted here in July 2014): “There are a great many rats here, which eat up whatever the cockroaches don’t finish—that is, whatever is not in glass jars or tins … I invested in a large wire trap, which was set in the dispensa … The boys and the sota (groom) watched the trap with the keenest interest, but never a rat would get into it to oblige them. Now, however, while I was writing this, Domingo came in, beaming with the trap in his hand, and a huge grey rat in it.

“‘What are you going to do with it?’ I asked. ‘Are you going to kill it?’

“‘Si, señora, by pouring petroleum on the rat and setting it alight.’

“He was astonished and obviously disappointed when I peremptorily forbade this horrible rite, which the Filipinos have learnt from the Chinese, who think that the poor, agonised, blazing animal runs away with the ill-luck of the house. Then he suggested boiling water, and was again disappointed and surprised when I didn’t join in this spree either, and went off quite gloomily to carry out my orders—to find something large enough to stand the trap in so as to drown the poor beast as quickly as possible … And though the sight of the rat struggling made me feel deadly sick, I waited till he was stiff and cold, as I did not know what cruelty these ‘little brown brothers’ might not
indulge in if left to their own devices.”

Four-legged rats are easy. The crafty two-legged kind is more complicated and needs to be studied more for efficient eradication.

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TAGS: Candida, History, pest, rat
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