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The Producer's Story

Catching Rats (on Film)

  • By Jeremy Zipple
  • Posted 02.24.09
  • NOVA

My body, collapsed on a bedroll draped in mosquito netting, ached in muscles I never knew I had. A few hours earlier, we'd wrapped up a hard week of shooting in and around the village of Zamuang in the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. But exhaustion trumped the pain, and I soon fell into a heavy sleep—until an urgent whisper from the adjacent bed startled me back to consciousness.

"Jeremy! A rat just ran into your blanket!"

A few months before, this warning would have sent me leaping from bed in a cold sweat. Now I just muttered "okay" and slumped immediately back into sleep.

In the course of filmmaking, among other memorable experiences, Jeremy Zipple learned to milk rats (all in the name of scientific research). Enlarge Photo credit: © National Geographic Television

Rats!

We'd been chasing rats in Mizoram for two months—catching them with bare hands, storing them alive in cages by our beds, collecting the heads of some in jars of formaldehyde, dissecting others, even occasionally eating one or two. (Yep, smoked rats taste a bit like chicken.) Like most Americans, I had a long-standing phobia of rats, which I needed to overcome fast if I was to survive documenting an epic-sized rodent outbreak on camera. Fortunately, Ken Aplin, the intrepid wildlife biologist featured in our film, was around to help me confront those fears. Ken's the kind of guy who will shove a bare arm into a burrow crawling with agitated rats as cheerfully as a kid reaching into a cookie jar.

To ascertain which rodent species were involved in such outbreaks, and to track their reproductive activity, Ken needed specimens—lots of them. So we deployed an arsenal of rat-catching tools and techniques: metal cage traps, ingenious bamboo snare traps fashioned by local farmers, even nighttime "rat drives" in which we'd string up fishnets at one end of a rice field and, with sticks and lots of shouting, try our best to corral rats into them. Once caught, the most humane way to kill the rats we needed for scientific study, Ken taught us, was to pinch them tightly at the neck; asphyxiation came after just a few seconds. Not so much out of concern for the rats but more for my stomach, this was an activity I tried to avoid.

Despite signs indicating that a once-a-half-century rodent outbreak was imminent in Zamuang, finding rats wasn't always easy, especially in the early weeks of our shoot. The rat that shared my bed in Zamuang that night, if I had cared to catch a glimpse of it, surely wore a mocking grin on its face, sneering at me for all the sweat and blood its kin had extracted from us in our attempts to capture them on film.

A two-week-old litter of baby rats scooped from a burrow uncovered in a stand of Melocanna bamboo. Enlarge Photo credit: © National Geographic Television

Missing in action

A month earlier, producer Rick King and I had sat anxiously in that same room, worrying not about rats in our beds but about the utter lack of rats in Zamuang. After weeks of waiting, the rats just weren't showing up and nobody could say why. Even Ken Aplin, a research scientist at the Australian National Wildlife Collection who has devoted years of his life to studying rat outbreaks across Southeast Asia, was stumped.

Because they happen so infrequently and in such remote regions, rodent outbreaks caused by mass bamboo flowerings aren't well studied. For us filmmakers, it was an exciting opportunity to capture new scientific discoveries in real-time rather than report them after the fact. But it was also nail-biting. What if the discoveries didn't make for good television—or, worse, didn't occur at all? What if the epic rat attack, the premise of the whole film project, turned out to be a dud?

Filmmaking has afforded me some wonderfully exhilarating experiences. Milking dead rats was not one of them.

For reasons that Ken would only ascertain later—and you'll have to watch "Rat Attack" to learn about!—the rat population in Zamuang never exploded. Thus, we needed a new location where the rats were cooperating. We put out an APB for rat attacks and eventually received word from Thlangkang, a nearby village suffering a fierce rat outbreak.

When I went to scout the place, I discovered that "nearby" meant something different in Mizoram than in the United States. Though Thlangkang was no more than 40 miles from Zamuang as the crane flies, traversing the distance required a bruising, 12-hour drive over mud-sloughed mountain roads. This was followed by a long boat ride—"into the heart of darkness," as Ken later described it—then some serious hiking. As Mizoram is subtropical, all this travel took place in alternately scorching sun or monsoonal downpour.

The villages of Zamuang and Thlangkang lie in a remote region of the northeastern Indian state of Mizoram. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Rats at last

Sadly, the exploding rat population had decimated Thlangkang's rice and corn crops. Though we'd just missed the main attack, hordes of rats were still harboring in the fields. I spent a day with village farmers inspecting the damage, hearing stories of the onslaught, and, with help from the farmers, catching plenty of rats. The villagers grabbed them with bare hands, but with Ken not around to question my manhood, I opted for gloves. Ken saw no sense in wearing them—he claimed the risk of disease was minimal—and consequently he got bitten regularly. He never seemed to mind.

Ken had instructed me to bag as many females as I could find, then, to assess their breeding activity, check to see if they were lactating. Filmmaking has afforded me some wonderfully exhilarating experiences, but suffice it to say that milking dead rats was not one of them.

All the same, it was gratifying to doff the filmmaker hat for a while and lend a hand to the project's scientific work. Tracking breeding patterns is an important component of Ken's research as he seeks to understand the links between large-scale bamboo flowerings and rodent outbreaks, and his findings in Mizoram could potentially assist hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia to better prepare for and control future rodent outbreaks. Moreover, by this point I'd developed a healthy respect, even a kind of affection, for black rats. They're admirable animals, keenly intelligent and extremely adaptable, and, far from the mucky sewer-dwellers with which we're familiar, they actually obsess over their grooming and cleanliness.

The Mizo manner

Though the residents of Thlangkang faced a precarious near future after the rat onslaught, they spared no effort in making me feel welcome, serving a prized commodity for dinner, a chicken, when we returned from our day of rat-catching in the fields. The village president said I was the first sap (white person) ever to visit Thlangkang and he would erect an historic marker to commemorate the occasion. I was more than a little stunned and moved.

In the wake of the devastating rat assault on their fields, these Mizo women and children in Thlangkang face several tough years ahead. Enlarge Photo credit: © National Geographic Television

Coming to know the Mizo people and their culture was, for me, a personal highlight of this project. The Mizos are actually a collection of a dozen or so related tribes that crossed into present-day India from Burma a couple hundred years ago and whose ancestors originally came from southern China. They're mostly Christians (thanks to late 19th-century Scottish missionaries) and speak a Tibeto-Burman language, which differs markedly from the Sanskrit-derived languages spoken throughout much of the rest of India.

Extraordinary hospitality is part and parcel of the Mizo cultural identity. Ask any Mizo what it means to be a Mizo and you'll hear the word tlawmngaihnai, roughly "to share all I have with others." It's telling that the Mizo language has no formalized way of making an introduction, no equivalent of "nice to meet you." Two Mizos meeting for the first time launch into conversation as if they are old friends.

Imagine how you'd feel if the Queen of England stayed at your house for a night, then gave you $10,000 on the way out."

The next day, I had an opportunity to return a bit of the villagers' kindness when a very pregnant woman asked to hitch a ride on our boat to a village upstream where there was a midwife. Without a motorboat, the five-hour journey would have taken her a full day on foot, so I was happy to provide the lift. (And even happier that she waited till we reached the village to give birth.)

Rained in

The following week I returned to Thlangkang with Ken and the rest of our crew for a two-day marathon of a shoot. With no electricity in the village and no possibility of hauling in a generator, we had only enough battery power and supplies for two days of filming. It was a race against time, made all the more difficult by the rugged terrain and extreme weather.

Our day started with an hour climb up a bluff to the fields, which with camera equipment in hand and hot sun beating down seemed to take all morning. In Mizoram, farmers' fields lie far from the village where they live; a farmer might spend the better part of a day just hiking to his field. And the crops themselves are planted on steep hillsides. It's some of the steepest farmland in the world; just tramping through a field left us panting and soaked in sweat.

Not more than a couple hours into filming and without much warning, the sky blackened and rain began pouring down in sheets. We ran for the nearest shelter, a bamboo hut we could see across the hillside. Entering the hut, I couldn't help but be struck by the incongruity of the scene: our crew, carrying tens of thousands of dollars of high-tech film gear, crowding into the 15-foot-square home of a family whose sole possessions were a pot for cooking and a few farming tools.

House visit

But the family of four appeared pleased to have us and, true to Mizo form, welcomed us with gracious hospitality. They fed us plain rice and, in return, we shared with them a box of Choco Pies, a marshmallow-filled chocolate treat that we'd picked up in Mizoram's capital, Aizwal. I asked our Mizo guide and translator Sangzuala Hmar to check with one of our hosts, a girl who looked to be in her late teens, to see if she minded our invading her house. She shook her head and smiled, a slightly bewildered look on her face, but said nothing. Later she apologized to Sangzuala, explaining that she was so overwhelmed by our arrival that she'd temporarily lost her ability to speak.

A bamboo hut like the one Zipple's film crew ran to during an afternoon rainstorm. The hut is surrounded on the steep slope by brownish-yellow Melocanna bamboo, which is in the midst of dying after its once-a-half-century flowering. Enlarge Photo credit: © National Geographic Television

The downpour continued through the afternoon and into the evening. We'd like to have stayed the night, as the prospect of climbing down the mud-slicked bluff in the rain wasn't particularly appealing. But it was obvious to everyone that our seven-member team would have overwhelmed their one-room home. So Ken and our sound recordist, Sundareswaran, an Indian from New Delhi who, like many Indians, goes by only one name, volunteered to remain behind with the equipment while the rest of us returned to Thlangkang.

After hours of heavy rain, the path leading down the bluff had morphed into a small tributary feeding the river far below, so we more or less slid our way down. When we reached it, we found that the boat that had ferried us across earlier in the day was now docked on the opposite bank several hundred yards upstream near the village. In the drenching rain and darkness, we waited upwards of an hour before the driver finally began inching the boat across the river to pick us up. I was fairly agitated by the long delay until I learned that the driver and a few villagers had spent the last hour bailing out the boat so that it would be reasonably dry and seaworthy for us.

A day in the sun

Thankfully, the next morning dawned clear, and we returned to the family's hut to find Ken and Sundareswaran in at least as good a shape as the rest of us. Ken had brewed a can of "sock coffee"—dump coffee grounds into a sock, preferably a clean one (which he didn't have), and add water—to get the blood pumping for what promised to be a long day of filming in 100-degree weather in fields with no shade.

(Months later, while screening the footage we'd shot that day in the air-conditioned comfort of a National Geographic edit room in Washington, John Bredar, the film's executive producer, said Ken's shirt looked a little wet and asked if it had been hot that day. "Just a little," I replied. It's always striking to realize that what the camera records is only a rough approximation of what we actually experience in the field.)

As with the rat that would soon share my bed in Zamuang, I couldn't have cared less: We had captured our rats.

At the hut, we offered our hosts 500 rupees (not quite $15) for the food and their trouble, and once again received flabbergasted reactions. For them it was a small fortune; indeed, as Sangzuala explained, they'd come to view us as extravagantly wealthy and quite exotic foreign dignitaries. "Imagine how you'd feel," he said, "if the Queen of England knocked on your door, stayed at your house for a night, then gave you $10,000 on the way out."

Thanking them for their hospitality, we set out into the fields to catch and film rats. By mid-afternoon, we were exhausted but kept pressing on, exploiting every second of rainless daylight. We had waited almost two months for this moment, and we were not about to let a little fatigue get in our way.

Ken Aplin on the five-hour boat trip that he and the film crew had to take to get to and from the remote Mizo village of Thlangkang. Enlarge Photo credit: © National Geographic Television

In the can

Finally, around 4 p.m., Sangzuala sidled up and said the drivers of our two boats were worried, for nightfall was not far off and they suspected—surprise, surprise—more rain. A long boat ride lay ahead of us and to delay any longer was imprudent at best. Traveling at night would be difficult enough, but we would be traveling at night in the monsoon. So we loaded our equipment into the boats, said reluctant good-byes to our new friends in Thlangkang, and headed upriver.

This final leg of our journey back to Zamuang was exhausting and fraught with its own little dramas, but I was neither taken aback nor put out. As a guide knelt in the bow shining a flashlight ahead to help the motorman navigate in the dark; as the other boat's engine quit, forcing us to lash that craft to the side of ours, further slowing our already agonizingly slow progress; as our driver pulled over to the bank at one point and, anxious or exhausted or just plain ill, vomited over the side; as I shifted constantly on my seat trying to discover new positions that would offer a few moments of physical comfort; even as we finally reached our destination after five and a half hours only to have the sky open up the very moment we stepped ashore and soak us to the bone—through it all, as with the rat that would soon share my bed in Zamuang, I couldn't have cared less: We had captured our rats.

Jeremy Zipple coproduced "Rat Attack" with producer Rick King and executive producer John Bredar. A Mississippi native, Zipple currently lives in Washington, D.C., where he cohabitates peacefully with several rats dwelling in his basement.

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