In Kie Bumgarner's backyard, orange-laden branches drooped toward the ground; pale green leaves clustered on a nearby bottleneck tree; gardening equipment was arranged neatly on an outdoor shelf. And dangling from one of the power lines that converge on his Tudor-style house was the stiffened corpse of a 12-inch gray rat.
"Caught him night before last," Bumgarner said with satisfaction.
The Bumgarner elevated wire-supported rodent trap, U.S. Patent 4477997, had apparently struck again.
At 85, with horn-rimmed bifocals, a hearing aid and gray-blond, combed-back hair, the trap's inventor hardly looks like a killer. But Bumgarner estimates that he has claimed more than 100 victims in his crusade to clear the rats from his corner of Bixby Knolls, a middle-class, west-central Long Beach neighborhood where he has lived for 30 years.
He successfully has kept the rodents away from his home and the two adjacent houses since he started tinkering with his contraption in 1982.
In October, Bumgarner received his patent papers. In December, City Health Officer Rugmini Shah wrote in a memo that "we would certainly recommend the device." And now Bumgarner has hired an attorney to contact manufacturers to see if they would be interested in producing his better rattrap.
The trap is specially made to attach to power lines or tree limbs--highways and byways for roof rats, who travel them after dusk to feast on avocados, oranges and tomatoes in the yards and gardens of residential neighborhoods all over Southern California. Then the rats use the lines to reach holes and cracks in house eaves, hunkering down between ceiling and roof for their daytime naps.
On the surface, Bumgarner's innovation seems simple. He mounted a commercial rattrap on a piece of wood. He placed two prongs on the bottom to secure the trap to a power line or limb. And he put the whole thing on a pole, so he can lift and lower the trap. That way, he can stand on the ground while placing the trap or removing it.
Months of Work
Still, "there's more to it than you think," Bumgarner said. He worked for months to perfect it.
It was a termite inspector who first drew Bumgarner's attention to the rat problem--and to its solution--while making his annual check of Bumgarner's house.
The inspector showed Bumgarner the power lines leading to ventilator holes under the roof. That was the rats' entryway, the inspector said.
Bumgarner's first reaction was to call the Long Beach Health Department. The department's advice: Come by for some rat poison.
But Bumgarner didn't go for that. "I don't like to put out poison--cats and dogs all around here," he said. "So I just got busy and made a little trap."
He remembered the termite inspector's lecture. If the rats were coming in on the lines, Bumgarner decided, that was where he should place the traps.
The first Bumgarner elevated wire-supported rodent trap was a makeshift affair. He nailed a rattrap he had bought for $1.59 to a broom handle. He used two pieces of wire for the prongs.
The first night, he caught a rat.
He soon discovered one drawback. A broom handle is made of wood, which could conduct electricity from a high-voltage power line. "After you killed the rat, you could kill yourself taking it down," he said.
So he made four more traps, each a little more sophisticated than the last. He used a non-conducting plastic instead of a broom handle. And he used plastic prongs.
Instead of nailing the whole thing together, he used screws.
He put the four traps out. He caught four rats in one night.
He hired a draftsman and a lawyer, and filed his patent application in February, 1983.
In the meantime, he kept quiet. He didn't want anyone to steal his idea. He told only Ed Sheeran, his neighbor to the north. Sheeran had a rat problem, too, and Bumgarner decided to hang a few traps in his friend's yard to help out.
"The next morning, there was a rat in the trap. I dumped it right in the garbage," Sheeran remembered last week.
Since he received his patent, giving him the exclusive right to manufacture and market the trap for the next 17 years, he has felt free to spread the news about his achievement. Responses have mostly been a mixture of admiration, affection and disgust.
"Dearest Kie," wrote Bumgarner's sister, Helen Cobb, from her Missouri home. "Was not surprised to hear that you had a patent. But my big surprise was you had rats!"