The Rat Trap in the Farm House

September 18, 2009 12 Comments

A few months ago, while attending the 95th session of the Hampton University Minister’s Conference, I heard my most favorite preacher of all times, the Rev. Dr. Claudette Copeland use a brilliant illustration that got me thinking about systems thinking, networks and collaboration. I will surely integrate this illustration into my consulting and training practice, and recount it herewith for your enjoyment and cogitation:

The Rat Trap

(Author Unknown)

A rat looked through a crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package. What food might it contain? He was aghast to discover that it was a rat trap. Retreating to the barnyard the rat proclaimed the warning; “There’s a rat trap in the house, a rat trap in the house!”

The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Rat, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.”

The rat turned to the pig and told him, “There’s a rat trap in the house, a rat trap in the house!” “I am so very sorry Mr. Rat,” sympathized the pig, “but there is nothing I can do about it but pray. Be assured that you are in my prayers.”

The rat turned to the cow. She said, “Like wow, Mr. Rat. a rat trap. I am in grave danger. Duh?” So the rat returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s rat trap alone.

That very night a sound was heard throughout the house, like the sound of a rat trap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see that it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital. She returned home with a fever.

Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the barnyard for the soup’s main ingredient.

His wife’s sickness continued so that friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them the farmer butchered the pig.

The farmer’s wife did not get well.  She died, and so many people came for her funeral that the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide meat for all of them to eat.

So the next time you hear that someone is facing a problem and think that it does not concern you, remember that when there is a rat trap in the house, the whole barnyard’s at risk.

I, along with the several thousand others in attendance at this historical gathering of professional storytellers (a/k/a preachers), was tickled and intrigued by her use of this fable (and particularly upon her noting that, after all was said and done, the Rat — for whom the trap was set — got away!).   It made me think:

  • of the basic truth that indeed, we are all connected
  • that what affects me today will at some tomorrow ahead, also affect you
  • about how an appreciation of systems, systems thinking and networks is so vital to our approach to understanding, diagnosing and solving intractable social problems
  • about Lani Guiner’s miner’s canary analogy as another successful example of the use of literary device in the analysis and messaging of complex, structural social issues.

On that last point — Dr. Copeland’s  masterful employ of this  illustration made me think of our responsibility to integrate (and oftimes introduce) systems thinking and complexity into community and civic conversations via accessible means (story, metaphor, simplicity, visual aids, plain speech). We need distill and deploy complex analytical tools in ways that aid, not confuse, the problem-solving, meaning making, analytical project at hand.  Its easy to get confused, and to confuse, when talking about systems thinking. In fact, in recent work with a client of ours, I’ve noticed that even the use of the word “system” itself can be a detractor from the analytical and messaging work of collaborative problem-solving.

Some questions I’d welcome your responses to are as follows:

  • What methods do you find most useful in introducing systems thinking into community and lay conversations?
  • Or, what are some of the perils you’ve encountered when trying to introduce systems or complexity into a conversation? What lessons have you learned?
  • What do you make of the fact that, eh…the Rat got away? Is there a  systems analysis parallel commentary to be made here?
  • How might the story unfolded differently if the chicken, pig, cow — or at least some of them — had an understanding that they were just part of an ecosystem, a network, a system that made them part of the Rat Pack (couldn’t resist!) despite their siloed,  self-consumed, identities ?
  • What does any of this say, then, about approaches to complex (or even complicated) issues that lack an appreciation for systems or complexity?


  • Katherine says:

    Dr. Copeland is a great raconteur for our times of irrational selfish pursuits and she demonstrates the power of the gospel offer us “beloved community.”

    Stories hold us together and bring meaning to our collective experiences. We set common ground with story telling. In diverse, small group settings it can be helpful to have folks do a storytelling exercise. The group moves beyond individual differences and connects around threads of similarity to create meaningful collaborative efforts. I also think it helps leverage individual risk and creates collective equity for the work at hand.

    If I were going to use Dr. Copeland’s telling in an exercise, I would play the clip (nothing like the power of a good storyteller) and poll the group anonymously and ask a few question like – which animal do you see yourself as playing in this story?

    Each character/animal in the story provides a teachable moment -.chicken (quick thinker/short-sighted), Pig (sympathizer, but slothful) Cow (insightful but timid), Snake or Rat (e.g. analyzer/collaborator)

    It’s also true that in setting a trap for one thing you are likely to catch another, the farmer and his wife were so consumed with the nuisance of the rat they did not pay attention to the danger of the snake, who cost the community of animals their lives.

    Final thought – the farmer stands alone.

    Inspiring post!


  • i’ve never heard that particular fable before. love it. thanks for sharing.

  • Curtis says:

    The fable illustrates what is for me the most powerful way of making the point about systems – story! Can’t go wrong there. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tamecia Jones says:

    I think this illustration accurately describes the interactions, causes, and communication patterns within a system, but also overlooks the underlying problems and hierachy which many understood but chose to do nothing about. I mean, really, if the needs of the rat had been met and protected, none of the other animals would be disconcerned and felt that their position in the hierarchy was protected. And, the fact that the solution does not succeed at the intent is a reflection that those solving the problems have not figured out everything and the rest of the animals should not hold complete confidence in them. Had there been a different conversation with many of the animals deciding upon a group ethic and shared resources, there would have been no need for a rat trap. There were a conflation of systems at hand and only in stress did the two meet. Stress shouldn’t be the catalyst.

  • Cynthia says:

    Love the story and the reminder that we are all connected in ways that we can’t always anticipate. And, it’s a great reminder of the principle that ignoring the needs of the most vulnerable often produce grave consequences for “the rest of the system.” I’m also intrigued by connections to the use of force as a way to protect the interests of the farm family and their house. How else might they/we deal with perceived enemies and hinderances?!

  • Melinda says:

    Wow. You all are brilliant. Thanks for the cheers and insights.

    Katherine, great proposal for an actual design for a group exercise. #IISC, I think we’ll use it! (and credit you, of course! And, K, btw, I did play the live excerpt on this past Sunday’s edition of “The Soul Sanctuary”). And, youre right — The Farmer in the Dell yet stands after all is said and done. Hmmmm….Your observation begs the question of: How then, might a systems approach facilitate the deconstruction of deleterious power structures/relations (which I believe is Tamecia’s point). Also — be sure to list your blog address here so that folks can chime in on your blog as well.

    Charlie — youre welcome! Want to invite you to share some more of the thoughts that flooded your mind as per our office conversation.

    Curtis — I think you are right, and like youre certainty around this point. “Story” as a medium/learning tool probably has just what is needed in terms of both complexity and simplicity to adequately make the point of systems and systemic analysis.

    Tamecia – WOW! Brilliant! And, Im not so sure about the fact that if the animals came together and arrived at shared commitments that there would not be a need for a trap. Do you mean that the Farmer’s intent to rid his home of rats somehow would have been obliterated as per animal community organizing efforts? Please say more…And, say more about “stress” as a catalyst…youre rocking and I want to vibe on your thinking here.

    Cynthia — Indeed. Great catch. What Kingian/Ghandian non-violent approaches might the Farmer engaged in instead of the trap?

    Finally — let’s all find and follow each other on Twitter in addition to this blog to stay in communication on these issues…..Im following all those listed herein who are out there!

  • Guillermo says:

    Great blog. I really enjoy it. I want to let you know that his fable that the Rev. Dr. Copeland offered is a fable from the Islamic community called The Trap By Sheikh Umarr Kamarah

  • Kevin says:

    There’s no mention of what happened to the snake. Did it also get away?? Seems like a repetitive role for the snake – the antagonist in the demise of the current order.

  • Habibi says:

    There are many types of rat traps that you can choose based on the type of rodent. You must choose the best Rat Trap, that is right for your home. In general, it’s easier to prevent rats, than try to catch them. If you have too many rats, you should to use electronic trap. I read few good advice in this post I hope, my message will help to someone.

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