Here is a tale about two tails. Two long, scaly grayish-pink tails that skeeved me so hard I could barely look at them the first time I saw them. Two hairless appendages that caused me to backpedal furiously on my promise to my son that today was the day that he could finally choose his very own pet rats.
We were at the pet store, thanks to my cousin, whose son had a rat of his own. When he showed me a photo of it, I drew back a bit, gave a sidewise look at my cuz and said, “Really? A rat?”
She nodded firmly and said, “Annette, it costs six dollars, lives three years, and eats whatever you have lying around in the fridge.”
My son was nine years old at the time and aching to take on the responsibility of a pet. We already had a dog, but she’s always been my baby and barely gives him the time of day unless he happens to have bacon stapled to his shirt. He wanted a cat, but I’m allergic. We talked about snakes, lizards and hermit crabs, but he’s a snuggler and we both knew that those choices wouldn’t satisfy the urge to cuddle. Rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs seemed too large, and hamsters, gerbils and mice seemed too…common.
So we thought about rats.
He was an indifferent reader at the time, so we made a deal that if and when he completed a book about the history and care of pet rats, we would head to the pet store to choose a companion.
That was my first error. The book made clear that rats are extremely social creatures that become depressed if forced to live alone. Once we acquired that knowledge, we were duty-bound to double down on our commitment and agree to adopt two rats — at a minimum.
We learned about the background of so-called fancy rats (as in, “I do believe I fancy taking on vermin for a companion”), which are cousins of the creatures blamed for the plague and countless other ills that have plagued humanity.
We learned that while they are indeed generalists who will eat just about anything, they do much better when fed a specially-formulated rat food that costs $9 a bag.
And we learned that they do indeed cost about $6 each because they’re often sold as food for larger pets, and that they rarely live beyond a few years thanks to their long history as laboratory animals that are often bred to be susceptible to cancers and other tumors.
And so we found ourselves at the pet store, staring through the glass at two adorable little sisters who were curled up like a yin yang symbol. One had beautiful honey-colored fur and amber eyes, and the other was black and white with bright black eyes.
But those tails. YICK. There is just no getting around it once you get a look at those tails. We’re talking about rats. Pests. Contagion-bearing scourges of the earth.
My son named them Cheddar and Cheese.
So we bought them and ended up walking out with a great deal more than a couple of rats. There was the multi-level cage. The fleece hammock. The tip-proof food bowls and extra large water bottle. The yogurt treats and chew toys. The alfalfa bedding and the cute little log-shaped sleeping hut. Our $6 pets ended up costing us well over $100 in accessories and treats.
And they were worth every penny.
We all fell hopelessly in love with those critters. And they, in turn, loved us, almost desperately. When anyone walked into the room, the two of them would race to the bars of their cage, longing to be held, coddled and played with. They would chase our hands around the carpet, jump on our arms and scamper to our necks, nibble gently on our earlobes, tangle themselves in our hair, and best of all, curl themselves tightly against us while bruxing furiously. Bruxing is a particularly endearing rat trait, in which they gently grind their teeth together when relaxed or happy. Bruxing hard enough will lead to boggling, in which the rat’s eyes will actually pop in and out, not unlike one of those eye-popping martian stress dolls. Google it — it is ADORABLE.
Each night at bedtime, my son brought them onto his bed where they would scamper and play while he did his night-time reading. I would often find the three of them snuggled under the blankets after he had turned out the light, and I realized that they were teaching him not only responsibility and empathy, but also love. Not bad for six bucks.
We live in the city but have a small weekend place where we go to get a little blue sky and green grass whenever we can. Every Friday when the weather is decent, we put the entire show on the road, with the dog in the back seat and the rats in their carrying case on my son’s lap.
One spring day, we arrived at the cottage, and as I walked through the house flipping on lights and opening windows, I noticed something unusual about the rats’ cage in my son’s bedroom. The area around the cage was a MESS, with shreds of alfalfa and newspaper bedding scattered around the floor like a grass skirt that had fallen to the ground. The cage itself was locked closed as we had left it, and in the middle was the rats’ food bowl. The food inside untouched.
As I continued to walk through the house I noticed other anomalies. An apple lying on the floor with funny marks on it. Some scraps of shiny paper scattered near the bathroom.
Finally, as everyone settled in, I happened to check in on the guest bedroom. The comforter was askew. I lifted it to shake it straight and screeched in shock. Something had made itself at home in the guest bed. I recognized everything…the hair, the hoarded bits of paper and food, the fat black droppings — it was a rat’s nest.
From a rat we DID NOT PAY FOR.
A closer look around the house revealed little chaos bombs in every room: chewed wires, ripped open boxes, caches of wrappers mixed with raisin-sized rat poops. The one that really got me was the curtain that covered a rat hole he had chewed into a baseboard, Tom-&-Jerry-style. Rather than crawling under or around the curtain, he had chewed a perfect half-circle out of the bottom. It must have taken him hours, the little bastard.
Generally I’m a DIY kind of gal. I’ve dealt with mice, fleas, lice and all manner of vermin on my own, but this was one of the rare moments when I had to call in a pro. I couldn’t believe how much turmoil this creature had caused in five brief days, and I had no desire to give him any more time to do his dirty work. The next morning, we hired an exterminator who found the entry point, set traps and put down poison. He promised to come back and check the traps in a week or so.
But I couldn’t wait. After a few days, I drove back to check on the traps myself and found a gorgeous, fat specimen dead in the crawlspace. It was a big, healthy country rat with soft grey fur and sweet little pink paws. I nearly cried.
And then I threw his body in the river and drove home to my cute little pun’kins to give them a cuddle.
My son’s rat book was right on the mark regarding rat longevity. Cheddar and Cheese were in decline just a few months later. Cheddar got a pituitary tumor which made her even MORE affectionate and snuggly. Soon, however, she was so ill that we decided to have her euthanized, and the vet who did it cried with me as Cheddar slipped into unconsciousness. Not long after, Cheese got an enormous mammary tumor. We paid to have it removed (ok, it was only $75 — we didn’t go crazy or anything), but a few months later she was struck by a pituitary tumor and there was nothing we could do but hold her close and wait for the end. On the night when my son decided that we should take her to be euthanized, she passed away while snuggled inside my bathrobe. We all cried together.
Three rats. Three deaths. Three opportunities to ponder the nature of pets versus pests. Do you recall that rat cage with its hula skirt of bedding? I can picture that wild rat now, scrabbling desperately through the bars of the locked cage, trying to get to that delicious bowl of $9 rat chow but having to settle for an old apple and some electrical insulation. He was just as beautiful as our pets. But no matter how much expensive food I gave him, he would have gladly given me rat-bite fever or worse if I’d tried to sneak a little cuddle.
What makes a pet? It wasn’t the money exchanged that made Cheddar and Cheese ours. It was hundreds of years of breeding and care. It was centuries of snuggles and fancy food and cute chewy toys. It was humans learning to love the worst of vermin, and of animals learning to love even us wretches who ensnare them, use them for sport, experiment on them and dress them in tiny clothes. We are the pests. And we are so lucky to have our pets.