The Misunderstood Rat
Jeremy had large, yellowing teeth. His hands were balled into tight fists and he rested his large head on them. Curled up by himself inside a purple tube, he seemed to lack interest in his surroundings. I imagined he was resigned to being alone and hairy, had even perhaps given up on life, so I took him home. He is a "fancy rat" - that's right, fancy.
The rats' reputation precedes them and I am often confronted with shock and disgust when I come out as having a companion rat. I may as well be bragging about hanging out with a few hundred roaches, but that's an entirely different blog entry (coming soon).
The fact of the matter is, rats make excellent pets. I rather cringe at the term "pets". I rarely refer to my dogs as pets and prefer to think of the animals in my home as companions; little beings for whom I am responsible, like children, or buddies who rely on me for their care. A rat is not much different from a dog. Jeremy's intellect is considered far above that of similar rodents like gerbils or hamsters. True story: hamsters want to kill us, but they aren't smart enough so they just bite us a lot. If you die and your hamster figures out how to escape his Habitrail, I have little doubt that he will eat you. Hamsters can't help it.
Rats learn their names, or at the very least, will run to you when you scritch-scratch with your fingertips. Once they've gotten to know you, they will bound to you like a dog. Jeremy responds to his name, or at least the sound of my voice, and checks in frequently by scaling me like a rock wall when he is having free time to stretch his little legs on my bed or on the backyard porch swing.
Rats, when adopted at a young age, rarely bite if handled with kindness and regularity. They learn to ride on the shoulders of their companion humans, carefully take small treats from your hand, and seem to love interacting with people. Rats are altruistic and share their chocolate!
Because of Jeremy's intelligence, I am filled with guilt for keeping him in an aquarium. He has a little wooden shelter, soft, fluffy bedding, food dishes I ensure are always full, fresh water and a secure lid because my dogs would like nothing more than to eat him like a fuzzy little Twinkie. Sadly, despite being fairly similar in temperament, the rat must be caged while the dog has free reign of the house. In short, these bright little guys must be protected from their environment.
Sadly, it is too late to protect them from the toxic environment their kin have to endure on a regular basis. The rat, because her system is similar to ours in many ways, is an excellent candidate for the testing of new drugs, foods, cosmetics...nearly everything you can imagine throwing at these little critters. So they can get cancer. They get it a lot. My rat buddy, Claire Peabody, developed a tumor so large it looked like a second head. I had the vet remove it surgically, which wasn't cheap. It improved her quality of life, but her life span was reduced because the cancer had taken its toll. I understand the need to test drugs. I understand the great advances that have been made because we can inject these animals with potential cancer cures, ways to battle alzheimer's and any number of incredible yet experimental antidotes to the things that cause great human suffering. Yes, we might trade the life of a rat, or even several hundred rats for the life of a parent, child or loved one. I just ask that we give these noble creatures the respect they are due. They are unwitting soldiers in the march of progress.
You know those big rats you run into outside the 9:30 Club in DC or in an alley in New York? The ones you mistake for a rottweiler? Well these are not fancy rats. Indeed they aren't fancy at all. Clever but uncouth is how I imagine these city rats, holding belching contests and generally behaving like hoodlums, or frat boys. My Jeremy is no such rat. He washes himself meticulously and my concern that he may have deep-seated OCD is only overshadowed by the fact that he poops in his food dish. Beyond that, he is the picture of a cultured gentleman, cleaning himself from the tip of his long, hairless tail (helps him with balance, but no, won't help him win any beauty contests), to his humorously long, whiskered nose (the better to balance a tiny pair of bifocals), he spends much of his waking life tidying himself up.
So wrest yourself of the idea that rats are plague carrying vermin whose place is on a billboard for your local exterminator. Gone are the days when these short-legged chocolate lovers had to stowaway on ships, exposed to black plague carrying fleas only to be greeted on foreign shores by angry townspeople declaring they were diseased and unpleasant, without a friendly hand offering a peanut or a yogurt treat. An unfit greeting to be sure. They had to fend for themselves, pulling themselves up by their very tiny bootstraps.
When I got Jeremy home he quickly became a member of the family. I feed him a store-bought rat food diet, nuts, grains and fruit, and supplement it with broccolli (a cancer fighter), banana and his favorite yogurt treats. I give him daily exercise by letting him run around or taking him outside on my shoulder. He doesn't bite or give me the plague or even have bad breath. He is not above using toilet paper as a bed. In short, he is a lovely little member of the household. So when your child begs you for a bunny (cute but frail as spun glass) or a hamster (bloodthirsty and not so bright), think of Jeremy and his misunderstood brethren, and bring your child home a rodent he can love and who will truly love him back.