Rat Mills -- Where Pet Store Rats Come From
How Much is that Rattie In the Window?
Ten years ago, it was not uncommon to walk into a shopping mall and see a pet store with a window of puppies available for sale. I remember those times. I even had a pet rabbit from Jerry's Pets that I got for Easter one year as a kid. Over the years, these sorts of pet stores began to get phased out after people came to understand the pet breeding industry and the notion of "puppy mills" - large-scale, profit-driven breeders who hold little regard for their stock - became a common household idea. People started a public outcry, mills got shut down by the ASPCA, customers started boycotting, and little by little these pet stores went out of business. Now, it's a generally understood rule that you should never buy anything from a pet store that sells puppies. (incidentally, if you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can catch yourself up to speed on puppy milling here -- but even the puppy mill debate is not as cut-and-dry as you'd think
Somehow, the rule doesn't seem to apply to rats.
Most pet stores - certainly most big chain stores like PetCo, Petsmart, PetBarn, etc. - sell live rodents; while some stores don't sell live feeders, many do, and these as well as the "pet fancy rats" sold at shops are purchased by people every day across the country. Is buying a rat from the pet store the same as buying a puppy? Should you consider buying rats at a pet store? Are people morally reprehensible for their part in the rodent farming industry? I'll present the overview of the facts (as I've found them) and leave the decision ultimately for you to make.
What Is a Rat Mill?
The term "rat mill" is a variation of the concept of "puppy mill" - both are reactionary terms applied by people who are against the business, not one used by the business, so you will never hear someone say "I own a rat mill." Instead, you may hear the word "rodent farm" or "prey source" used. That's right - prey source; the first thing you should know about rodent farming is that most of the time, the rats sold in the feeder bin for $4 and the rats sold in the 'fancy rat' tank for $12 are from the same company, perhaps even the same litter.
In Victorian times, rat catchers would be hired to capture the rats that infested buildings and homes; oftentimes, they would separate out the more attractive genetic mutations, breed these, and sell them back to the more aristocratic homes as novelty pets . Times haven't changed much.
Briefly, a "rodent farm" or "rat mill" is a large-scale breeding operation driven by profit to supply pet stores and private consumers, primarily for consumption by reptiles with pets generally as a second source of income. Most of the big chain pet stores use these large pet suppliers; some of the smaller pet stores rely instead on local breeders or breed their own stock - an issue we'll touch upon in more detail in a moment.
WHAT DOES A RAT MILL LOOK LIKE? (possible graphic image warning)
Here's the interesting thing about rodent farms: unlike puppy mills, which work through brokers and go through all sorts of lengths to be sure that they go unseen by the officials, rodent farms operate out in the open. Indeed, many of them are actually quite proud of their conditions - a fact which might appall some loving rat owners, but which needs to be understood.
And in case you're concerned that it's just the Netherlands….Here's the website of an independent feeder rat breeder (who also breed "fancy" quality animals on the side - check out their sales page).
Notice the way their front page PROUDLY displays the shelves filled with row upon row of small cages (these are wire mesh, not plastic bins). They see absolutely nothing wrong with this - they are showcasing this to their potential buyers because they truly believe this is what their clientele WANTS to see.
Well, okay; but maybe these guys are just…well, a backwoods farm, like they say. That may be the case (and I'm not going to argue anything, after reading over their webpage quite thoroughly), but they don't seem out of line with other rodent farmers I've come across. The standard housing system appears to be tub or small cage setups 2-3 rats per cage with mothers kept with their young; these are stacked in shelves. Rats are fed rodent blocks and produce, with water bottles kept available.
If you'd like a listing of some others feeder breeders, feel free to peruse the links here.
How Do They Get Away With This?
An important thing to keep in mind: rats (unlike cats, dogs, or guinea pigs) are NOT protected under the Animal Welfare Act. Yes, you read that right. The same standards held to protect dogs from the conditions of puppy mills are not applied to rats or mice, meaning that legally, there's a lot more leeway to breeding rodents than any other animal. This is also why you don't hear many stories about these facilities being shut down, or heroic rescues of abused rats. One example I could find. A true "rat mill" in the sense of deplorable conditions, this one was shut down - but look at how terrible these conditions had to be, in comparison to the ones seen above, for someone to step in. If the neighbor had never complained, it's likely nothing would have happened.
That's not to say that the ASPCA or other animal organizations turn a blind eye to cruelty toward rats, before you start to panic. There's quite a few documented cases of rats being helped through animal rescue organizations. It simply means that rats are not offered the same legal protection as other animals - so the USDA is not keeping as close an eye on these breeding facilities as they would other animals.
Simply stated: these rat breeders get away with this because there's no law against it.
In case you were wondering, it's not just rat mills that have these conditions - these are the agreed-upon adequate housing conditions for rats in laboratories as well. And as much as we like to picture laboratories as dirty, "mad-scientist" infested places, the truth is that they are sterile and regulated - they have to be, for the sanctity of their research. The ethicality of laboratories is a subject of another debate, but I mention it here to underline the fact that these rodent mills are not being cruel on purpose: this is the generally accepted standard, and the mills are PROUD to conform to this.
Our beliefs, as rat owners and enthusiasts, are not the same beliefs as a number of other organizations that have been housing and keeping rats for a long, long time - in the case of laboratories, for hundreds of years. That's not to say that the laboratory model is necessarily correct; it simply means that we need to approach the issue with the knowledge that we're not (necessarily) up against a nefarious fly-by-night operation that guiltily covers its cruelty - these facilities are, for the most part, clean and perfectly legal. If that fact is chilling to you, consider it a reason to avoid a situation where you support it, and do what you can to end it through boycotts and lobbying.
Reputable Rat Sources
Looking for a pet rat and want a cruelty-free source? Here's a few links to get you started.
A collection of rat-rescuing resources including a link-list to rescues worldwide.
- Rat Fan Club Rat Rescues
Another list of rat rescues, maintained by the Rat Fan Club
- Just Rats Breeders
Reputable breeders of rats
Do your own rat-rescuing! Search for "rats" in your local Craigslist ads to see if anyone needs to rehome their pet rats. Just as a note, do your research when you do this to make sure you're not inadvertently supporting backyard breeders. I perso
Are All Pet Stores The Same?
Not necessarily. Not all pet stores will buy their rats from suppliers like this, although the large chains probably do. I believe Petsmart and Petco both buy their rats from Rainbow Exotics, a company now infamous due to PETA (if you’re curious, here’s the link: not for the squeamish. I don’t hold PETA to be a reliable source, so I won’t comment on anything seen here, but view at your discretion).
Some smaller shops, such as those that are independently-owned, may purchase their animals from backyard breeders, or even breed their own stock. I think that backyard breeders (ie, individuals who breed for profit but do not operate on the large scale of commercial breeders) need to be considered a separate entity than rat mills, and that whole notion should be explored in a new lens. For purposes of this lens, keep in mind that no “responsible” breeder (ie, a breeder who follows a set of commonly-agreed-upon standards for care, housing, and breeding) will sell to a pet store.
Your best bet is to ask the pet store where they get their rats. If they don’t know, or can’t give you a concrete answer, they’re probably getting them from mills. If they’re getting them from a private source, they should be able to tell you their breeder’s name, and possibly a way to contact them to direct inquiries to them so that you can make an informed decision regarding their particular stock.
What Can We Do?
The first and most obvious answer: stop buying rats from pet stores.
People often underestimate the power of the simple boycott, but it really is effective. The results won’t be immediate, and it’ll be hard for you to resist the urge to “rescue” the rats you see in the pet store, but the law of supply and demand determines that if demand goes down (we stop buying rats), supply will go down and the businesses will eventually stop selling the rats. This has certainly happened with puppies – although puppy mills haven’t been eradicated by any means, they are going to greater lengths to sell their stock, and greater public awareness also has contributed to the decline in puppy mills.
On a bigger scale, lobbying would also be tremendously effective. The first step would be to lobby to the USDA to have rodents be covered by the Animal Welfare Act. Some information on lobbying, to get you started.
Rats face one more hurdle than other pets, though, and this needs to be addressed: rats are a food product for other animals. No matter what we do with pets, there will always be feeders; even if live feeders are outlawed completely, frozen feeder companies will still need to breed livestock for slaughter. And although responsible breeders of pet rats are happy taking a loss for the good of the animal, it’s much less likely that feeder breeders would work without profit – which means that shutting down rodent farms is going to be an uphill battle.
How do we solve the “feeder issue”?
Short of banning the ownership of all meat-eating reptiles (which seems unlikely, not to mention unfair to a large portion of the population), the only workable model appears to be for reptile owners to breed and maintain their own food, selling in small quantities to other reptile owners through networking – a practice which, to be sure, is already going on amongst well-educated reptile keepers.
Feeding hand-raised, home-bred, (daresay, “organic”) animals has its benefits, both for the ethics involved and for the health of the reptile – it pays to know what, exactly, you’re feeding. This site gives some tips for starting a feeder breeding colony, if you’re interested to view how the “other side” sees things. Also, for the creation of this lens I interviewed a breeder of mice and African Soft Furred mice (ASF) who keeps reptiles, and she was gracious enough to allow me a look at her cage setups for her breeders. This breeder, at least, keeps her stock in excellent condition before their time comes.
Not all reptile owners are going to be open to the concept of breeding their own food stock, considering the massive amount of time put into it (the person I interviewed admitted spending more than twice as much time and energy on her feeders than the snakes themselves) – but hopefully enough will choose this path that they will be able to assist the others, and slowly change can be made in this regard.
Only then, when a revolution has taken place in feeder breeding, will rat mills be completely eradicated.