I never thought of rats as cuddly pets until I arrived at Marin Humane as a rookie volunteer. My aim was to be a Dog Pet Pal doing my bit for pooches in need under the direction of the busy shelter staff. But when you hang out with animal-care professionals for more than a minute you soon realize that all critters are special and worthy of love – even those our culture has taught us to regard as vermin.
For the first time in my life I met rats as fun companions. I learned that you can get really attached to rodents and that they will like you too. You can tickle a rat’s tummy! I am told they giggle when tickled – though I haven’t actually heard it myself.
But let’s face it – rats have a major public relations problem. They can be the sweetest little guys who could be your best pal, but you would never know it with that lousy name – rats. It’s a name that conjures up images of their lurking cousins of the leaving-the-sinking-ship variety, of the crawling-around-chained-prisoners-in-the-dungeon persuasion. The type that brought the Great Plague to London in the 1600s and wiped out half of Europe’s population 200 years earlier.
So it is time to find a better name for the fluff ball that likes to stretch out on your lap. I call for suggestions. It should be a name in the same league as “bunny” which sounds so much more friendly than “rabbit” or “hare.” You can eat a rabbit – you can’t eat a bunny. A new user-friendly name must be found.
The best available right now is that the charming, domesticated ones are called “Fancy Rats” and the trouble-making hoodlums out there are “Brown Rats” or “Roof Rats” or “Norwegian Rats”. They are basically the same animal but there are differences, the main one being that the fancy guys are slightly smaller and have more attractive fur color patterns. The fancies are also psychologically different and are much more affectionate and easy-going than those rats who were regular companions of the Count of Monte Cristo in the deep, dark depths of the Château d’If.
Fate has been kinder to the fancies than to their wild cousins – but that wasn’t always the case. Fancies came into being as a result of rats being used for blood sports by professional rat catchers 150 years ago. The captives would be released from their cages into a pit while baying human onlookers would place bets on how quickly waiting terriers could kill them.
However, some good did come from this cruelty. Rats with lighter and more variegated colors were sometimes kept back and the catchers started offering them as pets. Pet rats became quite popular round about the turn of the last century.
The experts say that while Brown Rats are associated with the spread of infectious diseases because of where and how they live, the fancies are no more likely to make you sick than any other pet animal under human care. All are classified under the scientific name of Rattus Rattus which is derived from the system drawn up by the 18th Century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. Why the little creatures have been named twice I cannot say. Maybe Dr Linnaeus had a speech impediment and his secretary didn’t know it at the time.
At the time of writing this there are two snuggly fancy rats in the MH establishment waiting to be adopted out – Claire and Blair, about six months old, and very soft and friendly little girls. They look like little fuzzy footballs with whiskers, big friendly eyes and ears the size of dried apricot slices. People gaze at them and say “Awww!” They will be adopted soon.
This is what the Marin Humane shelter says about the pair: “Claire and Blair are a bonded pair of rats who love each other and everyone they meet. These ladies enjoy snuggling together in their hammock, and they jump to attention when they receive visitors. If you put your hand into their cage, they love to gently sniff, lick and get to know you. Once they are comfortable in their new home, they are happy to be carefully picked up.”
Now isn’t that nice? I might add that in addition to the licking and sniffing, I am reliably told that rat pets like to nibble on their humans a bit. They are doing you a big favor – grooming you now that you are a member of their Rat Pack.
There is a reason why I have a taken a renewed interest in these little animals. It is because one of my sons who lives nearby in Mill Valley is engaged in a fierce battle of wits with Rattus Rattus – and it is not clear at this stage who is winning. They are brown rats, of course, night-time denizens of the neighborhood and not at all of the tummy-tickling variety. They have turned out to be worthy opponents – smart, wily, cunning, resourceful and unrepentant. While the rest of Marin sleeps, the battle rages on. As my daughter-in-law explains: If rats had middle fingers, they would be showing them to us right now.
What sparked the war is my son’s enthusiasm for cooking. He is especially intrigued by the herbs and spices used in various cuisines and he likes recreating many dishes he has enjoyed in his own kitchen. This requires a vegetable and herb garden, so he constructed a series of raised platforms alongside the house to accommodate it. The family refers to these structures as “The Farm”. It has become the scene of nightly commando raids by Rattus Rattus and his gang.
The raiders are especially partial to cabbage and to kale but they will happily dine on any vegetable they find on The Farm’s menu. Often they enjoy themselves so much that plants, luscious, leafy and green the day before, are reduced to stalks barely sticking out of the soil at night.
The first line of defense was a net stretched over The Farm. At dusk, the rats showed up. Maybe they didn’t giggle like their tummy-tickled fancy cousins, but they were surely amused by the net. They slipped through the openings and dined al fresco until dawn. The next night a tighter net was positioned. The same result. And so it went night after night.
Eventually, a non lethal trap was installed and the suspected ringleader was arrested, protesting loudly and angrily. What do you with a captured kale-stealing rat? You can’t just let him or her go. They’ll be back that night. My son did some research and found that if you release a rat within 10 miles of capturing him, he will return to the scene of the crime.
So a decision was taken to release him on the slopes of Mount Tam. As he walked to his car outside my son became aware of a passerby staring at the little cage he was carrying. There was a long silence. Eventually my son held up the cage and said: “It’s a rat.” The passerby nodded, stared again, hesitated, seemed about to say something and then moved on.
Meanwhile, the latest net has been stapled in place on The Farm’s wooden frame at 1-inch spaces. The ringleader has not yet returned and no more raids have succeeded but it has become impossible to get vegetables and herbs out without removing the staples. In effect, there has been a cease-fire – but neither side has won. The Farm’s produce is growing nicely but nobody and nothing can enjoy it.
Rattus Rattus is here to stay. I first became aware of that when I was a reporter in Washington D.C., working a late night shift. When I walked a few blocks to my car after midnight every night, they were everywhere – a total takeover of the lawns and sidewalks. The capital city’s lovely, pristine, historic avenues and buildings, home to the powerful during the day, were their stomping grounds at night.
You have to admire their tenacity – but I would rather tickle their tummies than have them munching my cabbage or scuttling over my shoes as I walk to my car.