In Defense of the Rat
My daughter wanted a hamster — or some creature to cradle in her hands, one that would nuzzle its whiskers against her nose, take a peanut from her fingers and perform somersaults across a little trapeze. We already had two dogs and a cat, and we didn’t need another pet. But then, who really needs pets? Isn’t it the other way around? I’d always envisioned my children growing up in a household filled with creatures great and small — motherless squirrels, broken-winged blackbirds, or trembling little mutts rescued from lethal injection. I envisioned my future home as a delightful cacophony of barking, meowing, chirping. In my mind, the boundary between the animal world and the human world is blurry, indeed. I pity children who’ve never owned a single pet — the ones who stiffen in a dog’s presence, hands plastered at their sides. I feel sorry for kids conceived in the cold digital age, more comfortable holding a joystick than a kitten. My children, I vowed, would stroke the velvet noses of horses, and they would laugh with delight (not cry) when a dog slopped a pink tongue across their faces. And how vast is the animal world! Consider the beauty of the elephant as she sways under a hot sun, her nimble trunk grasping at a carrot. Consider the sheer freakishness of a praying mantis as it performs Tai Chi and spreads its wings before eating its prey.
However, I knew that hamsters were not an option. When I was ten years old I had a hamster named Oscar. At first Oscar seemed as adorable as a miniature teddy bear. He burrowed beneath his wood shavings, then popped out and ran a few laps on his little metal wheel. He kept me company while I sat at my desk doing homework, and I was soothed by his scratching and nibbling and the click-click sound as he pried open his sunflower husks. Sometimes I’d push the tip of my pencil through the bars of his cage and let him nibble on the wood.
Oscar seemed lonely, though. Sometimes he just sat in a pile of wood shavings, staring at nothing in particular. How can we truly know ourselves if we cannot look into the face of our own kind?
My mother somewhat absent-mindedly agreed to a second hamster (though she vowed never to touch the damned things and promised that if she ever saw one running around loose in the house she’d vacuum it up). So, without a second thought, I bought a wife for Oscar and named her Olivia. I imagined that Oscar and Olivia would fall in love and raise a little family together, just like the characters in a Beatrix Potter story. When I first pushed Olivia into Oscar’s cage, they sniffed each other curiously like a couple of old pals.
Then I ran off to play and forgot about them. The next morning, I found Olivia (or what was left of her) lying motionless in the middle of the cage. Creeping closer, I saw that all four legs and her entire head had been gnawed off down to the vertebrae. All that remained of Olivia was a bloody, beheaded stump. Oscar, that little cannibal, sat in one corner staring coldly at me, intermittently licking his paws and rubbing them across his blood-streaked cheeks. Was I to blame, I wondered, staring in shocked horror? Maybe I pushed the hamsters together too quickly. After all, how would I like it if a mysterious hand from the sky suddenly shoved a stranger into my house? Or maybe the cage had been too small and Oscar had simply been guided by instinct to protect his territory. Either way, my solitary hamster would remain a bachelor.
Not long after that, when my family went on vacation, my aunt agreed to take care of Oscar. My mother drove me to her house and I brought along the cage and a bag of supplies — aspen shavings, food pellets, and wood chews. A week later, when we returned, my aunt showed me the empty cage. “He escaped!” she said. “When I tried to pick him up, he bit my finger and then ran after me and started attacking my feet! I didn’t know what else to do . . . I panicked, so I grabbed the broom and swept him out the back door. He’s a demon!”
And that was the end of Oscar, as far as I know. My daughter would not be getting a hamster for her birthday.
“Maybe we should try a rat,” I said to my husband, Patrick, who just happens to be a medieval historian.
“That’s funny,” he said. “You’re hilarious.”
Try mentioning the word rat to a medievalist without conjuring up visions of Europe besieged by Rattus rattus, circa 1348, the beginning of the Bubonic plague.
“I know, I know, it sounds crazy,” I said, “but I’ve read that rats make excellent pets. They’re very intelligent and you can train them to do tricks and . . .”
He only narrowed his eyes at me and refused to discuss it further.
I decided to begin an official campaign for Rattus rattus. Every day, in an attempt to erase those images of the Black Death, I e-mailed Patrick pictures of cute rats I’d found on the internet: a rat wearing a little bow tie and tuxedo; a rat wearing little pajamas and holding a little teddy bear; a rat wearing a bonnet and pushing a miniature baby stroller. He would respond by sending me a picture of house cat holding a dead rat in its jaws. (We had a cat.) I retaliated by sending him a heartwarming YouTube video about a cat and rat who became best friends, even sleeping side-by-side. I sent him the true story of a rat that saved a coal miner’s life — squeaking frantically and leading the man to safety moments before the mine collapsed. I pointed out that actually, it was the fleas living on the rats that had spread the plague (rats were victims, too!). He sent me movie trailers for Willard and Ben, in which rats take over the world.
Finally medieval-man relented, though not happily. “I’m not cleaning the cage,” he said, “and I refuse to touch them.”
“No problem!” I said cheerfully. “You won’t have to do a thing!”
At the pet store, after Mira had chosen the rats — two spunky young black and white females — the clerk asked, “Pets or food?”
“Pardon?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard her correctly.
“If they’re pets,” she said, “I’ll put ’em in one of these little boxes. But if they’re food, I’ll just throw ’em in a paper bag.” She gave me a little wink.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. These are pets.”
She nodded. “Come on girls,” she said sweetly to the rats, “you’re getting adopted!” She placed them in a cardboard pet carrier imprinted with the smiling faces of rodents, then folded the lid shut and handed the box to Mira, who looked as though she’d just won the lottery.
Back home, we set our new pets loose in their tri-level “apartment,” complete with hammock, wheel, and plastic igloo. After living in a drab aquarium, these animals could scarcely contain their joy. Scrambling from the floor to the top of the cage, they’d leap again to the bottom, like circus performers. Zipper and Calico bonded almost immediately with Mira, and when she held them, they climbed onto her shoulder and peered out from behind her mass of frizzy hair. I found this maneuver both cute and mildly alarming.
Mira and her four-year-old brother Leo couldn’t be happier. Together they built obstacle courses and mazes and trained the rats to climb ropes and to use a simple pulley they’d created with yarn and cardboard. (Even Medieval Man seemed impressed, though he still couldn’t admit defeat).
Of course, my children did not know the history of rats. Unlike mice, who are typically portrayed as lovable and funny, like Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse or Kate DiCamillo’s Desperaux, rats aren’t often the protagonists of children’s literature. When they appear, they are seldom lovable and rarely exhibit any positive characteristics. Even in Charlotte’s Web, in which E.B. White favorably portrays a pig and a spider — two creatures with a history of bad press — the rat, Templeton, is cunning, dishonest, and stealthy. For as long as humans have been around, we’ve been trying to keep rats out of our houses and away from our children. What could be more alarming than a wild brown rat sneaking into a baby’s nursery or sniffing around in the kitchen cupboards?
Now here were my children, picking up the rodents and then letting them crawl on their laps, their shoulders, their necks. Despite the historical evidence, the rats were quite docile, even . . . dare I say . . . affectionate? Never once did they bite a finger. They learned to respond to their names, tilting their heads in response to our voices; they made eye-contact. In fact, they behaved very much like little dogs.
One day, almost a year later, we noticed that Calico had begun to walk with a strange, sideways gait. She constantly tilted her head. She stumbled in her cage. Once, she almost fell off Mira’s dresser. I didn’t say anything to Mira, but I knew these symptoms couldn’t be good. Calico’s eyes had begun to bulge.
A few days later we found Calico huddled in the corner of the cage. Her feet were clenched and she would not eat or drink.
“We’ve got to take her to the vet!” Mira insisted.
“She might get better,” I said hopefully.
“Mom!” Mira wailed. “How can you just let her die?”
“You’re mean!” Leo said, crossing his arms.
Of course I did not want our rat to die. I did not want her to suffer. But I’d already Googled Calico’s symptoms and I believed that she most likely had a brain tumor. I’d read that pituitary gland tumors were very common in domestic rats. I’d even perused autopsy photos from veterinary web sites, and I could practically see the pea-sized tumor right through Calico’s small skull. Her bulging eyes would tell almost any veterinarian what I already knew. Plus — most importantly — it was the end of summer. Without my teaching paychecks, we were facing lean times; we simply could not afford to spend 100 dollars — at minimum — for a trip to the vet.
Some might argue that allowing a creature to suffer is inhumane. But I had recently sat with my grandmother as she died. For nine days, my mother, aunts, and cousins stayed close as her body diminished and her consciousness dimmed. I realized then that death is a mysterious process, much like birth, and that there is value in helping someone during that process, seeing them through to the end. We could see our rat through it, too, I thought, help make her comfortable. I didn’t want my children to be afraid of death, or for them to think of it as something that happened behind closed doors. Besides, something surprising had begun to happen. Zipper, the healthy rat, was tending to her dying companion, like a nurse. Zipper brought Calico peanuts and bits of food, then pushed shredded newspaper and wood shavings around her ailing sister to keep her warm. It seemed wrong to take Calico away from her companion.
As I expected, Calico deteriorated rapidly. During that last week, she would lift her head and look at us with sad, defeated eyes. When she saw us, she whimpered softly, as though she knew that something was happening to her body, something she couldn’t understand. She seemed sad to be leaving us.
By the last day, the rat’s eyes were sunken and her breath was shallow and quick. When Mira walked into the room, Calico lifted her head and started to make a rhythmic chirping sound, like weeping. She seemed to be asking the human she’d known and trusted to hold her. She seemed to be saying goodbye.
“You can pick her up,” I said. I tried to project motherly calm, but inside I was panicking. I didn’t know if I’d be able to find the right words to comfort my daughter.
“Are you sure?” Mira asked.
Tears rolling down her cheeks, she lifted Calico and cradled her gently in her palms. Within minutes, the rat had what appeared to be a seizure; when it was over, she seemed calmer, soothed by Mira’s touch. We sat together for the next two hours, watching the rat as it lay dying. Mira asked tough questions about whether I believe in God, whether animals go to heaven, whether people go to heaven, and why people hate rats so deeply.
Again, the rat’s body tensed, stiffened, and then relaxed.
As I watched my daughter weeping over the rat, I thought about these small pariahs and the dangers they face: exterminators, poisoned pellets, snapping traps, laboratory experiments. And now, one of these stealthy survivors had bonded with a human who had grown to love it. How can we help what we are? I wondered. Did the rat ask to be born a rat?
Finally, after one violent spasm, Calico stopped breathing.
Her whiskers stopped twitching. Her four chewing teeth — now exposed — looked sharper and more yellow than I’d realized. Her limp claws looked like small hands, pink and downy, with creases across the palms like a human.
I found an empty Kleenex box and laid the rat inside. Leo ran out to pick some geraniums. Perhaps I was too quick about wanting to dig the hole, but I was exhausted. We were all exhausted. Had I been a better mother, my children would have written little messages on scrolled up paper. I would have suggested that they each say a prayer before we lowered the rat slowly into her grave. Had I been a better mother, we would have taken a handful of dirt and thrown it upon the box. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, St. Peter protect this creature.
But we’d all been on edge for days. Our vigil had worn me out, so I simply opened the box and placed the rat named Calico inside the hole. Now that she was gone, I felt a great sense of relief. “Goodbye, Calico!” I said. “Say goodbye, everyone! Does anyone want to say a prayer?”
Leo, quite the handyman with a shovel, quickly filled in the hole. Happily, he stomped the dirt, jumping up and down as Mira became hysterical.
“Mom!” she wailed. “How could you? What kind of funeral was that?”
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” I said gently. “It’s more natural this way, right?”
“She’s cold in there! She needs to be wrapped in something . . . Let me dig her up . . . she needs a proper burial!” Mira grabbed the shovel from Leo and started to re-dig the hole.
“Heeyyy!” Leo yelled, shrieking in protest. “My hole!”
“Oh my God, can you stop her?” I begged Patrick.
“But she’s cold,” Mira sobbed.
“She’s dead, honey,” Patrick said. “Her spirit doesn’t need a body anymore.”
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that children be allowed to bury the pet, to make a memorial, or have a ceremony. Mourning takes time, the psychiatrists say, advising parents not to immediately replace the dead pet.
But a few days after our little funeral when Mira was still sobbing and I didn’t think I could take it any longer, I did a bad thing. “Listen,” I said. “How about we go to the pet store and buy a new rat?”
“Really?” she said softly, between sniffles.
“Yay! A new rat!” Leo yelled. “I want a white one! I want a white one!”
Patrick shot me a look: “Are you crazy?” he mouthed. I shrugged. Maybe I was crazy to want another rat. But I couldn’t stand to see Mira falling apart. I reasoned that a new rat would console her, and had anyone even considered the feelings of the surviving rat? Rats, like humans, are social animals. Zipper would need a new companion!
When I remember my own childhood and the one I want for my children, more than ever I imagine a veritable March of the Animals. True, life would be easier without all these creatures who require food and water and walks around the block (we’ve walked thousands of miles), and it would be less painful for my kids not to witness their pets’ eventual old age and illness — the arthritic paws, the failing kidneys, the special diets, and finally having to say goodbye. But I would have it no other way. Even when my children are grown, and our animals are gone, I’ll never forget the whole parade of them: rabbits, ducks, hamsters, a hermit crab, cats, an assortment of dogs, two mice, a school of goldfish, and, finally, the rats — pariahs no more! — twitching their whiskers and grinding their long yellow teeth with happiness.