Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rats! Plague! Dentistry!

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It is never easy to tell people that you have rats. This is true even if they are intentional rats, meaning rats that you intentionally acquired and not the oh-god-why-didn’t-I-clean-up-the-crumbs-under-my-bed-now-I-have-rats kind of rats. 

It started a couple of days before Christmas with both my children standing in the kitchen chanting ‘buy us rats.’ It ended with my explaining to my husband how I had taken his actual, real, hard-earned money and converted it into a pair of rats. Then, it continued with my father dramatically yelling: ‘Plague! Plague!’ as he walked around the house. That did not help my argument.

Buster the Rat
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, however, we have yet to contract the plague and the baby has not, as of yet, been eaten. The rats are very curious, lively, and entertaining little creatures each with its own personality…or ratonality, I guess. Buster, a black and white rat, is enormous and terrified of everything. Even the smallest noise sends him hurtling through anything in his path to hide in his house. Mister, on the other hand, is a drama queen who gnaws on the bars of his cage as if he hasn’t eaten in a fortnight and looks at us with little pleading Oliver Twist eyes, despite the fact that we just watched him consume his weight in cheerios.

They are also hoarders. Everything that goes into their cage eventually gets stuffed into their house until the house actually lifts up off the shelf upon which it sits, leaving a house shaped mass of newspaper, collectibles, and rats. They will continue to accept treats as long as we will offer them and run off to squirrel (?) them away for later. They generally hide them in the paper litter that lines the bottom of their cage. For this reason, they find cage cleaning time particularly distressing as it means the removal of all of their not-so-carefully hidden treats…upon which they had been walked and peeing…but still.

Rat and Mouse. Ha. Ha.
One day, my daughter’s rat sneezed in my nose. I have yet to develop the superpowers I was certain would come as a result of such an interaction. I’m also on the lookout for signs that I am hiding my leftovers under my pillow. So far, I never have leftovers. The rats will come and look right into your face and explore any opportunities that might smell interesting, such as the inside of my nose or the interior of my cat’s ears (much to her great excitement). Or my daughters mouth which was followed by her exclamation “’ook mah, ey clea’ ‘y teeh” as I follow her instructions and notice that nearly the entire head of the rat has disappeared. I do not consider rats to be a substitute for tooth brushing, but if dental care continues to rise in cost, I may consider switching to annual rat debridement plan.

During the day, when they are sleepier, the will snuggle in my coat pocket or behind my head as I sit on the couch and occasionally stretch. At night, they participate in Olympic level training exercises on their wheel, at least until Buster hears a noise and then he goes back to hiding in his house. I think Mister mocks him.

Mister Contemplates Self
My mother was concerned that it would be difficult to know if we had two rats of the same sex or if we would soon have baby rats. She based this worry on her very accurate memory of my first foray into rodent ownership. A boy I went to school with gave me two male mice. Not a great deal later in my life, I had 32 mice. Despite the paucity of information presented in my school’s sex education curriculum, I quickly developed a male/female mouse theory that could never, however, be verified because mice penis’ are very small and mice also bite. I don’t remember what became of the mice.

A Sharp Shinned Hawk Outside my window
In any case, this is not a concern that one needs to have in rat ownership, as the male rats are very clearly identifiable. For a male human to have a proportionate relationship with his manhood, it would be necessary for him to walk around with a pair of basketballs taped to the back of his shorts. You can sex a rat from 3 houses away. I am pleased that this miracle of the cycle of life is not something that I will have to explain to my children. After all, I have only just recovered from answering my son’s questions about sex that arose as the result of playing Sims. As long as they learn about sex from the internet and video games rather than relationships among animals, I feel like all is right with the world.

As to whether or not it is acceptable to keep animals in cages I will say this. We do give our rats floor time everyday and, in comparison to the footage I have seen of their wild cousins, my rats rarely have to worry about rising sewage or hungry eagles. I’ve given them tiny complaint forms to fill out should they wish to express comments or concerns as well as the number for a rat help hotline.

Sometimes, though, I will catch one of them looking right at me. Staring directly at me for several moments on end as if contemplating the bridge between us; examining this interspecies relationship that has created this trust between such disparate beings, like tiny philosophers. Then, generally, I realize it’s because I’m eating a cracker. So I share.