Thursday, September 5, 2013

a new rat-i-tude

we're a little unusual when it comes to pets.

when i was a child, i was only permitted to have pets that remained in their own environment, like an aquarium tank.  so, i had hermit crabs (utterly adorable, especially when they smear themselves with peanut butter).  we also kept fish, until the plecostomus ate the danios and tetras instead of the algae and kept getting bigger and scarier.  he lasted forever.  since being in our own homes, we'd love to have cats as our constant companions, but steve and i are both allergic.  none of us are particular dog people.  we've been the caretakers for three rabbits (one at a time) since i fell in love with my freshman-year-of-college's-roommate's minilop.  we took in a sweet yellow & green parakeet that showed up on our doorstep, obviously someone's pet but with no owner to be found; when that lovely one passed, we got another.  off and on we've had fish; i had a little tank of black mollies at my first job to help me relieve my stress, and diana kept her siamese fighting fish alive for many months.

years ago, diana wanted a tarantula.  really, really wanted a tarantula.  she only gave up on that dream because she knew it would not make everyone in the house ecstatic (for the record, i was perfectly happy with the choice.  i have held tarantulas and find them to be utterly fascinating.  then again, i would love to have a ball python as a pet but that's not going to happen here, either.)  also, tarantulas are more for watching than they are for holding, and diana wanted something she could pet more often.  so she got the fish, but, whatever.

now we have rats.

not mice, or gerbils, or hamsters, or guinea pigs.  rats.

she figured, if she couldn't have a corn snake (miss becky from lab rat academy had one that kept them company whilst exploring watercolor art), a rat would be the next best thing.

ok, then.

i worked with rats before.  as a high-school and college volunteer at COSI, i had the chance to introduce museum visitors to mealworms, baby chickens, snakes, and rats.  i must admit that the snakes were my favorite, especially rosie, the boa constructor, who i wore around my hips like a fashionable belt.  the kids were all excited but most of the moms freaked out and the dads stared from a distance.  but that's ok; that's what i was there for, the docent who could talk quietly to the young ones who thought the snake was really cool and hadn't learned yet to be afraid of them and oh-can-i-please-touch-it and wow-that's-not-what-i-expected-it-to-feel-like.  also, i carried rats in my lab coat pockets (not at the same time i carried the snake, though she was kept well-fed by other means).  other docents had trained the rats to play a miniature version of basketball.  they were adorable, smart, and friendly.  and i was never bitten.

i honestly cannot remember what first put the idea into diana's head.  certainly not scabbers, ron's awful pet-that-was-actually-an-animagus in harry potter world.  he was detestable for his behavior.  templeton, the well-known character in charlotte's web, certainly contributed to the stereotype of rats being mean and dirty.  she's had a book called walter: the story of a rat by barbara wersba, for ages, and i think it highlighted rats in a favorable way, as did the wind in the willows.

maybe it was because diana roots for the underdog.  she wants to discover and bring to light the good in those who have been maligned or disparaged.  yes, she knows that rats are associated in peoples' minds with the bubonic plague, but she also knows that it was the bacteria on the fleas on the rats and mice and other rodents that was the actual culprit.  she knows that rats are highly intelligent and sociable creatures and keep themselves fastidiously well-groomed.

when we moved to virginia, i started asking around homeschool groups to see if there were any fellow rat enthusiasts.  nothing turned up.  a google search led me to big city rattery in richmond, and a most delightful, knowledgeable, and caring fancy rat breeder.  we corresponded back and forth for months; our relationship culminated in diana's adoption of a pair of sweet brothers from a carefully cross-bred litter.

during the mama's gestation, diana and i researched rats and their care.  she purchased an ample home to fit the boys' anticipated adult size and decorated it with soft materials to comfort them.  she read my pet rat by arlene elrbach and started investigating the complete guide to rat training: tricks and games for rat fun and fitness by debbie ducommun.  she poured over pictures from the breeder, looking at the parental pair, the newborns all pink and blind, the babies with bits of fur and eyes opening, videos of their squirming mass of energy in the nursery cage.  diana had originally dreamed of having females, but the breeder persuaded us that the males were, on average, gentler, calmer, and easier to work with than the females.  diana specified her preference of colors, but left it up to the breeder to select males with sweet dispositions.  when they were weaned and securely eating on their own, the breeder contacted us. and we arranged the meeting.

meet the rattie boys:

prince ivan (pronounced in the russian manner, with the emphasis on the latter syllable) - a black dumbo standard coat with an irish marking
sheldon - an agouti dumbo rex

prince ivan seems to be the take-charge kind of guy, bold but a little nervous.  he checked out every bit of the cage before sheldon ventured around.  ivan frequently pins sheldon down during wrestling matches and shamelessly steals sheldon's treats; he also grooms himself all the time and cares for sheldon's fur tenderly.

sheldon is more laid-back, a wait-and-see-what-happens kind of guy, easy to snuggle and pet.  he gives great shudders and twitches of joy with a new treat like a grape or raspberry.  he prefers tucking himself into a soft blanket when at rest, which is quite often.

i won't kid you, the rattie boys are a great joy to me as i adjust to having the kids gone all day at school.  we enjoy each others' companionship.  diana is beyond-words excited to finally have her babies here at home; they comfort her with little snuffles and licks and nibbles.  ander is so taken with them that he wants to have one of his very own and he giggles when their whiskers tickle him.

diana has grand plans for training them.  i wonder what she'll come up with.  in any case, she's on a mission to share her love of rats with everyone she knows - and doesn't know, for that matter - and let the world know that these remarkable creatures should be treated with respect and compassion for what they truly are.

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