Friday, 30 December 2011

On Living with Rodents

It all began around 12 years ago. At that time, I was working on an Open University degree in psychology, which I started, initially, in an attempt to understand what had made my ex-boyfriend hit me.

I never did understand what my ex had done, and simply decided he was troubled and I was well out of the relationship. Neither did I complete my psychology degree – it all got too much when I ended up studying mental distress just as I was having a breakdown, and then child development just as I was discovering I was infertile. I moved my OU studies to geology, and then, finally to maths and languages, which I’m still working on now.

However, I did do a fascinating course called “Biology, Brain and Behaviour” and went on a fabulous summer school, where we did all sorts of practicals, and there were all sorts of lovely people who were all keen to work with me because I have some capability in maths and was therefore good at analysing the lab results!

One of the practicals we did involved training rats to press a lever to get food. I can’t remember the details of the experiment, although I think it’s one of those famous experiments that every psychology student does at some stage in their training. What I DO remember, however, is that I worked with two lab partners, and we trained 2 rats in different ways. I named the rats Norma and Sue, after my lab partners!

I also remember falling in love with Norma and Sue. They were beautiful, utterly gorgeous, and SO clever. I was astonished by the speed with which they learned what we were teaching them, and entranced by their little paws, their twitching noses and whiskers, and their lovely long tails.

After the course, the tutors told us we could take our rats home. However, at the time I knew that I couldn’t look after them. My landlord prohibited pets in my flat, I was doing a lot of travelling to conferences at the time, and I hadn’t the first clue how to look after a rat (I didn’t even know at that stage that they should be kept in pairs or groups).

But I never forgot them, and never will. Norma and Sue started something that continues to this day, and which has finally, in 2011, led to something wonderful that has become a very big part of my life.

A few years later, when I was married, and on holiday with the Wonderspouse, we wondered into a big pet shop called Pets at Home, which I’d never come across before – my only experience with pet shops had previously been a small shop in town where we got goldfish as children. We’d always had cats at home, but their food came from the supermarket and we’d never needed pet shops for them.

In this Pets at Home, they had a selection of small animals, including rats. The rats had a little sign above them saying “We like to live in groups”, which stuck in my head. I picked up a leaflet about them, and looked hopefully at the Wonderspouse. The Wonderspouse said that there was no way we could get them home (we were staying in a hotel at the time) and that we had cats in any case, so we really couldn’t get rats.

However, I STILL talked about rats, quoting “We like to live in groups” endlessly, and, around 3 years ago, the Wonderspouse (probably hoping to shut me up) eventually said “You can have them when you’re 40”! He was probably also hoping I’d forget, and that once I got to 40 I’d be into something else! It’s not that he doesn’t like rats, it’s just that we have quite a lot of cats and he didn’t want to end up with more animals than we could manage.

But, in 2011, I had my 40th birthday. This was to be the year I finally got rats. I put my rat calendar up on 1st January and posted a picture of the first rat on my photojournal, and I started to buy rat books and to read about rats, learning about them, learning about cages, bedding, and looking at endless pictures of them. I also discovered branches of Pets at Home near us, and went there often, looking at the rats and at all the things you could get for them.

And, finally, on the 8th June 2011, just over a month before my 40th birthday, I went into our nearest Pets at Home, intending to buy a cage and all the bits the rats would need so I could get it all set up and ready in time to get the rats themselves for my birthday! I asked the assistant how I went about getting rats – I didn’t know whether they always had them available or what I had to do to get one – I couldn’t QUITE believe that I would just buy them and walk out of the shop.

The assistant asked me if I’d be interested in rehoming a couple of older rats. I said I would. She asked me if I’d like to meet them. I said I would. She went to “the back” of the shop and came out with a cardboard box which she opened to reveal two of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. I know now that these two would probably be referred to as an agouti and a pink-eyed white (or even, perhaps fawn-hooded), but I just called them brown and white. I was told that they had been brought in by someone who had become allergic to them, that they were 18 months old, and that their names were Charlie and Moses.

I said instantly that I’d take them.

They came with their own cage, carry box, and a half-sack of bedding. I bought everything else I was advised to buy (food, spare bedding and so on), and loaded the cage into the car – with them in it!

I still have no idea how they got their names, or what their history was before they came to me. However, they were both in excellent physical condition and had clearly been well looked after, although they were quite shy at first, and I suspect they weren’t handled very much before they came to live with me. I kept the names because I had no reason not to, and, from that day, I started to learn about rats not from books, but from experience.

I discovered very quickly that I didn’t just LIKE rats, but absolutely LOVED them. For some reason, watching them going about their business in their cage, enticing them out to sit on my lap or shoulder, training them to come for treats, stroking them, and taking care of them made me very happy and relaxed. Even cleaning out the cage, which is definitely hard work, is a strange sort of a pleasure because it enables me to give back something to these marvellous little creatures who give me so much happiness.

Throughout the summer, as my life turned a corner in many other ways, my little rat men helped me along. When I was sitting at my desk working, they’d come out of the cage and talk to me. When the weather got very hot, I took them swimming in the bath, worried that they’d overheat. When Charlie sneezed persistently, I worried about him and tried to find out what was wrong – it turned out he was allergic to the bedding he was in, so I changed it, and he got better. Every morning when I came into my study, they’d be waiting for me, and every evening I’d go in after my bath and say goodnight to them. These weren’t mere pets, they were real friends and companions!

I started to get interested in the other small animals around. I had thought that Charlie and Moses were tiny (after all, I’m used to cats, who are much bigger), but then, mid-autumn, I decided to expand the rodent family with a hamster. I learnt about hamsters, and finally came home with Laura, a typical golden coloured Syrian hamstress, who was totally unlike the rats, and bit my fingers until they bled, even sinking her teeth into my thumbnail, which was exceedingly painful. I worked with her day after day after day, and she’s now a tame and delightful little pet (even though I have to surround her cage with wee-proof things because she doesn’t respect boundaries) who hasn’t bitten me for several months and likes to hurtle round inside my jumper!

Then I spotted a lone Roborovski hamster who’d been left by himself at the end of a litter in a branch of Pets at Home. When he was still there a week and a half later I could no longer resist his little tiny pleading face, and so he moved in too, by himself because he’d been alone too long to be part of a group any more. He’s utterly charming, and SO tiny and fast. He weighs only 25 grams, and I had to buy him a special mini hamster wheel because he couldn’t move the ordinary sized one. He loves his mini one though. He’s getting tamer all the time, and will now take small pieces of food from my fingers. He also loves to bathe in sand, making his fur all gorgeous and fluffy!

As the winter started, I started to worry not about keeping my little companions cool, but keeping them warm. Charlie and Moses have plastic hanging beds, known as sputniks, and I’d initially lined them with fabric for comfort, but they’d thrown the linings out. Then, following one cold night, I went into the study the next morning and found they’d dragged an old tea towel all the way to the top of the cage and lined one of their sputniks with it. I understood – it depends upon the season. Lined in winter, unlined in summer. They’re gradually teaching me what they like.

Then, first through someone I met on blipfoto, who introduced me to a rat page on facebook, and then through rat people in general, I heard of some kittens (confusingly for someone who also has cats, baby rats are also called kittens) available from a recent litter. The thought of baby rats was just too tempting to resist, and, just before Christmas, I heard that two were reserved for me (in fact from two different litters – one is from another breeder with whom the first has an arrangement). I have now gone, in less than a year, from wondering how on earth to get any sort of rat at all, and getting a “brown one” and a “white one”, to owning two rats whose parentage and even grandparentage I know. George, who is an Agouti, and Henry, who is a Russian Blue Berkshire, moved in today. They are only 6 weeks old, and absolutely minuscule compared to Charlie and Moses.

So my new challenge for 2012 is to learn about young rats and old rats. Charlie and Moses are now 2 years old and have certainly reached the “pipe and slippers” stage of life whereas George and Henry are really just still babies. I can’t imagine they will be the last rats I get either – I’m now planning cage conversions, and I have a study full of cages and various accessories to go in and with them. I have boxes of rodent food, piles of old tea towels, and a shower cubicle in our ensuite which is used as a storage cupboard for sacks of rat and hamster bedding (we’re both bath people)! Furthermore, a used toilet roll is now a valuable plaything to be chewed, and the daily routine of rinsing water bottles and spot cleaning cages is well-established. I have also learnt that the washing machine filter needs emptying more often when nibbled rat bedding is being washed!

And so I now live with rodents. I really regard myself as a “rat person” rodent wise and although I love my little hamsters too (even though I find their lack of tails very strange), it was the rats who first stole my heart. I get all sorts of negative comments when I talk about rats – mainly, I might add, from people who’ve never actually learnt anything about them or got to know one personally, but I’ve also met some lovely lovely people in the rat community, who share my passion. I’m perpetually fascinated by the way rats behave and the way they interact with both humans and each other, and they’re just so utterly cute that I find them irresistible. 2011 and my 40th birthday will always be associated with my lovely rodent companions and, subject only to constraints of space and resources (I’d never want to take on any animal I couldn’t look after properly for its whole life), I’m certain that Charlie, Moses, George and Henry will be the first of many to come .

Norma and Sue couldn’t possibly have imagined the eventual results of their training sessions and cute noses!


  1. Aprilsunny. Refining Edges.30 December 2011 at 20:31

    What lucky boys and girls, to have you as their mother! Thanks for the wonderful read. Didn't need pictures.

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