Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Rat Review

by Jaden Terrell

Shamus's Baby Picture (Photo by breeder Amy Epperly)
 The last time I wrote about my rat boys was when they were babies. I had never owned rats, and I was excited and a little bit terrified. Excited, because I'd read about how smart they are, and how people-oriented, and how a lot of rat owners call them pocket dogs. Terrified, because I'd spent a lot of time on the rat forums reading posts with titles like, "My Rat Won't Stop Biting!" and "My Rat Bit Me and I Had to Get Stitches!" Some were accompanied by photos apparently designed to remind the reader that a rat can chew through a cinder block.

I was also terrified that, in my ignorance, I would do something to hurt or traumatize them, so I pored over books and articles on rat care. I scoured pet rat websites and found this amazing guidebook. I found a good rat breeder and got a waiting list, set up my "nursery," and drove several hours to Atlanta to get the boys and bring them home.  I spent several hours there getting acclimated to them and pumping the breeder for information.

I knew they'd been well bred and handled well, so based on my reading, I thought they would warm to me in a matter of days--weeks at the most. But weeks passed, and they still acted like they were terrified of my hands. They would climb all over me and take treats from me, but they did not want to petted or picked up. The breeder reassured me that this was normal, that it might take months for them to really bond with me.

Sergei's Baby Picture (Photo by breeder Amy Epperly)
So I kept trying. I made them a big play area and loaded it with places for them to play and hide, and every few days, I'd give them a pan of water so they could fish for frozen peas and blueberries. I read up on ways to enrich their environment and make their lives happier. But I couldn't get all those Rat Bite stories out of my head. I didn't think my boys would be aggressive, but they would sometimes mouth my hands or give a light pinch, and I didn't know enough about rat behavior and body language to know if they were playing or being aggressive. Very frustrating. And yet, I already loved them. They were cute and funny, and I could tell they were very bright little creatures.

Soren's Baby Picture (he's on the left - Photo by breeder Amy Epperly
Someone on the rat forum told me not to worry. They were still young, she said, and they would get cuddlier when they got a little older. Another post said that, if a rat means to bite, it will draw blood. Those little nibbles were grooming and affection.

Finally, I went to YouTube and watched about a dozen videos of people playing with and interacting with their rats. Here's one. And here's another. You have to scroll down for this one, but it's worth it. The next day, while the boys were in their play area, Shamus (the Black Irish) came up to me and nibbled my hand. Instead of curling my fingers into my palm, I said to myself, Okay, I'm just going to have to trust him. And I let him explore my hand. He took each of my fingers very gently in his mouth, then let me scratch his ears and stroke his back. Later, when I put him back in the cage, he gently grabbed my thumb in his mouth and held it there with his little paws while I rubbed his cheeks and tummy. He closed his eyes. If a rat could look blissful, he did. I fell helplessly in love.

Since then, he and Sergei climb up to my shoulders and happily let me pet them. (Soren is a little more reserved, but he's coming along.) I'm beginning to see those dog-like qualities I'd hoped for all along.

 Yep, looks like it's official. I've become a genuine rat lover.

No comments: