by Jaden Terrell
Back in the fall, my two four-and-a-half-year-old gerbils died of old age. After an appropriate grieving period, I started thinking about filling my empty office pet vacancy. I'd enjoyed the gerbils, but they weren't big on cuddling or being petted. They would run over my arms and hands and were a lot of fun to watch, but I was always afraid they'd jump out of my hands and hurt themselves. But they were clean, had hardly any smell, and were friendly and charming all their lives. If the person I'd gotten them from were still in the gerbil breeding business, I would have gotten two more, but since she wasn't, I started to look at other options.
As I'm wont to do, I read articles on a variety of "pocket pets"--sugar gliders (nocturnal), hamsters (nocturnal), African Pygmy Hedgehogs (nocturnal), chinchillas (expensive), ferrets (too big, too musky), prairie dogs (need too much space), guinea pigs (adorable, but I seem to be allergic), and rats.
Now wait a minute, I saw Willard. I saw Ben. Shoot, a few weeks ago, an episode of Grimm showed a man being eaten by rats. When Hollywood wants to ramp up the creep factor, what''s the first thing they do? Bring on the rats. (The "rats eating humans" scenes are filmed by teaching the rats to lick peanut butter off an actor.)
But the more I read about rats, the more intrigued I became. Rat afficionados swear by the intelligence and sociability of these little animals. "The average rat is as smart as the average dog," one said, "but the smartest rat isn't as smart as the smartest dog." Still...the average dog is pretty darn smart. I learned that rats dream visually, as humans do, that they can be clicker trained to do tricks and run obstacle courses, and that there are even competitions in agility for rats. Yes, the rats go through the weave poles, jump over hurdles, and walk on balance beams or tightropes. I read about rats who come when called and prefer cuddles and tickles to treats. One study showed that rats "laugh" in ultra-sound. Scientists used equipment designed to record the sounds of bats and modulate them to a frequency humans can hear. They said that when the rats were being tickled and played with, it sounded like a human playground. Some researchers disagree, but the scientist who published the findings believes they are indeed laughing because they do it in circumstances that would evoke laughter in humans--for example, when they are wrestling or being tickled (which they seem to like, since they seek out hands that tickle more than hands that just pet), or when they are given a favorite food treat. Young rats "laugh" more than older rats, just as children laugh more than human adults.
The more I learned about rats, the more I liked the idea of having some. I mean, who wouldn't like a smart, sociable animal that seeks out human company and can learn tricks? So I tracked down the good folks at Phoenix Gate Rattery, a reputable rat breeder (yes, there are rat breeders, rat shows, rat agility competitions, rat fancy clubs, and so on) and filled out an application to "adopt" a pair of baby boys. I went that route rather than the pet store route because well bred rats tend to have better temperaments, be better socialized, and have better health than those bred for pet stores, which are often actually bred as feeder rats and often come home with respiratory infections. It was a lot like adopting a dog from a responsible dog breeder.
It's been an education, learning about bedding, nutrition, mental stimulation, and all the other things that go into raising happy, healthy rats. The boys are almost old enough to wean, and I get to pick them up and bring them to their new home next week.
Will Jared, my detective, ever be the proud (or possibly reluctant) owner of a rat? I have no plans along those lines, but since he has my palomino quarter horse, my elderly Akita, and my papillon, maybe it's only a matter of time.