In the pet store, I saw a young girl with long black hair lean across the top of a wire cage to purse her lips at some unseen animal. What was it? I looked closer and saw a brown furry rodent more than three times the size of a mouse with a bare pink tail. It stretched its body from the roof of the cage to kiss her back as if the two were lovers.
“Is that a rat?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, and smiled before turning her head to resume her kissing.
Not only was the creature a rat, it looked exactly like the ones that scurry over the NYC subway tracks. The girl kissed the rat as it crawled freely across the top of the cage, kissing her back, mouth to mouth. They clearly had a remarkable bond. A small crowd of us watched; a mix of awe and confusion holding us spellbound.
To many, no doubt, the sight would have elicited horror. But I knew that the girl in the pet store was not alone in her fixation. It may seem like a stretch of the imagination, but the practice of owning pet rats in New York City has caught on like wildfire even in the city where the rat is most despised. One can find fancy rat fan magazines, Facebook pages, Meet Up groups, YouTube videos and even – get this – a rat fashion show. I attended one myself in Manhattan, whereupon I witnessed the absurd pageant of rats in costume surrounded by camera-snapping paparazzi. Nothing could have been more at odds with the notion of the rat as a filthy, vicious, disease-ridden rodent than the spectacle of one dressed in a designer tutu with crowds of gushing human fans. And this brings me to the heart of my question: How does a New Yorker make the jump from rat-hater to rat-lover? Here begins my story.
Something in the girl’s attachment at the pet store that day cast a spell on me. The concept of rat-love was so different, so deviant from cultural norms that it had me transfixed. I sensed an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone. I could either rise to the occasion or slink away in cowardice.
“Can I hold one?” I asked her, eyeing the colorful varieties in the cage. “Not that one of course. I can see you’re attached to it.”
Though I admired her bond with such a universally loathed creature, I was secretly relieved by her preference for the brown rat, since that one, with its dun-colored coat, reminded me too much of a subway rat. I needed something to veil my worst rat associations. Like most people, the image of the rat as a foul, disgusting creature was hard-wired in my psyche.
Into my hands she plopped a small white and black creature. Its fluffy white body was marked by a dark tie-dye stripe which ran from its head to its haunches. Its colors more closely resembled a guinea pig’s than a rat’s.
“This is a three-month old hooded rat,” she announced. “A girl.”
The hooded rat is just one among many varieties available to the fancy rat owner; some others are the Berkshire, dumbo, agouti and hairless. But despite its cute appearance, the little creature I held in my hand was one and the same with the dreaded Norway rat: the same exact species as the one running wild after dark on New York City’s streets. In fact, the phrase “fancy rat” does not denote a special rat at all; it simply indicates that the rat is fancied (liked or appreciated), a revealing distinction, given the pet rat’s history.
The pet rat (and perhaps the lab rat, too) is believed to have originated with a pair of Victorian gentlemen whose business depended more on the killing of the rat than the fancying of it. According to London Labor and The Working Poor by Henry Mayhew, Jack Black was Queen Victoria’s personal rat-catcher – much like the modern-day exterminator but with more prestige. Jimmy Shaw was the owner of the largest rat pit in London. Black’s job was to rid the royal quarters of the pests – some of which he gave to Shaw to use as bait for the city’s infamous rat pits. (I know, they sound like Dickens characters.)
Despite Black and Shaw’s contempt for rats, they possessed a contradictory fascination for them. Black bred atypically colored rats and sold them to Victorian ladies for keeping in squirrel cages. Shaw boasted of his cherished white specimen (speculated by some to be the lab rat’s ancestor), proclaiming his plan to breed more. Thus the phenomenon of the pet or fancy rat was born. Perhaps Jack Black and Jimmy Shaw were not only responsible for the pet rats and lab rats we enjoy today, but also for the contradictions we perpetuate. In any case, our ambivalent attitude is notably similar to theirs.
I took another look at the pink-eared animal in my palm. She was cute, undeniably so, and sat in my hand without protest. Most of all, she didn’t bite. What an interesting pet she would make for my science classroom, I decided. She could be a way to dispel misconceptions – a catalyst for looking more deeply at the world.
Not everyone thought so, however. Later that day, I received a phone call from Helaine, the head of the lower school. “You bought a what?”
“Her name is Eudora.” I was quick to personalize her. “You should see how nice she is.”
“Yes, but we’re talking about a rat here. I can tell you right now that the parents won’t be happy.”
I had to admit she had a point. For many, the rat is synonymous with one of the worst blights in history, the bubonic plague. The plague killed a third of the human population in the Late Middle Ages and rats, given their close proximity to human dwellings, have long been considered the culprit. What many do not know is that rats lost their lives as well. Like humans, they served as hosts to the infected fleas that carried the bacteria, Yersinia pestis. This bacteria, then, was the true culprit to blame for the deadly disease.
I glanced at Eudora’s small bowed head and watched as she meticulously groomed herself, using her pink paws to comb the white fur of her chest with startling dexterity. So much for the charge that rats are dirty, I thought. In fact, any pet rat owner will tell you just the opposite. I have met scientists, too, who agree with us, expressing a strong preference for rats over mice as experimental models, because of their superior cleanliness. While mice are known groomers too, they are also known to “stink,” whereas rats do not.
When we hung up the phone, I remembered Helaine’s fondness for snakes. She once declared that she even enjoyed holding them, taking the same pride in her defiance of cultural norms as I did now. This would be my strategy, my way in.
I sat down to devise my email, explaining how rats, like snakes are often misunderstood. I explained that Eudora is a domesticated rat, not a wild one like one might find on the subway. They are totally different, I assured her, just like a dog is different from a wolf.
True and untrue, I thought to myself, even as I typed. While the pet rat and wild rat are the same species (capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring), they represent different strains. Just as one might expect, the pet rat comes from a gentle stock uniquely adapted to captivity, whereas the feral rat is adapted to the wild, via the forces of natural selection.
The next day, Helaine clipped across the floor of my classroom in her high-heeled leather boots to tell me that she’d reconsidered her objections. The new pet was fine. I had won.
With the green light for my classroom pet, I began to read up on Rattus norvegicus. I learned that rats thrive on social interaction—another fact at odds with the popular notion of rats as selfish, vicious creatures. The no-good, disloyal rat persona even permeates our language in phrases like “You dirty rat!” or “Don’t rat out your friend.” But a 2011 study in the journal Science demonstrated the rat’s remarkable capacity for empathy. Researchers placed a free-roaming rat in a space near another rat, trapped in a clear, plastic tube. The free rat worked for days to release the caged rat, remaining loyal to its mission, despite the lure of chocolate. Such a finding might trigger reflection. Perhaps the word “rat” as an insult ought to be reclaimed as a compliment. The rat’s use in medical research alone has undoubtedly saved human lives.
Armed with the knowledge of the rat’s social nature, I began my quest to secure a cage-mate for Eudora in the form of another female fancy rat. But despite the prevalence of pet stores in the city, I came up empty-handed. Fancy rats were scarce that fall and I still knew nothing about breeders or rescues (resources soon discovered through my membership in the “NYC Rat Meet Up” group).
There was one solution, however, one that I initially batted away like a fly buzzing at my face. Roxy, the girl at the pet store offered me a fancy rat of her own, the same brown rat I’d found her kissing on that memorable day when I met Eudora. The same brown rat I’d associated with the NYC subway rat.
It would be a challenge, I told myself, but I would do it. After all, I had to admit that my prejudices had obscured my logic. It was time to look beyond appearances–and all those negative associations. After all, Roxy assured me of the brown rat’s mild nature, saying, “She is more of a people rat.” How ironic, I thought, since people like me had spurned her at face value.
Once again, that knee-jerk reaction might prompt some introspection. Even beyond their use as experimental models, the rat’s good works abound. In Mozambique, a relative of the Norway rat has been used to sniff out land mines. In Hesperia, CA, a pair of Norway rats guard a woman from life-threatening seizures. They’ve even achieved service animal status.
I brought the brown rat back to my classroom. Within days, she was christened “Cocoa.” I was relieved that “Cocoa” won out over Helaine’s choice, which was “Subway.”
The kids and I loved Cocoa and Eudora. We praised them when they performed their tricks, like walking on their hind legs, retrieving a ball or spinning in circles on command. We cooed over them when they worked cooperatively to shred paper into nests or curled up together in their favorite hammock: Cocoa’s dark body encircling Eudora’s mostly-white one, the two of them forming a cozy yin-yang.
Cocoa and Eudora were also excellent subjects of observation for my science classroom. We learned that the part of the rat’s body considered most objectionable–its hairless tail–is actually an essential physical adaptation with a dual function. First, the hairless tail serves to regulate the rat’s body temperature. Secondly, the tail provides balance. Rats use their tails in the same way that a circus performer uses a pole on a high wire, explains Anne Hanson, in her article “Rat Tails.” Like the pole, the rat’s tail provides rotational inertia, enabling it time to correct its center of gravity as it balances. My class got to witness this tail-balancing skill firsthand when Cocoa and Eudora perched on my shoulder or scaled a wall in their cage.
On the weekends, I carried my pet rats home (yes, I thought of them as mine by now) in a candy-striped carrier on the subway. Inevitably, I answered the questions of strangers. Often, I found myself boasting about my rats’ incredible intelligence, cleanliness, affectionate nature, ability to perform tricks and come when called. People were impressed. I began to feel like a one-woman rat campaigner working daily to champion this long-misunderstood animal–to discredit the centuries of ill will and bad press amassed by all of western civilization.
And something entirely new emerged in me. When I looked down at the subway tracks, I no longer reacted with blank horror at the hint of movement from below. On the contrary, I was filled with curiosity— compelled to seek the wild rats in the subway with the fervor of a “Where’s Waldo?” game. Like a scientist, I was curious to know just how they resembled or differed from my own rats.
Today, what tantalizes me most about rats has nothing to do with them at all, but more to do with myself–and with the human race as a whole–in all its strangeness and contradiction. I am fascinated by how our odd human value-system has mapped and packaged the world into a hierarchy of likes and dislikes based on personal and cultural perspectives. This is what my experience as a pet rat owner taught me from the inside-out. In truth, the rat was not the subject of my journey: I was.