A Rat Tale (written 6/15/21)
Rats just don't live very long. For some folks, that may not be much of a problem. But for unique and slightly crazy people like me, it means that, every so often, I have to go out and replace some of my older crew who have crossed over the ratty rainbow bridge.
That was the situation I found myself in about ten days ago, when an intrepid friend and I loaded up in her car, and headed out to Petco to replace three of my old rats.
Some may recall that I do actually use rats for training the dogs. The fun and fast-growing sport of barn hunt requires dogs to sniff out and indicate caged rats within a course of hay bales, and at least two of my own dogs have decided this is an activity they enjoy.
So, of course, that means I need to have rats of my own to train and practice with.
Standing beside the display cages at Petco, I decided four was a good number. There were only two middle-aged rats (Whiskey and Rummy) left at home, and in order to do a legitimate barn hunt run, I needed at least half a dozen rats to hide. Boy rats tend to be
larger and lazier than girl rats, which means that they're a bit easier to handle. And so, I opted for four half-grown boys, got them boxed up, and bundled them off to their new, working rat home.
Biscuit, Bagel, Crumble and Crouton. We were going with a bakery theme this time. I turned them loose in their giant Critter Nation cage, and we began the process of getting to know each other.
It turned out to be a slow process. I was disappointed to discover that none of my four latest family members were very well socialized. None of them were nippy, but they were all very skittish and tough to handle, and would bolt for the corners of the cage whenever I opened the door.
Bagel was the first to begin warming up to me. Within a couple of days, he was coming up to snuffle my fingers. Then he was comfortable enough to start considering hopping into my hand. Biscuit was getting friendly, too. The others were still very flighty, but we were making progress. We were getting comfortable with each other.
Then last night there was a change. Even as totally blacked out as I was after a long, full day, I was roused enough at some point in the small hours to realize that the new rats were squabbling. There was squealing and screeching and boinging around the cage. Really? I thought. At 3 in the morning? Well, they would just have to sort it out for themselves, because I had better things to do. Sleeping was at the top of the list.
By this morning things seemed to have calmed. No more bickering, although every so often there was a new noise from the cage. It sounded like someone methodically rubbing a wet, rubber shoe against the leg of a chair. It was a lower-pitched, slow, squeaking sound.
Weird. I had never heard that sound before, but then again, I haven't lived with rats for very long, and these particular rats were new to me. So I shrugged and bulldozed onward through my day.
By late this afternoon it was time to clean rat cages. Since they were the hardest to wrangle, I tackled the bakery cage first and began the painstaking process of carefully cornering and catching my fearful foursome. One of them made it easy by already being holed up in a Kleenex box, placed in the cage the night before as a toy. Perfect. I scooped him up, box and all, and dropped him into the tub the rats are stashed in while I freshen up the cage.
By the time I had finally corralled the other three, there was that sound again. Low, rubbery squeaking. Just like wet shoes.
"What are you guys doing in there?" I asked them, half curious, half exasperated. If it isn't one thing, it's another. Now my rats were making bizarre noises.
It was when I had returned the four bakery rats to their scoured cage that the riddle was finally solved. Yes, all four of my new boys were safely ensconced in their freshly-tidied home. And yet, from inside the tub they had just vacated, came that rubber-shoe squeaking sound.
I had a terrible suspicion. I grabbed that Kleenex box, very gingerly eased my hand through the cut-out in the center, and sure enough, there they were. Tiny, hairless, helpless. Just like little Gummy Bears.
I had gone to Petco to purchase four boys. Instead, I had somehow come home with at least one girl, and with a grand total of eight babies.
I counted them. One by one. Gently extracting them from the depths of the Kleenex box, I counted them into the palm of my hand. All eight didn't even fill the space.
I sat on the floor, eight tiny baby rats piled in the palm of my right hand, and I laughed and laughed. What else could I do? As I chortled, I snuggled the other hand over top of the pink pile to hold in some heat. Some of these iddy-biddies were only about the size of kidney beans, and a couple of them had felt pretty cold.
After a minute or two, I snuggled them back into their Kleenex box and added some bedding. And then it was time to figure out who the proud mama might be.
For the life of me, I couldn't remember which rat had been in that box when I removed it from the cage. Crouton maybe? I tried introducing him (or was it a her?) to the Kleenex box, but no, Crouton wanted no part of babies. Same story with Biscuit.
How many potentially pregnant girls did I have on my hands, anyway? I'd had no reason to question the assertion that these were four males, as I had requested. And frankly, as jumpy and difficult to handle as these rats were, it was even more difficult to, well uh, check their equipment. For all I knew they were all girls. They had all come out of the same enclosure at the store, and Petco does allegedly separate their males from their females. If they were all
females, how was I going to track down the right one?
Easy. Just put Bagel in the tub, and she went straight into that Kleenex box and reclaimed her kids. She is now in her own, private cage where she can raise those babies in peace. And I'm still laughing. What a glorious, dubious, interesting gift. Eight brand-new babies for me to look after and love. Crazy days. Something tells me there will be many rat tales yet to come.