by Rebecca McLeod
Smudge came from humble beginnings. Born somewhere in Alberta (the supposedly “rat-free” province), he was presumably one of several in a mass-produced litter of Himalayan marked rats. Due to the ignominy of not having his testicles descend at five weeks, he was mistaken for a female and shipped along with his sisters and a similarly delayed brother to a pet store in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. There, he and his brother, who would be named Chompers, demonstrated that they were both indeed intact males and they were briskly parted from their sisters to be housed in the back room in a medium-sized Tupperware container that had held someone’s lunch.
Chompers felt that the Tupperware was not big enough for both of them and began systematically biting Smudge’s tail and sides every time he managed to doze off to sleep. Not satisfied with this, he took the entire food cache, the water bottle and everything else in the cage as his, spitefully thumping Smudge every time the other rat even dared to look up.
The pet store employees did not have an extra cage to keep Smudge in, and didn’t know what to do. In the dirty container and under the constant threat of bullying, Smudge had developed a sneeze and stress-related poryphrin staining around his nose and eyes, making it appear as though he were bleeding. He was obviously not adoptable, being rather chewed up and pathetic, but where else could he go?
Then they remembered a young couple who often shopped at their store for rat supplies. The girl seemed like a bit of a weirdo—lots of tattoos, purple hair, and piercings, but she always stopped to talk to the animals waiting for new homes. Her boyfriend stopped in at least every week to buy the biggest size of CareFresh or Swheat Scoop litter. At a moment’s provocation either of them would pull out the latest pictures of their rats doing silly things like wearing Santa hats or fishing for frozen peas in a bowl.
They laid their trap.
The next time the young couple entered the store, one employee ran to distract them with a survey while another quickly taped up a sign next to the animal cages that said “Free Rats to a Good Home”. The young couple answered the survey, picked up some bedding and wood chews, and then made their usual way over to the animal cages. The young woman spotted the sign immediately.
“Free rats?” she inquired.
“Yeah, somehow a pair of boys got mixed in with the girls on this last shipment and now they’re hanging out in the back waiting for homes.” The sales associate shook her head sadly, watching the girl’s eyes glance over to the Staff Only door leading to the back room.
“Oh poor things! Are they friendly?”
“Hard to tell; the one is downright mean and he beats on the other one.”
“Oh poor sweetheart! Can I see the nice one?” she asked eagerly.
As the sales associate entered the back room, she closed the door and high-fived a coworker before bringing Smudge out to meet his potential owner.
The first time I saw Smudge, he was the saddest little animal I’d seen. Scabs on his fur showed where Chompers had bitten him, the staining around his eyes and nose showed how stressed he was. When I picked him up, he hardly moved except to shiver a little in fear and close his eyes.
I tucked him in my sweater to get warm against my chest before I forgot to even ask my fiancee Matthew if I could have the rat. We already had six at home with a litter on the way and I knew that we were skating the line of “too many rats”.
I turned to him and started to ask but he was already nodding.
“Please, even I can’t turn down the pathos in those beady little eyes. And the smudge on his nose is kinda cute.” And so he became Smudge.
Once we got home, we brought out our alpha male Fat Tommy to meet Smudge. I sat down in our rat enclosure with Smudge still hiding in my sweater and Tommy waddled over to see what I was doing.
Tommy is everything a rat breeder dreams of in a male rat: a quiet, friendly temperament with a tendency to cuddle everyone. He’s an oversized PEW (pink eyed white) who somehow runs the Boys cage without ever having to resort to a single fight.
I unzipped my sweater and placed Smudge on the ground about a foot away from Tommy. Smudge opened his ruby eyes to find that a rat twice the size of Chompers was looking at him with mild interest. He let out a quiet squeak of utter horror and flopped over on his side.
“Is he dead??” asked Matthew, watching my rat whispering skills from across the kitchen.
I was stunned.
“I sure hope not!”
Tommy seemed to find this hilarious and trotted forward and began gently nosing Smudge who shivered and kept his little eyes scrunched tight shut, clearly waiting for violence. Tommy plopped down next to the other rat and began grooming him. Smudge remained motionless for a long time, peeking one eye open to check that he was still in the land of the living, and that the big white rat was still there. Tommy patiently continued grooming him until Smudge at last cautiously sat up. Keeping himself low to the ground, he cuddled up against the bigger rat and presumably vowed eternal friendship if only he would not be bitten too, too often.
I put them back together in the cage and after Smudge learned what a hammock was, the two boys settled down for the night.
Some months later I had the bright idea that Smudge, now “Captain Smudge” thanks to his fondness for sitting in a toy tugboat, would pass on beautiful genes to his children. With medicine and time to heal, he’d become an extraordinarily attractive Himalayan, with dark points against a creamy coat. He and Tommy were inseparable, to the point where Smudge became jealous if the other males got too much of Tommy’s attention.
The next time a suitable female went into heat, I placed her and Smudge in the enclosure with the instructions “Go get her, tiger!”
Smudge looked up at me, then looked at the doe who was doing her mating dance, wiggling her ears frantically to get his attention. He walked away, walking around the doe who followed him, trying to cajole him into mating with her.
Bemused, I took him out, replaced him with Tommy, and Tommy sealed the deal inside of a minute.
“Are you having an off day, Smudgers? Headache perhaps?” He looked at me dolefully and waited to be replaced in his cage with Tommy.
This happened a second time and I became concerned. I had a vet check Smudge’s boy parts (much to Smudge’s disgust) and everything was deemed perfectly healthy.
The third time it happened I ran across a story about a pair of male penguins in a Toronto zoo that had decided to raise an “egg” together. They were not interested in the female penguins and had found an egg-shaped rock that they were incubating faithfully, waiting for it to hatch. I read the story and then peered into the Boys cage. Smudge and Tommy were curled up next to each other in a box, Smudge happily grooming Tommy’s neck fur.
“Smudge, were you trying to tell me that you’re a little different?”
He looked up at me with a “Gee, it took you long enough to figure out” expression before returning to his grooming.
I sat back in my chair. “Well. That’s different. Rock on, fuzzball, rock on.”
For the rest of his life, Smudge refused to have anything to do with female rats. He was absolutely devoted to Tommy, who returned the affection with the occasional doe on the side to help expand our rattery. Wherever Tommy went, Smudge came trotting behind him, eager to groom, snuggle or share food with him. Smudge would even boldly pinch the ears of Tommy’s two gigantic sons if they came too close to his friend!
The day that Captain Smudge passed away, I found Tommy draped over his body, fiercely guarding it from the other males. Smudge appeared to have been freshly groomed by Tommy, who had then stationed himself by the body until I came home. I gently took the body, wrapped it in a scrap of rainbow patterned felt, and placed it in a box to be taken to our pet cremation service just outside of town. They have a memorial garden for the ashes where many of our past rodents have been buried.
Tommy searched for Smudge for several days. Wherever the scent lingered, Tommy would overturn boxes, check hammocks, and peer into igloos, hoping to see his friend. Eventually he gave up and allowed his two cagemates, both his sons, to comfort him with snuggling and grooming.
He’s a quieter rat now, and getting on in years. My comfort is that when he does pass on to the Rainbow Bridge, there will be a familiar smudgy face to meet him.
Check out a fun little rat story by Rebecca right here at KRL.