by Diana Hockley
This is a sad and thoughtful rat tale that seemed perfect for our Earth Day issue.
Annie loved the dregs of frothy coffee – the homemade kind that you get in a long, skinny packet. Every morning, I would finish my coffee, wait for the froth to cool and then place the cup on its side in the cage. Having awakened Annie with a gentle scritch, I watched delightedly as she slowly cleaned up every skerrick of her treat. Those memories are very precious, because last week, Annie died.
Annie was a feeder breeder rat, saved from a bin when young – I just reached in and grabbed the first one I laid a hand on. Roaned, with a white blaze down her lovely face, she was skittish and bit frequently. I was in two minds whether to keep her after, for no apparent reason, she bit me deeply through the knuckle. Maybe someone else would bond with her better than I? What had I done wrong in socializing her? Amid the guilt was the fear that I would not be able to have an urgent, life-saving operation in the near future if the bite didn’t heal in time and if she bit me again.
It was with the greatest regret that I asked her former owner to take her back, with the proviso that I would come for her later – if I survived and wasn’t involved in chemo. My friend took her back and placed her in a big bin with a lot of baby rats.
I came home and recovered enough to ask for Annie to come home, but of course – you guessed it, right? She was pregnant. Within a day of the discovery, she gave birth to ten babies, one of which died at birth and another about a week later. The rest were having a wonderful time. Fat and energetic, they were intent on dragging the life out of their mother, who was on a high protein diet of mealy worms, avocado, full cream yoghurt, and small animal vitamins – everything I could give to make her life easier. The babies went onto kitten milk and Farex as soon as they were able. Then we had a drama. The tiniest and liveliest – a white male with a dark agouti head and facial markings – disappeared.
Panic stations! We searched high and low – high being literally because the cage was on a stand some 120cm high. He’d obviously fallen, but there was no sign of a little body anywhere. We put the cage on the floor with a nesting box beside it and food out. There wasn’t any indication that he had been back to eat. Forty-eight hours passed and we were resigned to finding a desiccated corpse under a cupboard or in the back of the refrigerator one day. We put the cage back up on the stand and I went to do the rat washing.
Those of you who are parents to pet rats will understand what I mean by that seemingly innocuous activity. The fact is that the rats have more washing than we do! I was reefing the hammocks and towels out of the basket, shaking them as rat owners are wont to do, when there – nestling at the bottom of the pile was a tiny white, dark-headed furry body! Alive and well, he showed no signs of being missing for 48 hours! I scooped him up, put him into the cage with his mum and siblings – where he promptly fell to kung fu fighting – then ran screaming to Andrew.
Prodigal, as he is now named, thrived. Smallest and meanest, he was El Supremo, minus the sunglasses and gun belt around his torso. Two of his brothers and a sister left to be pets elsewhere, one sister joined Annie in the big cage with the girls and the four boys now reside in a ferret cage.
We were so happy thinking all was well, and then Annie started to lose weight. Rat lovers will recognize the symptoms – extreme loss of weight – sometimes rattling in the chest, and a fast decline. We took her to the vet as soon as the symptoms arose and she rallied for a couple of weeks, but it wasn’t long before she went downhill again. She only wanted to be with me, she slept with her head up on the side of the hammock; porphyrin stained her tiny nose.
Our hearts bled. Every pet owner knows that terrible last visit, regardless of the breed of animal. Our vet, a compassionate man, did the deed kindly for both of us.
We are now losing Finn, the youngest of Annie’s sons, who is going the same way as his mother. Willy Yum Yum has a croak in his chest, Prodigal went downhill the other day and fortunately bounced back, and Harley – we’re crossing our fingers and hoping he doesn’t come up with anything untoward. Lizzy, their sister, is fine and feisty, though subdued since she lost her mum.
Annie was a product of a long line of feeder rats, bred over and over until their life force fails. We’ve seen it in all animals – the puppy mills churning out substandard animals, who through no fault of their own, have a short life of vet visits until they succumb to their gene pool destiny – the studs producing cats with evermore “pugged” noses, breathing problems and some with misshapen features such as bowed legs and hip problems. Many breeders of “mill” and feeder animals do not have the resources to care for them in terms of food and cage care. They certainly have no notion of professional animal husbandry, which is the same for sheep, horses, cattle, guinea pigs, rats, mice and other domestic pets, and because these animals are expendable and going elsewhere as fast as they get rid of them, they don’t care. This is why it is not helping the animals to buy online or from pet shops, which should be “selling” rescue animals rather than “stud” stock of dubious origins.
Sadly, the rat club to which I belonged for many years is suffering from lack of knowledge in breeding. The members appear to be chasing colors rather than working slowly through, in and out-crossing, a slow process, but one which will ensure that the health of the rats is paramount. Any responsible breeder of animals knows that they are in it for the long haul.
The more we fiddle with nature the more “she” will come back to bite us on our bums. All over the world, “developers” are shredding forests, heedless of the harm they are inflicting on the ecosystems, zoos in the northern hemisphere are killing their animals because they “have no need of them in the gene pool” – as if there are plenty to go around. Denmark and Copenhagen zoos have shot young giraffe and lions for this reason in spite of the fact that other zoos have offered to take their “excess” stock. They haven’t been called on it. Just a couple of weeks ago, a group of tigers were slaughtered in front of a mob of Chinese businessmen and the body parts distributed for the men to eat. All this was in the spirit of entertainment.
Emotionally bankrupt wealthy people pay thousands of dollars to shoot wildlife with high-powered guns – so brave of them – and are photographed grinning in triumph. A certain “wonder woman” prides herself on hunting wildlife with a bow and arrow and lauds her deeds on her own TV show. Americans will know who I am talking about.
You can see where I am going with this, can’t you? It starts in a small way and graduates, from bad farming habits, be it rats, mice, cats, dogs, horses et al, and follows up the line to the most precious and rare of species. I don’t know that there are enough good people left to make the changes necessary to help animals, particularly the world’s wildlife, survive. There are thousands upon thousands of good people who are trying, but strangely enough, most of them are “ordinary” with not a lot of money to put into the mix. Most of the fabulously wealthy, who could make a difference, don’t much bother. When a famous singer boasts that she spent one million dollars on a new lounge suite – a twenty thousand dollar one wasn’t good enough for her skinny bum? – and is congratulated for it in celebrity magazines which “we” buy, then we are all complicit in the destruction of our humanity.
In my opinion, we humans are ultimately doomed. When there are no animals left and the earth is raped beyond all recovery, then we will finally get what’s coming to us. I am so glad that I will not be around to see it happen.
You can find more rat stories & articles in our Rodent Ramblings section.