Rats Are Just Misunderstood: Mainely Rat Rescue

May 25, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Diana Bulls, Rodent Ramblings

by Diana Bulls

And so are rat lovers. Most people take one look at us, with that beady-eyed, long-tailed critter coiled around our neck and are totally grossed out. That’s pretty much what Robin Rushlau of Dresden, Maine thought. “I had friends who had rats–I wouldn’t even look at them. I thought they were the creepiest pets ever.” But all that changed when she let her daughter pet sit for one while the owners were on vacation. “I couldn’t believe how wonderful he was. At the end of the two weeks I wouldn’t let him go back.”

I know from experience that rats do make the greatest pets. They are playful and affectionate, and they are really, really smart. They can learn tricks and how to use a litter box. Because they live in social groups, they love to be with their humans. Gentle handling and lots of rat-human interaction will make an excellent pet.

If you’re interested in a rat as a pet, try looking for a rescue group not a pet store. Rushlau is the Adoption Coordinator for Maine-based, Mainely Rat Rescue. She says rats often end up with rescue groups because buyers end up with a pregnant female or find out their pair of rats aren’t the same sex. Pet store rats can also be under socialized and unhealthy.

Unfortunately, rats don’t live a long life, only two to three years, and they are susceptible to tumors and respiratory problems. But even then, I can attest that rats are well worth having as pets. Give rats a chance. As Rushlau says, “You may find yourself with a rat obsession of your own.” When Mainely Rat Rescue adopts out rats to families with kids, she says, “It happens so many times that the parents fall in love.”

Interview With Robin Ruslau of Mainely Rat Rescue:

Diana: Please tell our readers how Mainely Rat Rescue got its start.

Robin: Mainely Rat Rescue, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was founded in 2007 by Kim Jackson, Patti Hanscom, Dori McLean and Paula Desfosses, who have worked and volunteered in shelters for many years and saw a need to rescue and re-home unwanted domestic pet rats, a misunderstood and often overlooked species in many shelters.

Diana: What is your position and how did you get involved?

Robin: I am the Adoption Coordinator for the rescue. I found Mainely Rat Rescue online soon after it opened, 5 1/2 years ago. I was inquiring about some rats in custody for a friend who wanted to adopt rats for his wife. I then got interested in fostering a litter, and was sent five newly weaned baby boys. After they were adopted, I got a pregnant female and raised my first litter. I was hooked. I eventually started out as a foster counselor and then as the rescue grew, I became the coordinator, and also began adoption counseling. Once I was doing adoption and foster coordinating as well as counseling, I started training adoption counselors as it became too much for me. Now we have four adoption counselors and a foster coordinator, so I have time to coordinate all of the adoptions. We are very busy!

Diana: How many volunteers are in your organization?

Robin: Too many to count! We usually have about 50 active foster and hospice homes throughout the New England and New York area. We have store managers for our two online stores, hammock seamstresses, four adoption counselors, several people who do background checks, a website team, people who help with transports…the list goes on.

Diana: Why rats?

Robin: Because rats are special! They are one of the most misunderstood small animals there is, so Mainely Rat Rescue works hard to not only take in rats and find them great homes, but we also educate the families about proper rat husbandry. We also take in other small animals so although we work mainly with rats, we do take in and re-home guinea pigs, gerbils, hamsters, mice and more mice.

Diana: On average, how many rescues do you take in per year?

Robin: We take in several hundreds of animals a year, as space permits. I do know that in 2011 we took in and re-homed over 800 animals as we helped with two hoarding cases back to back. That was our biggest year.

Diana: Is finding forever homes an issue?

Robin: No, it is not, we have a very high rate of adoptions.

Diana: How do you find homes? Do you use Petfinder or a website?

Robin: Yes, we use Petfinder. We have our own website www.mainelyratrescue.org. We also post on a rat forum called Goosemoose in the Rats Rule section. We have two Facebook pages that are very active (Mrr Adoption Counselor and Mainely Rat Rescue) Go take a peek! We post Craigslist ads about our rescue. We often have adoption events and we have families coming back to us again and again for their rats. People spread the word! We are pretty well known in New England.

Diana: What is involved in the adoption process?

Robin: People have to fill out an adoption profile. Once it is in its completed form, we then send it out for background checks. Once they are back, as long as there are no major red flags, we then send the application on to one of our trained adoption counselors. They will work with the adopter to ensure that the person knows how to properly care for their new pets. Once the person has been counseled on appropriate housing, food and bedding, they are then matched with their pets.

Diana: Has your organization been involved in any large or unusual rescues? If so, please tell us about them.

Yes, as mentioned previously our two biggest rescues were the back to back hoarding situations in Maine in 2011. We took in a very large number of rats from South Paris, Maine, and many of the rats were pregnant. We had somewhere between 24-27 nursing mothers from that rescue. Then we helped out with another hoarding case in Eliot, Maine. Again, several more litters. We were so swamped with babies that it was impossible to count at the time! I believe we had over 45 litters between the two hoarding cases.

Diana: Tell us why rats make good pets?

Robin: They are affectionate, social and interactive. They are smart and easy to train. They are also relatively easy to care for.

Diana: Is Mainely Rat Rescue doing anything in particular to help change people’s perceptions of rats as pets?

Robin: Yes, each and every day, the MRR family works to educate the public and spread the word about what wonderful pets they make.

Diana: Why would you recommend rescuing a rat rather than buying one from a breeder or pet store?

Robin: For one thing, there are already too many rats in this world, so if you buy from a breeder or pet store, you are only contributing to the problem as they keep breeding to supply the demand. Rats from pet stores are bred by backyard breeders who do not always take health and temperament into consideration. If they are sold in pet stores, they are basically being bred for snake food, so often you will end up with sick, un-socialized or pregnant rats. I cannot tell you how many times we have helped out with someone who purchased a rat or pair of rats, and they are either mis-sexed, or already pregnant. Our baby rats are raised in trained foster homes and they are socialized and well cared for from day one.

If a rat comes into custody under-socialized our foster families work on socializing them. We train and support them to work with the rats and only send them to homes which are suitable.

We have rats that are spayed and neutered, which not only provides health and temperament benefits to the rat, but also to families who are then able to keep mixed groups. We also match our families with rats that are best suited to them which you will not get in a pet store. If for any reason you cannot keep your rats, they come back to us. It doesn’t get any better than this!

Diana: Are there any special challenges when working with rats?

Robin: There can be if you get under-socialized or bitey rats. However, we have a wide range of experience in our foster homes, so we will send rats needing more work to the homes that can work with them and get them ready for their new homes.

Diana: Has your organization been affected by the current economy?

Robin: Gas prices have risen considerably, so people are less willing to drive to transport. We have been fortunate though, because we have some really awesome volunteers who will help. When we match families with rats, we take into consideration where they are and how far both they and the foster families are willing to drive. Our vet bills can be very high as well, but gratefully we have some wonderful vets who give us discounts on their services.

Diana: What are Mainely Rat Rescue’s future goals?

Robin: We hope to one day have an actual shelter dedicated to all the smallest companion animals. Cats and dogs have plenty of shelters. There is a real need for the small critters!

Diana: What are your current needs? How can our readers help?

Robin: Readers can help in a variety of ways! We have a PayPal button on the right hand side of the Available Animals page on our website an donations are always appreciated!

We also have a How to Help page on our website which outlines several other ways people can get involved.

As it says you can foster, volunteer, shop or donate! (Fosters and volunteers would have to be in the New York and New England areas.) We have two online stores that people can shop at: The Food Store and The Rat Roost.

We have an Amazon Wish List which makes it easy for people to choose items to send to our rescue.

Diana: Anything else you would like to add or share with our readers.

Robin: Well-socialized rats are one of the very best small pets for children. Parents often find this out and adopt for their kids, but ultimately they fall in love too! Rats are the perfect size for families living in apartments and a lot less work than dogs or cats. They can cohabit in homes with other pets such as dogs and cats. Most of our foster families have multiple pets. Rats are endearing, loving little critters! Last of all, “Don’t Shop, Adopt”–you will save a life and you will make room in our rescue so that we can help more homeless rats!! You will be glad that you did!”

Check out more rat stories & articles in KRL’s rodent ramblings section.

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


  1. Lee Juslin shared this story with me. I LOOOOOOVE rats & Lee knows it! I’ve had a few of my own incl. two mamas from a pet store who ended up having 16 and 11 babies, respectively. I was particularly pleased with you writing:
    “If you’re interested in a rat as a pet, try looking for a rescue group not a pet store.”
    I could not agree more!

  2. All it takes is once: as one who was creeped out by rats, I would never have guessed that I could fall in love with Cecil!


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