As with nearly everything weird in my life, this is my fault. I have no one to blame for my verminous companion but myself. Last Friday, I went to the animal rescue place where Daughter and I volunteer. It is located in the back of a pet store exclusively staffed by kind, lethargic, typically tattooed young men not unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Led Zeppelin and the off-label uses of certain mushrooms. In passing chatter with one of these lads, I learned that a friend had given him three adult female rats and their fifteen babies to sell.
“They’re hooded rats,” he drawled, as he sketched a flier for his band. “They’re the best ones for pets, and they’re really cute, so I’ll try to find homes for some of them.”
“And if you don’t?” I enquired, dreading the answer.
He nodded lazily towards the cage of feeder rats for snakes. This young man has a marvelous equanimity when it comes to the food chain: some get to be the pet; some get to feed the pet. I understand snakes really don’t thrill to a rat made of tempeh but that didn’t mean I had to just stand back and let it happen.
Three minutes later, a small, squirming rat was in my hands. I would say I had picked it, but it was more like placing my hand into a writhing mass of whiskers and tails and grabbing the first thumb-sized torso I could snatch.
My tattooed friend went shuffling off to find me a cage and bedding while I stared at my new little charge. It was darling, if you like that sort of thing, about the size of a well-fed mouse, white with coffee-cream markings. It stared around wildly and pooped in my hand. It was only then that I, the Infanta of Impetuousness, noticed that I didn’t have a single clue as to where it was going to live.
I don’t mean cage-wise, I mean what address the rat would put on return envelopes. I couldn’t keep it. We have a cat; a cat which spends a great deal of her time getting praised for killing these very things. I couldn’t think of a single person in my rolodex who had mused aloud “Gee, it would be so much better around here if only I had a rat to poop in my hand”. People who want a rat -- and this isn’t a large demographic -- generally already have a rat. It’s different than a Prius that way. I wasn’t about to send him back to the fattening farm, but I was stumped.
And then I had a thought: Daughter’s class! The teacher had mentioned getting a rat for the classroom just that week! I could palm off…I mean, I could donate this rat to her class!
I smiled benevolently down on the rat, which apparently took this for bared teeth and peed in my palm.
An hour later, I swanned into school carrying the rat in a rather luxurious cage, several bags of bedding, many kinds of food, some vitamins, and a bag of blueberry yoghurt treats. This rat had its own trousseau. The children were incoherent with excitement. This caused the rat to remain cowering under its bedding, so their total relationship with it was me pointing at a lump of cedar filings and saying “It’s a rat…Really!”
The teacher was remarkably gracious, considering we went from “I could see getting a class rat” to “Look! Here’s your class rat!” with no warning. I apologized profusely for the lack of heads-up, and offered to help in any way she needed.
“Well, you’re going to have to take it this weekend,” she said.
It suddenly dawned on me:
1. It was Friday,
2. School pets don’t stay at school over the weekend,
3. I really might have wanted to think this one through for another minute or so back at the pet store.
I drove both Daughter and rat home that afternoon; Daughter planning little rat outfits and how they would grow old together, me saying things like “It’s a school rat” and “You know, other families will get to take it home, too” and “Rats DEFINITELY hate being taken out of their cage and put in little girl’s laps while their mothers drive, so you need to stop trying to do that when I’m not looking”
I recall reading that having pets reduces stress. I now believe that reading about having pets reduces stress.
Let me tell you about this weekend from my perspective: We kept a baby rat in a cage in our home office.
Let me tell you about this weekend from the cat’s perspective: The Big Pink Food Slaves brought a gorgeously tempting canapé into the house and then perversely treated it like a guest.
For the human members of the household, the entire weekend could be summed up by the phrase “Did you lock the office door? Did you check it? Did you check it recently?” When you have a cat on her hind legs, batting at a door handle, attempting to grow opposable thumbs in under an hour, you can never be too cautious.
The rat grew brave, the rat grew curious. Mostly, the rat grew, which is a fairly amazing thing to see happen in less than 48 hours. The rat grew in all sorts of ways; we now had definitive proof that it was a male. Daughter spent most of her time trying to convince herself whatever he was doing was the result of some mystical union she had with him:
DAUGHTER: Mommy, look! I thought ‘Go up the side of the cage and then fall backwards’, and then he did that!
[As long as she doesn’t start believing the people on the television hear her thoughts, I’m guessing we’re okay.]
In short, we muddled though, with only the tiniest whiff of damp cedar chips in the home office. Monday rolled around, and I packed the rat’s steamer trunk -- making sure his winter clothing was on top for easy access in case it got chilly. I then stared at the usual pile of morning stuff, plus the extra bits I had to move to the car because it was Monday. I then stared at my hooded friend in his cage at the front door.
It seemed illogical to put him all the way back in the office just to get the first run of stuff to the car.
It seemed murderous to leave him at the threshold with the cat and dog to keep him company.
I sighed deeply. I draped Daughter in her raincoat, her backpack and her lunchbox. I draped myself in my purse, my jacket and the rat cage. In one final sweeping movement, just to make sure I had achieved the necessary degree of difficulty, I grabbed my cup of tea with the thumb and pinky not currently holding the cage.
I got the living things situated in the car and came back in to get the rest of the domestic cargo. The cat lay curled on the dry-cleaning, scowling.
I knew what was required of me. I put down my hand. She grabbed it in her front paws, and bit me. It wasn’t hard enough to draw blood, but it was hard enough for me to understand I had been a naughty Big Pink Food Slave and this would be going on my permanent record. She then strode off, somewhat satiated.
I grabbed the laundry and headed out to the RatMobile.