Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Millions of Rats

My older daughter Vivian recently added two female rats to our household of one dad, one mom, two teenaged daughters, one female dwarf hamster, and four hens.

It quickly became clear that one of the rats was pregnant. She gave birth to four or five squirming pink objects with tightly closed eyes, which remain protectively barricaded behind masses of shredded tissues and old socks - we only catch glimpses of them when Cider emerges to grab a snack, a ratling or two still attached to her at the teat. She always whisks them back inside quickly. "They're probably all female as well," my husband sighed. He feels a bit outnumbered these days.

Rats make wonderful pets, as I learned in college when I let my sweet Miss Liberty range free around my room. She came when I called her, loved to climb all over me, and ate small holes in all my cotton clothing. Unlike hamsters, rats are almost never crabby, they love to hang out with people, and they never bite in anger or surprise. They are loyal, curious, and very intelligent.

It's too bad that rats in literature get such a bad rap. Templeton from White's Charlotte's Web is a selfish and greedy hoarder of all sorts of nasty food; although he does help Charlotte and Wilbur, it is only with extreme reluctance. Manny Rat from Hoban's A Mouse and His Child is a true villain, a nasty character who employs slave labor and relentlessly pursues our heroes (who are mice - a supposedly kinder and gentler sort of rodent). In many other books, rats are rapacious bullies and tyrants.

Luckily, there are plenty of books in which rats play more positive roles, Jonell's Emily and the Incredible Shrinking Rat being the supreme example. Rat is exuberant and irrepressible, a wonderfully accurate representative of the species. There are several other examples, such as Winthrop's The Red-Hot Rattoons and Werbsa's Walter: the Story of a Rat. I was also going to mention Ratty of Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, but then I remembered just in time that Ratty is actually... a water vole!

By the way, the rat pictured above is not one of ours - I haven't been able to take a photo of them that truly showcases their gorgeousness, and of course the ratlings haven't yet emerged from their nest.


  1. The title of this post sends chills down my spine. Let's not forget the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

  2. Rats are smart. I loved my white rat, Mortimer (after the Cary Grant character in the film "Arsenic and Old Lacy")from my college psych class. He pressed that lever for the water brilliantly!

    While I too like many a fictional rat, I must admit I'm skittish as hell when I see them on the street (which I do all too often here in NYC). I've seen some massively big ones too. Scary. Scary. Not like those lovely white domesticated ones by a long shot.

  3. I meant "Arsenic and Old Lace." (Old ladies, not a Lacy old or young:)

  4. Yes, rats are smart - and good moms, too. When we finally unearthed the nest in order to clean the cage, we discovered that there are actually TEN healthy, squirmy, adorable baby rats!!!!! Cider and her sister Saki have their paws full...