Did I mention the rats?

It’s probably one of my most obvious defining characteristics. Anyone who knows me, works with me or visits my house just has to deal with the obsession. I’m not going to start apologising – I’m too old for that. There’s every chance that people refer to me as ‘the crazy rat lady’ or some variation on the theme.

So how do you get this way? How does a small (admittedly cute) generally vilified animal get under your skin to this extent? I’m not sure. Even after 13 years and 32 rats (it sounds a lot but I know people who have more, many more) I’m still not sure. It just happened.

We used to have animals. My dad had grown up in a house full of dogs. We had dogs, rabbits, a gerbil. A house without animals somehow isn’t a home, to me. But my job meant I moved around a lot, lived in places where I couldn’t have animals, so I got used to it. In 1997 I was sharing a house while the owner was away doing his MA. His partner and I both wanted pets, but couldn’t decide what. Dogs were impractical as we were both out at work all day. Cats were out of the question as the landlord was allergic to them. Eventually my housemate said “What about rats? I used to have rats when I was a teenager, they’re great pets.” I’d met some pet rats once before that belonged to a friend of mine, but had never considered them as pets myself. Still, it seemed like a good idea.

We acquired a glass tank from a colleague of mine and set off for the local big chain pet shop. We chose two girls, and bought a load of other stuff to put in the tank, and we were all set. These days I know better than to buy from pet shops or to house rats in a tank on wood shavings, but back then I knew nothing about them.

We set the tank up in the living room, though it was later relegated to my bedroom when the landlord came home and announced it looked ugly, and he didn’t want it downstairs. I didn’t mind as the girls were rapidly becoming mine anyway. When I got in from work I’d go up to my room and they’d be waiting for me, sitting on the lip of the tank, so I’d get them out and let them run round – there were no cables or places where they could get stuck, so it was all relatively safe, though most of my possessions wound up chewed.

When I moved out, to start sharing a house with Jeremy, the girls came too. He was wary of them at first, not having grown up with pets, but pretty soon I had him converted. He needs very little encouragement from me to buy new cages or get new inhabitants, though we try to keep numbers manageable – around 5 or 6.

What does it say about us, then? Or does it say anything at all? Is there a ‘type’ of person who keeps rats, or are we all gloriously individual – is that what it says about us? There’s often a strong outsider feel around rat people, though we could debate for ever whether it’s because outsiders are attracted to rats, or rats are attracted to outsiders. I think it’s a little of both. Some of us just like to defend the underdog (or rat). Some of us want to show off our outsider status. “I’m different – I keep rats.” There’s a great quote from Charlie Brooker, describing a wild rat that moved into the house he used to live in: “I had a rat once. Not as a pet, you understand – I’m not that cool and alternative and lawless and hard – but as an invader.” Deep down, maybe that’s how we see ourselves.

But you can be cool and alternative and lawless and hard with an iguana, or a boa constrictor. So why rats? For me, it has to be the personality. Each one is different. Oh sure, one rat mind remind you of another, but they’re not the same. Each one will have his or her little quirks and habits, will go through little phases of behaviour, and will respond to you in different ways. The ones who have meant the most to me haven’t always been the most affectionate or cuddly, but they have been the ones with an extra portion of character.

They are intelligent. You see them working things out, figuring out their place in the world. I have no doubt they have a sense of humour. They are cheeky and childlike, playing games of their own invention and suckering you into playing with them. They can be hugely affectionate – I have had girls who would reach out their arms to me when I went to pick them up, and I’ve seen any number of demonstrations of affection between cagemates. For a wild animal there is no benefit in altruism, in caring for a sick pack member, but I have seen pet rats do just that, as well as stepping in to stop a fight.

Rats love their humans unconditionally, as dogs do, and in many ways it’s like having small dogs. Maybe that’s one reason why I like them – I’m used to dogs, and try as I might I cannot really bring myself to like cats. I would never harm one, and if I visit someone with cats I will be make the right noises, but I wouldn’t want one myself.

We are all different, and have to accept that not everyone will like what we like. But sometimes that ‘not liking’ is the result of ‘not knowing’. Every so often I encounter someone who can’t understand why I would keep rats, they’re horrible vermin, and I just have to remind myself the poor soul hasn’t met one of mine, hasn’t been greeted by a little face at the cage door wanting to get onto my shoulder, play with my hair, stick its nose in my ear and then settle down on the back of my neck for a nap. I have to feel sorry for people who don’t know what it’s like.

Why do I keep rats? If you met them you’d understand.

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