It’s been a busy week here, but quiet on the ratty front. Luther and Arkwright are happily sharing a cage and not beating each other up, and Luther’s horrible skin condition is healing. So in the absence of real news, I thought I’d post number 1 in an occasional series: Rats who have owned us. Let’s begin at the beginning, then: Sandie and Dusty.
Nearly 13 years ago, I bought my first rats. Or technically rat, as my housemate bought the second one; but it wasn’t long before they were both mine, by default. They came from a pet shop, and for the first few months they lived in an a glass tank, on wood shavings, because I thought that was ok. They had a good diet, though, and plenty of toys, attention, exercise and stimulation, so I like to think that made up for any shortcomings.
Sandie was my housemate’s choice. She was (I think) a very rusty-coloured black Berkshire rex. Dusty was a pink-eyed white, but there may have been a little mismarked champagne hoodiness in there too. We named them after Sandie Shaw and Dusty Springfield, as you do. As a rat novice I had no idea what to expect, but since those days I’ve always had a soft spot for black/black Berkie, rex or not, and for the very pale and pink-eyed. Black rats seem to have an air of confidence and being in charge, and pink-eyeds are so cute. There are exceptions, of course.
The glass tank had a ledge around the top and it took Sandie only a few hours, once she’d settled in, to work out how to jump on to it. It took Dusty a little longer, but after that, when you came into the room if they were awake the chances were they’d be on the ledge, waiting for attention. They had a length of ceramic tube, and a wheel which Dusty loved but Sandie only used to try and climb out of the tank. It never worked, as at a crucial moment the wheel would turn and dump her on the tank floor again.
When our landlord came home for the Christams holiday the rats and their tank were relegated to my bedroom, but we were still able to bring them downstairs to the living room for a run. Meanwhile they had the run of my bedroom as there were no cables or other dangers. In the living room, they scuttled around on the floor, got into the sofa, and chewed through the antenna for the cordless phone. They stole food, if anyone was foolish enough to leave any lying around. Sandie figured out how to get back to the tank (when it lived down there) and would go back by herself when she wanted a wee, or had just had enough of being out. She did like going to sleep on the back of my neck, though.
Once the tank had moved up to my room, I would find the girls sitting on the ledge waiting for me every day when I got in from work. I’d make a coffee, settle down with a crossword and let them run round investigating. Sandie was always the one trying to get into trouble – up the curtains, in the wardrobe. On one occasion I nearly sat on her. One morning I woke up to find her sitting next to my pillow.
Several months after getting them, I moved out to share a house with J and the rats came too, as the housemate had vanished. We hadn’t been there long before the memorable day when Sandie refused to stay in the tank and ended up wedged under the cooker. Once released she went meekly back to her tank but we couldn’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again, so went out and bought a cage. She was unimpressed, but soon adapted.
Dusty was almost the silent partner in all this. She was never as confident or outgoing as Sandie (literally – Sandie loved to go out and about sitting on my shoulder). But she was a sweet-natured little girl, and from time to time she did her fair share of getting stuck in sofas and chewing things she shouldn’t.
We had a back yard with a small shed at this house, and set up a playground for them in the shed – bits of drainpipe, cardboard boxes, an old draining rack – and I would sit in the doorway to keep an eye on them. They loved it. We used to refer to it as “Ratty Alton Towers”. None of our rats since then have had anything like it, as we haven’t really had a suitable space to build it.
The girls were happy and healthy until around 2 years old. Dusty was the first to become ill – a strange lump appeared on her face which on x-ray proved to be a bony tumour; it was trapping soft tissue which then formed an abcess. Nothing could be done except to periodically clean the abcess out under anaesthetic; she was very patient, but after a couple of such sessions she was clearly starting to feel the strain. Meanwhile Sandie became withdrawn when Dusty wasn’t there, only perking up and eating when Dusty came back from her vet trips. It was clear that if Dusty went, Sandie would pine quickly, so when it came to having Dusty put to sleep it seemed kindest to let Sandie go too.
I realise that may seem harsh, and with our experience now of introducing new rats to a group and taking care of older animals we would probably do things differently. but at the time we had no rat-knowledgable friends and no network to go to for advice, so we could only do what seemed best. Now, we would be more likely to have a larger group of girls of varying ages, but then all we knew was that they didn’t like to be alone.
Sandie and Dusty were our introduction to rat-keeping and will always be remembered with affection, no matter how many more we may have. Without them, we wouldn’t have fallen for any others. If your first experience of an animal is negative it will be harder to like the species, but with such a positive first foray we were all set, a few months after the girls left us, to get another pair. Fred and Ginger were completely different, though…