After Sandie and Dusty, for a short time I didn’t want to have any rats at all. I missed them so much and couldn’t face trying to replace them. So for a few months we had an empty cage under a cloth in our kitchen, while we debated what to do about it.
Then, one Saturday in 2000, I decided to phone our local pet shop and see if they had any baby rats. The answer was yes – they had several, boys and girls. Now, I’m not going to go into the anti-pet-shop spiel here. We know why they’re bad. In my defence, in those days I didn’t know what I do now. I would never, ever buy from a pet shop again – and Fred and Ginger were the last rats we acquired that way.
So, off we went to the pet shop and picked out a black hooded and what looked like a champagne hooded. They were tiny – probably too young to be sold, in honesty – and terrified. They clearly hadn’t had much handling, if any. They were our baptism of fire. Sandie and Dusty had been friendly and reasonably placid, and had obviously been handled in the shop before being sold, but not these two. J named them Fred and Ginger, and we set them up in their new home with high hopes.
They remained terrified. They were almost impossible to handle. If we opened the cage they would climb to the furthest, most inaccessible corner and stay there, clinging to the bars for dear life. Eventually we came to an arrangement whereby we fastened the cage door open and they made their own way out. Once out, they would sit still and be picked up.
Despite all this, they were remarkably nice-natured and pretty friendly, on their terms. About 5 months after we got them, we moved house from Lincolnshire down to Essex and spent a couple of months sharing an enormous house with several of our colleagues, and the girls took it all in their stride. By this time Ginger’s markings, which we had initially thought were champagne hoodie, had changed and she turned out to be a pink-eyed Himalayan. One of our colleagues, who was sadly not the brightest, quickly volunteered to feed the girls whenever we were away at weekends (packing the house in Lincoln up took longer than anticipated) but wouldn’t be told that Fred was a girl.
After a couple of months we found a house of our own to rent which allowed pets – this is unbelievably hard in Essex. We moved again and for a few months the girls were fine. Then, just as they turned 1, the health problems began. Fred developed respiratory problems. Our well-meaning but inexperienced vet gave her an injection which caused a burn to her skin. Then the poor girl started barbering herself – over-grooming, which removed all the fur from her arms. She did outgrow that, however. A few months later Ginger developed a mammary tumour – our first experience of that. She had it removed and recovered well, at first, but things were starting to go downhill.
At this point we were also busy buying a house. Within a few weeks of the move both girls had deteriorated rapidly – Fred’s respiratory trouble resurfaced and she lost weight, while Ginger developed internal tumours. We did our best, as you do. Finally in September 2001 I made one of those appointments at the vet’s. The night before, I gave them both a little treat to eat. Ginger took hers, but after sniffing it she dropped it as though she couldn’t bear to eat. Fred started eating hers but as soon as she saw what Ginger had done, she looked up at me and very deliberately dropped it. The message was clear – she knew what was going on, and she was not going to eat if Ginger didn’t.
We said goodbye to them the next morning. In many ways they were the wrong rats at the wrong time – we were too inexperienced as owners to give them the care they needed right from the start. Their early deaths were a blow for us, although we couldn’t have done anything differently, but they were also a wake-up call. The next time I wanted to get rats, I was not going to a pet shop. Next time, I would do my research and go to a breeder.