Heidi and Clara marked a turning point in our world of rats. They were the first to come to us from a breeder, and perhaps more significantly, since the day we collected them we have never been ratless. Previously we had had a pair, and when they died we waited a few months before getting the next pair. That has never happened since.
Our previous pair, Fred and Ginger, died in September 2001. I had started to get concerned that maybe we weren’t doing the best we could for our rats, and also that we weren’t getting them from the best sources. There were no rescue centres near us, that I knew of, and I ended up online looking for a nearby breeder. I tried emailing a couple, only one of whom replied with the good news that she had a girl for us, and would acquire a second from another breeder she knew. That only meant a 2-hour drive to collect our new girls. A bit different from 10 minutes down the road to the pet shop, but worth it.
Our new girls were a blue and a cinnamon. In non-show speak, of course, this means a grey and a browny-orange. The blue girl endeared herself to me at once by running up my arm onto my shoulder and sticking her nose in my ear. The cinnamon was about a week older but apparently rather shy. We took them home, popped them in their cage, and waited to see what names seemed suitable. I remember we had collected them on a Sunday, and taken the Monday off work. We were pottering around keeping an eye on the cage without being too intrusive. The blue girl was nosy, often up and about, watching what we were doing, but the cinnamon girl got inside a little cardboard box in the bottom of the cage and stayed there. She was being so hidey… what else could we call her but Heidi? It’s been years since I read the book, and the only other name I could remember from it was Clara. So Heidi and Clara it was.
At first, Clara was the confident one. She worked out how the cage door opened – she couldn’t open it herself, but she had a damn good try. She would be first out for a run in the evenings. The cage stood on a small table in the dining room, next to the dresser, and we would fasten the door open for the girls to come out and run round on the dresser. Any dusty corners were soon decorated with little ratty handprints.
Our house at the time had an open living/dining room with two low brick walls supporting a wooden arch between the two areas. We had two sofas at right angles to each other, and when the rats came out for a run we would place the coffee table between the sofas as a bridge. Anything on the table was fair game – on one occasion it was a ballpoint pen which Heidi drageed to the sofa and stashed behind a cushion. When she was looking the other way, we put it back on the table, and a moment later she was dragging it back under the cushion again. This went back and forth for some time before she got bored. Before too long she had worked out that she could get from one sofa to the other, onto the low brick wall, across the bookshelves behind the wall to the dresser and back to the cage. So we always knew when playtime was over – she would happily make her own way back without any assistance.
By this stage she had overtaken Clara as the more confident and outgoing girl. We had had them about a year when Clara had her first illness – a bout of respiratory infection which she appeared to recover from with the help of antibiotics. When the girls were about 18 months old, in July 2003, we moved across the country again, which they seemed to take in their stride. Our new landlords were both fascinated and slightly horrified by the rats but were happy for us to have them in the house.
Less than two months after moving, Clara was suddenly taken ill. We came down one Saturday morning to find her in the hammock, struggling to breathe, clearly dehydrated and unable to move her back legs. We rushed her to the vet’s but there was little they could do, and despite our efforts to keep her going, dripping water into her mouth to rehydrate her, by late afternoon we had no option but to take her back the the emergency vet and say goodbye. We were devastated, but that was nothing compared to Heidi’s reaction. Her friend had gone, and we had taken her away – it was all our fault. She retreated into a nest of shredded paper at the bottom of the cage and refused to come out. If we offered her a treat she would stick her nose out of the nest just far enough to snatch it from us, then vanish again. I emailed the breeder, who put me in touch with a friend of hers near where we now lived – another breeder, with three 8-month-old girls up for adoption. Within a couple of days we had bought a new, bigger cage and arranged to pick up two new friends for Heidi. We had never introduced rats before, but figured that Heidi would accept the new girls quickly rather than be on her own. We were more or less right – she took to Ashley, but there was some tension between her and Jet for several months.
Soon we had a relatively happy community again. Heidi clearly had a new lease of life thanks to her younger cagemates. Just before Christmas 2003 she became ill – on a Sunday morning, so another trip to the emergency vet. She had pyometra, an infection of the uterus, and without surgery would not live for long. At this point she was over 2 years old, usually considered on the old side for even minor surgery, and she needed a spay, which in a rat is not minor. But she had always been healthy, so we decided to take a gamble, thinking if it bought her a few more months it was worth it. In fact it bought her almost a whole year. She outlived Ash, and was finally put to sleep in November 2004, just a couple of weeks shy of 3 years old, the longest-lived of any of our rats to date.
She made up her feud with Jet just a few months after her op – Ash had to have a benign tumour removed, and her absence from the cage pushed Heidi and Jet together. After Ash’s death we adopted two more girls from the same breeder, but had to keep them separate from Jet and Heidi for the last week of Heidi’s life as they tended to pick on her – by this time she had very little mobility due to a condition called Hind Leg Degeneration, which really does what it says. The rat gradually loses strength and mobility in the back legs, meaning that they struggle to move, eat and wash as they can’t support themselves properly. Without allowances being made – soft food, adaptations to the cage – they become weak very quickly. Heidi wasn’t one to give up, however, and she soldiered on despite everything. Eventually it reached a point where she was exhausted but refusing to let go, perhaps because she didn’t want to leave Jet alone, and we had to give her that little bit of help.
Heidi was one of those special ones. Clara was a sweetheart, and very affectionate – much more so than Heidi – but Heidi is the one who left behind the fonder memories, the one whose personality made the bigger impression on us. Every so often you have a rat who is like that, and we’re lucky to have had several. Sandie was the same, so was Jet, and there have been others since. It’s easy to fall into making them the yardstick by which the others are judged, and it’s a shame to do that because the others may seem to fall short, which is unfair on them. But how I would love another Heidi, or Jet, or Lyra, or Zelda. One day.