The charming, alarming gluttony of the pet rat

Once long ago, I was plopped on the sofa watching TV’s campy “Battlestar Galactica” — the one with Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict that face-planted as a “Star Wars” wannabe — crosslegged in my bedtime uniform of briefs and oversized T, when my pet rat Rhonda scampered over and bit me on the scrotum. 

I yowled like a wounded caribou dying in the wilderness. Tears welled. My brother folded over laughing. He guffawed. Indeed, he chortled.

Rhonda, a sleek black and white beauty, just sat there amid the commotion, blinking, wondering: What in the blankety-blank is this all about? Her boyfriend, the big brown bristly Ralph the rat, with the pendulous pink gonads, was probably cowering behind the bookcase, thinking: me next? 

With blind curiosity and razor-sharp incisors, rats will bite anything — computer cords to concrete, earrings to ear lobes — so the question of why she did this is not up for discussion. She’s a rat. She came. She saw. She chomped.

Still: Did it look delicious? Was stuff hanging out of my underwear? No, the rodent bit straight through the cotton fabric to nip my nards. Excuse the unseemly imagery. Hey, I was, like, 10.

That’s what rats do. I once tried to kiss a later pet rat, Becky, on the head and she took a piece out of my upper lip. Like Great White sharks, rats bite first just to see if it’s edible and ask questions later. My nether regions apparently weren’t tasty; Rocky Mountain oysters were not on the menu this evening. I was both offended and relieved.  

So, yes, anything. Rats will bite it, if not necessarily eat it. My many pet rats over time have enjoyed such delicacies as: shirts, expensive jeans, shoes, books, fingers, pens, a tube of Super Glue (which was miraculously empty), drum sticks, plumbing (thanks, Tammy, for the kitchen flood), plants, watches, cockroaches, geckos, toothbrushes, remote controls, and so on. 

Food-wise, they will eat everything, from broccoli and beer to garbanzos and garden snails. The rat’s promiscuous palate is boundless. They have the diet of the gods, or Elvis.

Does this make rats demonic? Or just ravenous? Or really dumb? I say all three, particularly when I recall how Becky bit into the Super Glue tube, which again was somehow empty. (If not, it would have killed her quickly, yet with maximum agony.)

And still my adoration for pet rats — so-called fancy rats, or Rattus norvegicus domestica — is limitless. Despite the odd attack on my innocent childhood flesh and their unsettling Darwinian rapacity, pet rats are cuddly love bugs — clean, clever, clingy and sociable. They eat like Caligula, but still. 

Long ago I wrote a gushy paean to the pet rat, noting how: “They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back.”

It’s all true, though I skimmed the creature’s staggering insatiability. Here I include a photo of Becky sharing pizza with my pal Nicole. She is clearly trying to carry off the entire wedge.

The rat had free rein, skittering right up Nicole’s leg and onto her shoulder for a big bite of pie. Rats are fun like that, looping about the house, exploring, finding mysteries and mischief, always returning to you for warm companionship. Just be sure to rinse any chicken grease from your fingers, unless you want a nasty manicure. And gents — well, you know.

What’s in a name? Lots apparently

“When you’re a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman named LaKiesha, life can get complicated.” 

So begins an excellent CNN.com story that continues: “Strangers burst out laughing when you tell them your name. Puzzled white people ask what your parents were thinking. Black people wonder if you’re trying to play a bad joke.”

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LaKiesha Francis

The story’s headline is “What it’s like to be a white woman named LaKiesha,” and what follows by reporter John Blake is a probing, provocative account of life for a very white LaKiesha Francis in small-town Ohio because of her exotic birth name, and what it means when a white person has a “black” name and a black person has a “white” name. 

“We hear a lot about what are known as ‘black-sounding’ names these days,” Blake writes. “What LaKiesha has discovered is that the names of Americans are as segregated as many of their lives. There are names that seem traditionally reserved for whites only, such as Molly, Tanner and Connor. And names favored by black parents, such as Aliyah, DeShawn and Kiara. … But when you move through life with a name that violates those racial and ethnic boundaries, LaKiesha has found that people will often treat you as an imposter.”

unnamed-file.jpgFurther proof of name prejudice and name politics is this 2006 ABC report on “whitest” and “blackest” names:

“Studies of résumés found that people with black-sounding names are less likely to get callbacks. ABC put 22 pairs of names to the test, posting identical résumés except for the names at the top. The résumés with the white-sounding names were actually downloaded 17 percent more often by job recruiters than those with black-sounding names.”

Toxic and pernicious, let’s call this what it is: flagrant racism. Both of these articles are so powerful and troubling on their own — do click their links — that I have little of substance to add to them. My reactions are as visceral as intellectual, and putting them into words would likely be messy.

Yet I have my own modest story about appropriating a so-called black name. A long time ago I bought a white and ginger pet rat. I named her LaShonda for no greater reasons than I thought it was cute and cheeky. And fitting. Like her, it was adorable, full of spirit.

But then I started second-guessing the name. What would vets and their receptionists think when I brought in a white rodent named LaShonda? When I told friends her name the response was usually laughter. What had I done? Was I making fun of a black name? Or, as I believed, was I giving my pet the coolest name I could think of? (I thought of changing it, but LaShonda mysteriously died in her cage after only three weeks.)

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This is actually Tammy the rat, but she is practically a twin of the late LaShonda.

Would LaShonda have faced the same backlash LaKiesha Francis does? Would she have been treated as an imposter, her job applications put at the bottom of the pile because of her exotic moniker? Would she have been bullied by other rats? Would she have legally changed her name to Carol or Gertrude? Would she have resented me for putting so much social pressure on her?

“It can be exhausting constantly explaining yourself to white people, even though you’re white,” writes Blake. I believe it. LaKiesha and LaShonda “sound” black, but expectations are upended, confusion reigns and mockery and resentment are possible outcomes.  “A name isn’t just a name, according to history and social science,” Blake says. “Give someone the wrong name and it can become a burden.”

Radiance of the pet rat

If you want to see a rat drink beer, click HERE. I’ll wait.

That’s Becky, my long-ago pet rat, whose both alarming and comical omnivorousness knew no bounds. Seriously: zero. 

She’d chomp broccoli, rubber bands, towels, chickpeas, cheese, books, dog food, t-shirts, pizza, gecko lizards and crawly cockroaches. She’d guzzle wine and the above beer. 

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Becky shares pizza with a pal.

She once bit into a small tube of Super Glue. In a miraculous stroke, the glue was so old it had evaporated. The alternate results would have been grisly, even fatal, I’m certain.

Rats, like honey badgers, don’t give a crap.

But they are as smart, sweet, social, endlessly curious and affectionate as any animal, be it a dog, cat, piranha or wildebeest. 

They play and wrestle, come when called, chill on your shoulder, build crafty nests from newspapers and less innocuous sources (like the fluffy guts of your sofa or that pricey box of Q-Tips), play fetch, groom with OCD avidity, swim, delight in belly rubs lying on their back, and so much more. Oh, and hoard. How they hoard. Hide all small valuables. (Becky stole my watch once. It took days to find.)

They’re like super pets that delight, entertain and nourish the heart and soul. As I’ve quoted in these pages before, rats are “cleaner than cats, smarter than dogs.” Whoever said that is just about spot-on and probably lives with a thousand rats and the authorities are onto him or her. A reality TV show is coming soon.

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Becky going head-first into the glass, tippling a fine (cheap) cabernet.

Pets hold spiritual qualities with their power to elevate and expand one’s being. But, like dogs and cats, rats do it with a special, irresistible elan, magnetism and downright adorableness. Still, it’s different. For one, they don’t fart.

With their silky, curling pink paws (tiny starfish), twitching whiskers, itty-bitty tongue and translucent ears, gently nibbling buck teeth and enormous hearts, they’re lovable buggers.

Those thick wiry tails that whip around, made strictly for balance, are something else. The creatures squeak in pleasure and, science has proven, giggle like little girls. When treated right, Prozac they don’t need. (Though they’ll eat that as well.)

Like sharks, rats are exquisitely evolved specimens. Get this: They can collapse parts of their skeleton to squeeze under doors and through tight cracks. I’ve seen it. They are quicksilver with fur, superheroes with a super power, lacking only a cape and a ridiculous moniker.

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Still life: Becky

An image I cannot shake: Becky drinking wine by dipping a paw in the liquid and licking the paw, like a cowboy drinking from the Rio Grande after days without water. (Her boozing was judiciously supervised — I only let her get a nice taste.)

And yet … well, rats will obliterate you. With a life-span of an average of two and a half years, they desert you far too quickly. They become your best friend and then, like a relationship gone bad, they end it, they vanish. They die. Usually it’s a respiratory disease or, more likely, cancer. It rips you to shreds.

Becky’s death was excruciating. I spent a lot of time and money on her, all of it beautifully worth it. Still, she had to go. She’s probably tearing up heaven, nibbling angel tunics, nesting in holy beards, gulping sacred wine. Being a worthy rat, not giving a crap.

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RIP Becky