It’s the Chinese Year of the Rat. It was also the Year of the Rat when a little rat named Betsy was born.
Let me tell you about her.
I was in a pet supply store buying food for a rescued field mouse I called Stinky (for good reason) when I saw a cage of young rats. They intrigued me, and after the clerk let me hold one of them, I went straight home where my husband and I built a roomy cage, placing it next to Stinky’s cage in the kitchen. The next day, I went back to the store and bought a “hooded” rat. (Hooded rats are marked like little pinto ponies.) She was sweet and shy, and so I named her Betsy, which seemed to match.
Pet rats are Norway rats, not the Black rats suspected of causing the Black Death.
Betsy soon settled into her new home, roaming free in the kitchen where the doorway was blocked to limit her innate curiosity, keeping her from migrating far afield. Instead of getting lost in the distant corners of the house, she’d spend a half hour or more exploring behind the refrigerator. I’ve no idea what fascinated her back there, but if I called her, she’d come out, climb my pant leg and then up onto my shoulder where she could snuggle and watch things from a decent vantage point.
19th century Royal Rat Catcher, Jack Black, bred differently colored rats, some of which he kept for himself, selling others as pets. It was the beginning of their popularity.
If she wasn’t in a refrigerator sort of mood, Betsy would walk around the top edge of her cage, and from there, onto the wire mesh top of Stinky’s cage. She’d watch the mouse intently, but if Stinky was boring her, she’d move around, making noise, scaring the mouse into his little house, which was even more boring. She always knew how to get on top of the mouse cage but wasn’t sure about getting back off, and so I’d have to pick her up and place her on the floor so she could find more interesting things to do.
Natural competitors for food, rats aren’t especially fond of mice.
Raised in New York City where rats strike horror into residents, my mother thought I was out of my mind to take in and care for such a creature—until she met Betsy. Soon enough, she was bringing little rat treats—a few berries or nuts or a piece of cookie for the little girl. Before long, she was pleased to have Betsy sit in her lap. A city girl fancying a rat? She was as astonished as I.
One day, thinking Betsy needed something new in her life, we brought her outside and set her down in the grass. She stayed right where we placed her, the new smells, the feel of the grass, the bird songs turning her into a small rat statue. But then a cricket let out an enormous chirp, and Betsy took off as fast as she could, which wasn’t very fast, given the plump behind she had to haul around. My husband went after her, caught her, and brought her to me on the back steps, placing her in my lap. She wouldn’t budge, wouldn’t do anything but lean against me with a little rat prayer to keep her safe from scary stuff. Vicious rat? No. Vicious cricket.
I’ve always loved reading in bed, and so did Betsy. She had her own warm quilt she burrowed beneath, snuggling in and dreaming rat dreams, perhaps of being a wild, adventurous rat. It’s easy to dream such dreams when you’re safely tucked in and warm.
Pet rats live from 18 to 36 months
One Christmas Eve, my mother and I sat in the kitchen taking turns holding Betsy, comforting her. We knew her time was near, and after a few hours, she died in the warmth of my arms. Yes, I cried. For a rat.
If you love rats or think it’s possible to love them, this book might put you on the right path:
Search as I might, I couldn’t find any adult fiction depicting rats in a good light, but there’s certainly a plethora of them for young people. Here are a few hand-picked examples: