One small step for Rat-kind: Adventures in rodent rescue and adoption
This one is for all my rat-lovers out there.
I don’t have to tell you that rodents, rats in particular, get a terrible reputation. They’re considered sneaky, aggressive, vermin, and this is what justifies what gets them killed without second thought. They were blamed for the bubonic plague, get picked on plenty for their naked tails, and let’s face it: Templeton was a total dick in Charlotte’s Web. They’re a species of animal who are surrounded by misconceptions and unkind thoughts, and it’s high time we take a step back and reconsider the rat.
In college, newly vegetarian (it would be a little while before I realized the problems with the diet) and wanting to practice what I was preaching in terms of being kind to animals, I started to explore my options for what kind of animal I could host in my dorm room at the University of Mary Washington. Mind you, this was very much against the rules, and I wasn’t one of those assholes who would adopt a kitten and keep it confined to a small space, only to be discovered by an RA when the neighbors got sneezy. After meeting a few young women around campus who had rat companions of their own, I decided that I too, wanted to be a “rat girl” and make a small friend.
How does one go about this without visiting the pet store? Small-scale animal liberation. Seriously. A friend of mine from my theater class, K, was dating a psychology student, and the program had just wrapped up an experiment involving behavior that included the use of live rats. Unfortunately, even though the experiments were dependent upon the students bonding with their assigned rats to teach them tricks or encourage certain behaviors, the rats were to be “disposed of” at the end of the semester. In most labs (if not all), this involves a small gas chamber for mass death. The alternative was shipping them off to another lab, where the same fate awaited. The idea of these beings being considered so unimportant devastated me. So on a warm night in September, my friend and I snuck down to the basement of the UMW psychology building, and had our first run-in with freeing an animal.
Okay… so it wasn’t that extreme at all. Since K’s girlfriend had been in the class, all we had to do was punch in a code to get inside the door. I didn’t even wear a balaclava! I carried a bag filled with towels to smuggle “Jellybean” back to my room, where her new life of running around on my bed and living in a proper rat house awaited her. The cages in the lab were small and cramped, and if you’ve ever seen a rat’s hands and feet, you know they look and operate much like a human hand. There was no way for them to relax their appendages, as they constantly had to grip the wire bottoms of their cages. How sad and strange is it that this program was happening at my school in the first place? What cause did it even serve to advance, that couldn’t have been easily researched in any established psychology textbook on behavior?
After look at these famous rats for name inspiration, Jellybean was renamed Bellatrix, and for two and a half years, she was my ultimate partner in crime. She came with me everywhere – choir practice, out on Ball Circle, into my classes with me – all while hanging out on my shoulder or in the pouch of my sweater, kangaroo style. Nothing was sweeter than when she would burrow in my hood and nibble at my ears while I walked around campus. My mother was repulsed by her and infuriated by my act of defiance at first, but when Bella eventually passed, it was good ol’ mom who drove up from my hometown with a pretty cigar box to bury her in. Bella came with me to summer camp, where I ran programming in southern Virginia about animal science, and spoke openly to my campers about how I felt about animals. Naturally, many of these kids were terrified of Bella (and her second rescue buddy, Clementine), but warmed up to her over the course of the weeks. They even argued over their chances to snuggle her when I would take the rats out to play on the rec field.
Like all rats, Bella was extremely social. She was bright and mischievous, and learned a few simple commands with the aid of a salty snack-treat. She ran around my room, hoarding snacks that she discovered dropped behind furniture, and kept a small pile of treasures underneath my desk. Bella raced around the floors and up the bedposts, eventually exhausting herself in the evenings, more than happy to snuggle up in my lap while I did homework and fall asleep. She was the absolute coolest and changed so many people’s minds about a very hated species in her short life.
Bella developed a mammary tumor in the last few months of her life. This is typical for a white lab rat, as they are bred for short, violent lives, and not meant to thrive. It’s a common genetic problem that can be fixed with surgery, but considering the trauma involved, the pain of surgery, and the fact that it might only buy her a few more months, I opted to let her live out her life peacefully as she ignored the bulbous tumor and continued to run, jump, and climb. I came home from working one evening, and she was gone.
I know people who love rats just as much as I do, and go to fancy rat breeders (yes, those exist) to purchase their companions. The idea is that a breeder rat is both prettier in appearance and less likely to develop the same illnesses as their laboratory counterparts, but with only a slightly longer life expectancy. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea of breeding rats, just as I would be with cats and dogs. There’s a huge number of rats you can adopt, and you don’t even have to break into a psychology building! Rescues are available all over North America, and all it takes is a quick internet search to find a good adoption resource.
As for Bella’s counterparts in the lab, the ghastly train-and-kill experimentation continued. Shortly after I rescued Bella, I sent an e-mail to the head of the department at the time (I’ve been waiting years to say this, but FUCK YOU, DEBRA) pleading with her to at the very least let me set up an adoption program for the soon to be killed rodents. Her response was to leave my e-mail ignored, and send one of the heads of housing to my room in a surprise raid to try and steal harmless Bella away from me- and hand her off to animal control. With the help of my rogue RA, Bella spent the night hidden in her cage in my RA’s bedroom when the head of housing came back on the second night to ensure I had “gotten rid of that rat.” These events spoke volumes to me as to how flippantly animals were treated in a program that exploited them for no legitimate purpose.
I’m not sure I ever expected Bella to be such a catalyst for change in my life. Watching fearful children and adults cuddle her for the first time showed me how people can be changed with compassionate animal rights education and honest conversation. Having a small friend snoozing in my hood while I walked through an alienating college campus was a great comfort to be during a mentally difficult time. I hope, and I hope often, that testing programs realize the weight of the pain they are inflicting upon non-human animals, and reconsider the use of them at all.
And more than anything else, I hope that wherever Bella is, there are lots and lots of saltines.