Monday, April 11, 2011

A Few Words on the Life of a Rat

He came to me on a spring day not unlike today. I already owned two adult male rats, Rex and Vlad, and as Rex was elderly I had thought it best to get a third to keep Vlad company. I had ordered an adult male, and imagine my surprise when I opened the box and a tiny baby rat poked his curly head up at me.

I almost didn't take him. I worried Rex and Vlad, two giants, would be rough with the little guy. When I reached my finger in to stroke his head, he took it in his two paws and happily licked me hello. Hey, who could resist? And when Rex and Vlad encountered him at home, they were just as charmed. They would wrestle the heck out of each other, but had only cuddles and the occasional lick to offer this tiny newcomer.

The new baby rat and myself, in the spring of 2008.
From top to bottom, Vlad, Rex, and the new baby spooning.

You can really see just how tiny he was compared to
the fully grown Rex.
I named him Atticus, after Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. He was covered in a sparse and curling sort of grey and white fuzz, and went prematurely bald as he matured into a young adult. He was a friendly, gentle creature from the start. When Rex, a grumpy curmudgeon of a rat, faded in his old age it was Atticus who kept him company and brought him cheerios from the morning bowl of goodies. He stayed by old Rex to the end, though the cage now had other young rats he could have been playing with.

An elderly Rex kept company by a loyal Atticus.

Atticus loved people, and he was the first to greet anyone.
From left to right, Sherlock, Atticus, and Gabe.
He was the first to greet everyone who came to the cage door, be it rodent or human. The rodents he would investigate with a few friendly sniffs and warm nudges, the humans he would greet as he first greeted me. He'd grasp their finger firmly in both paws, and lick the fingertip for a few moments. For a rat he had a good, sturdy handshake.

He outlived Vlad and Rex, and came to share his cage with a pair of brothers, Gabriel and Sherlock. Each had sleeky, shiny coats, and folks would go to pet them over the balding, fuzzy, pink skinned Atticus. However, Gabe was skittish and Sherlock was a nibbler. Eventually Atticus won everyone over with his eager reach, and that tiny embrace he locked onto your finger. He was a people rat. When he was taken out of the cage Atticus didn't roam far. He was content to sit in a lap and relax. He examined beards. He licked cheeks.

Atticus stepping onto my face about two years ago.
When a troublesome Siamese kitten came to live with us, Atticus's infinite patience was tested. And while Sherlock gave the explorer-kitten a good chomp on the paw, Atticus was content to let the kitten smell his whiskers from behind the bars. He would sniff at the kitten as well, and as Elvis grew into a cat the two shared many evenings facing each other peacefully, blinking in comfortable curiosity at one another.

Elvis visiting with Atticus.
Elvis and Atticus.

Atticus had as much patience when it came to other rats. When Sherlock sadly passed from a brain tumor, Gabe and Atticus were left as two beta males--and neither ever established dominance. They just made a life together in ease, sharing food and bedding without squabbles. Gabe was a nervous, shy rodent, and Atticus never took advantage.
Atticus relaxing with Ryan last summer.

When Atticus was two years old, we all drove cross country to live in Washington. I had worried he might be stressed from the strain of the trip--and I could not have been more mistaken. From his cage Atticus stuck his little head in the direction of the open car window like a tiny dog, sucking in the fresh air of foreign places. Ryan fed him cheezits and grapes, many of which he handed over to Gabe. The two sunbathed in the car during the day and dined on scraps of hotel room food at night. Elvis on the other hand shook the first two days, and when he was allowed to roam he would stick to the side of the rat cage where his tiny enemies had turned into hometown allies.

A blurry photo of an elderly Atticus comforting a sick
kitten named Beatrix that Ryan and I took in last
Autumn who had F.I.P. Though instinctively Atticus
must have known the dangers of cats, his sweetness
came first. She loved him, and he was a great friend
to Beatrix during her short life.
Atticus at the time had been my only rat purchased from a breeder, and he outlived many of his pet store bought cage mates. Pet store rats are overbred and prone to respiratory problems and tumors. He lived beyond Vlad, Rex,  Sherlock, Gabriel, and Lionel. This spring he was three years old, ancient for a rat. He was sharing a cage with Ulysses (the shy and wheezy brother of the late Lionel) and Virgil, (a spry young fellow bought from a wonderful breeder). His fur was thinner than ever, his bones delicately pushed against his skin--like any old man, he was frail. Age had weakened his hind legs, but he still dragged himself about to eat and socialize. He'd still grab my finger, now with only one paw as the other he needed on the floor to steady himself. He had greeted Virgil's arrival kindly, and endured the young punk's over eager hopping and climbing. He left the dominance wrestling to Ulysses and the kid, he'd never been one to boss anyone around. And he spent his afternoons snoozing in the sunlight or sniffing the whiskers of the curious kitten poking his nose into the cage, Puck. The past week he had been slowing down, sleeping more and more. Last night after I helped him to some water, I stroked his head for a few moments. He lifted it shakily and licked my finger before settling down for the night.

Atticus and I relaxing on the couch one evening a few weeks ago.

This morning we woke up to find Atticus had passed away in his sleep. He was on his tummy, his eyes were closed peacefully. A gentle end for a gentle creature. We wrapped him in white fleece, and had a hard time saying good bye. He had come to me a baby, and in a short time left older than I'll be in forty years. My little old man. Elvis watched us take him from the cage in alarm. A little while later Elvis crawled under Ryan's legs on the couch and stayed hidden there, something he never does. He heaved deep sighs, and slow blinks. He was sulking. We were too. The three of us laid quietly on the couch a long time, as Puck and Virgil played through the cage beside us like another young rat and kitten did years before.

I raised Atticus from a baby into an adult, and can take no credit for his good behavior and disposition. He brought those with him in that little box three springs ago. He won over everyone who met him: rat, human, and cat alike. He was good. Simply said, he was good. Rat or not, he was a being worth a few written words of admiration on his exceptional kindness and good nature.

I like to think when he met St. Peter this morning, he took his finger in his paws and licked hello. A young rat again, a little stronger, a little fuzzier, but the sweetest all the same.


  1. That was wonderful, Georgia. It's always rough when a pet passes away, but from the sound of it you gave him the best life he could possibly dream, and he made every attempt to return the favor by enriching yours.

    Thanks for sharing this. :)

  2. Aww, I'm so sorry, but it definitely sounds like he had a wonderful life with a loving and compassionate family. I adopted a couple of rats several years ago and loved them very much. They always seemed very canine to me: sociable, affectionate, and loyal. It is always so hard when you lose a little creature you love so dearly, but I've always thought they go to heaven, and I'm sure St. Peter enjoyed finally meeting him in person. Sometimes I think the most special and important "people" we meet are animals :)

  3. Thank you Matt and Mary! He was a special guy for certain.

    Mary I find them very canine as well. I often describe having pet rats as "they're like tiny dogs who clean themselves like cats." All of our boys know their names and come individually when called.

    I like what you said at the end there too, :) Some of the finest "people" I've known have been animals.


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