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The Year of the Happy Rat

By Suki Falconberg


It is now the Year of the Rat, according to the Chinese astrological calendar. In Thailand, they celebrated by selling roasted rats at street-corner vending carts. Little captives, jumpy in small cages, waited their turn to be roasted. At my local university lab, scientists are celebrating by chopping off tails and whiskers and immersing the animals in boiling water, to teach them ‘learned helplessness.’ Learned hopelessness.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) celebrates in more constructive ways. They suggested that China institute some animal welfare laws that would cover rats. The ones in the U.S. don’t—mice, rats, and birds are not classified as animals under the Animal Welfare Act so as to exempt them from any protection from the routine torture that is their life in labs.

I am celebrating by making special meals for my rescue rats. I have been taking in abandoned ones for two decades—those victims of the pet-shop slave trade–dumped at shelters–or those raised for snake food, or those who have survived the labs.

Rats love avocado and bagels and nuts and fruit and veggies and oatmeal and cookies and almost everything else—they are omnivores with highly sophisticated taste buds. My morning rice-dream strawberry smoothies are their delight. They scarf down pieces of my evening vegan blueberry muffin with vegan butter and organic jam.

I am also happy to say that I was born in the year of the rat. The rat has always been my totem animal. Resourceful and clever is the rat and I have my own rat goddess, Rodentia: I pray to her to protect me, guide me, comfort me.

Two of her incarnations are sitting on my desk right now, watching me write this article: Nigel and Fiona.

It is hard to know where to start when praising the virtues of rats. Affectionate, smart, companionable. As good as dogs and you can even take them for walks—not on a lead, but on your shoulder. Curious about the whole world, a rat will ride there, whiskers waving inquisitively, eyes bright and excited, soaking in all the scents of newness.

I marvel at the way they move. Fiona is my quicksilver baby. Sometimes she’s part squirrel, disappearing with a silken ripple around the corners; sometimes she is part lizard, streaking along close to the floor. At other times, she’ll bounce and bound across the room like a runaway balloon, sheer happy beautiful joy in motion. Even the finest human dancer cannot move with such effortless grace.

Do they have names? Personalities? Can you tell them apart? Are you going to feed them to your snake? These are the questions I am asked most frequently. To take the last one first, I don’t have a snake. If there were no snakes help in captive slavery, in small glass cases, then there will be no need to feed them rats.

Personalities, spirits, souls–rats come with all the usual equipment of other living creatures.

Nigel likes to imitate eagles. He will perch on the edge of the desk and lean out, as if about to take flight. He also tends to worry about the problems of this sad planet. I catch him with a meditative look in his eye, a crinkle on his forehead, as if to say, "Hold on a minute, give me some time, I’ll figure out how to solve the woes of the world."

Fiona bullies Nigel, but he is patient.

Up until a couple of months ago, Fiona and Nigel had another companion, Berry, very timid, weak, with a helpless gentleness that made me protective of him. He came to me sick and never got much better. Quiet and undemanding, he spent most of his short life wrapped up in one of the baby blankets I give my rats for bedding. Tucked away, just his nose and a bit of whisker showing, he looked like a Berry burrito.

He died on a cold, windy, bright day, with grey-and-blue clouds scurrying across the mountains where I live. I guess it was better for him to be taken from me in winter, rather than in spring, when life is full of promise.

People disappoint us and life is often violent and full of pain. My rats are my "necessary angels" of comfort.