This is a re-post of an article I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2011, but with all the ugliness in the world today, I thought it might be a good time to re-post it, and just in time for Thanksgiving!
My friend Joan rescued a rat from a pool drain once. She called to it, “Here sweetie, sweetie,” made kissing noises, and the rat just walked right up to her. This, after others had spent an hour trying to entice the rat with treats.
Joan said it was clear they had a connection. She named it Sweetie, spent hundreds on the vet, the cage and yogurt rat treats. Sweetie was more comfortable than I am in my own home. She grew fat and happy.
I’d watch her smooth gray tail curl around Joan’s neck and I’d cringe. A creature famous for spreading disease and playing filthy vermin in movies wasn’t getting near me.
So imagine my face as I walked in my front door a few months later to find Sweetie in her cage on my floor. My kids ran to me, elated. “Mom, we get to rat-sit Sweetie! Joan’s gone this weekend! How cool — look Mom, see how sweet she is?” They kissed her and held her as my face twisted into the sourest of expressions.
As the weekend wore on, my tolerance was forced to grow. Sweetie never bit, was cleaner than I imagined and made my kids laugh. After she left, the pleading began. “Pleeeease Mom, can we get a rat? She’s more fun than my guinea pig.” The decision was cemented when my husband dashed into my screaming daughter’s room one day to find the guinea pig dangling from my daughter’s arm by its teeth.
The guinea pig was exchanged for a more suitable pet. Our purchase was based on economics and temperament. The potentially vicious guinea pigs were $25. The rats, which reportedly didn’t bite, were two bucks.
The rat we chose was sort of cute; light gray, with pink at the tip of its tail, and white feet with pink bottoms. My daughter named her Cutie.
Cutie forced me to rethink everything. She cleverly figured out mazes my son built. She never bit. Her whiskers tickled my ear when I finally held her on my shoulder. She snuggled in the pocket or hood of my son’s sweatshirt, with her pink nose sticking out, and, even I, finally had to admit she actually was cute.
The tail took some getting used to, but even that didn’t bother me … much.
Unfortunately, she did smell like a rat, even after bathing, and yes, we bathed her. The other downside was, like all rats, she needed to chew. She chewed my son’s bed ruffle when he left her cage too close. She chewed a hole in Joan’s curtains when she was forced to return the rat-sitting favor. She chewed baskets and even took a few bites out of a low-lying pillow sham.
I questioned my sanity at keeping a pet rat when we were trapping Cutie’s distant family members in the attic. But instincts are instincts and we learned to give Cutie a wide berth.
We happily kept her for about two years until one Thanksgiving Day, my son found her near death in her cage. We dropped everything, feeding her with eyedroppers, putting warm towels on her. We held her, cleaned and rearranged her cage. And we prayed for her and gave thanks for her, along with our holiday meal.
She perked up, seemingly comforted by the attention, but she was clearly very ill. We did all we could, holding her for hours and letting her sleep in our arms. We put warm cloths in her cage and hoped she’d snuggle in them. She didn’t. In the morning we’d find her alone in a corner of her cage, cold and near death. Then we’d feed and comfort her again, and she hung on.
It finally occurred to me that maybe she was ready to die, and we were just making it harder. Sometimes when a creature is ready, you just have to let it go. So, as hard as it was for the kids and, surprisingly, for me, we cuddled her, said our goodbyes and had to walk away.
We left her alone to die in whatever dignity a rat in a cage can have, and she did. My daughter and I took turns afterward holding each other and sobbing … over a rat.
We only had Cutie for a year or two. That I could go from hate to love in such a short time surprised even me. My mother hated rats, and her mother hated them, so I learned to hate them, too. I’d never known one until Joan’s, never held one until Cutie, and certainly never expected to love one, yet I did.
And realizing that I did love Cutie on that Thanksgiving Day, leaves me grateful, hopeful and much more optimistic for the world.
This story was my first one published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette on November 11, 2011. My thanks to Gary Rotstein, who took a chance on me and my writing.