“At the heart of ratcism is the religious assertion that God made a creative mistake when He brought some critters into being.” – Friedrich Otto Hertz’s rat
Most people dislike rats. For some, it’s the misplaced belief that today’s domestic rats are the same critters that spread the Bubonic Plague throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. Of course, this is absurd. Any historian worth his salt – like Mel Gibson, for example – will tell you that there was no Bubonic Plague, just like there was no Holocaust or 1969 moon landing. And even if there was a Plague – and I’m not saying there was – the poor rats were mere pawns manipulated by the true perpetrators: fleas, who used the rats as a form of mass rapid transit with a conveniently-attached dining car.
For others, it’s the fear that rats will chew off their babies faces while they sleep. To those people, I say, “Wipe the friggin’ jelly off your kid’s mouth before putting them to bed.” And why do you have wild rats scurrying through your home in the first place? Have you never heard of Truly Nolan? Could it be that you live in a Hoarders-worthy pigsty and the stacks of newspaper that form the interior walls of your home provide perfect nesting material for vermin? In that case, rats are the least of your worries. Still, others get the willies just looking at a rat’s long, rather scaly tail – and understandable phobia considering how many deaths are caused every year by vicious rat tail thrashings that can leave a person’s skin looking like a slave’s back in Roots.
In first grade, my parents bought me a gerbil. Its name escapes me, but it’s demise will be forever ingrained in my memory as one of the most horrifying moments of my young life. This is what happens when your parents entrust the animal care in your home to a person who will eventually become an infamous cat burglar. As our pet sitter was too occupied with stealing jewels from stately Miami mansions to remember to close the gerbil cage properly, we returned from our vacation to discover Whatever-Its-Name-Was in a bloody, mutilated mess – and our cat, Pumpkin, well fed.
In sixth grade I again took a chance with rodents, adopting an albino mouse with red eyes against my parents wishes. What can I say? Ratcism against white mice is just as pervasive as it is against black mice. Skittish, it preferred hiding and spending time alone to socializing with humans. Late at night, I would find it reading comic books or performing complicated math equations on the aquarium glass. I named it Snowflake and promptly forgot about it.
In college, I purchased two gerbils: Jules and Sylvian, the latter named after the lead singer of my favorite band, Japan. Both were biters and really should have ended any interest I had in small, furry creatures that were unable to purr. To add further insult to injury, Sylvian refused to learn to play guitar and rejected the spiffy stage costumes I hand-sewed for him.
Despite my lackluster experiences with rodents, I adopted my first rat in 1999 and named him Scout, after Demi Moore surreptitiously stole that name right out of my future baby book – emaciated, Botoxed, cougar bitch that she is. Mr. Scout About – as he soon was known – was a delightful change from the socially-awkward, skin-chomping vermin of my past. Outgoing and interested in all-things-human, Mr. Scout About loved to ride on my shoulder as I vacuumed and managed to win over my pet-resistant grandmother, who appreciated the fact that he was always willing to eat his fruit and vegetables.
“Why aren’t you eating your fruit?” she would ask when I joined her for breakfast on Sundays.
Sighing, I’d reply, “Me Ma, you know I don’t like pineapple and oranges. I have texture issues.”
“Mr. Scout About eats all his pineapple,” she’d retort. “He doesn’t have texture issues.” Damn that suck up rat!
Black and white like a Holstein, Mr. Scout About was an impressive specimen with testicles the size of Everlasting Gobstoppers. When he passed away at the ripe old age of four, I became despondent and it took many years for me to muster up the courage to again invest my love and attention in an animal whose typical life span is shorter than that of a boy band.
After I’d met my future hubby and we’d settled into our first place together, I broke the news to him. “I’m going to get another rat.” The announcement thudded heavily on the floor between us like a four lead bricks, an anvil and a two ton Acme safe. It took a couple of hours to convince him, but Hubby finally came around while he was packing his bags and I’d chained myself to his right leg like an Occupy protester. “Trust me!” I’d whined. “You’ll love having a rat. They’re so smart and cute and just having one around makes me feel like giving blow jobs several times a day.”
Over the course of the next few years, Hubby and I would own several rats – or ratties, as rat afficionados like to call them. Though each rattie was special to us in her own way, Gwynnie claimed our hearts forever. A Dumbo rat, her ears were large and set on the sides of her head like an elephant. Her silky brown fur was reminiscent of a particularly nice mink coat – not that I would ever think of making a coat out of the skins of rats. They’re way too small. Maybe a purse, though.
On the petite side, Guinevere Cornflower Longshanks won over the most ardent rat-cists with her curious nature and habit of nuzzling her muzzle against your neck. As she was also talented at containing her poo for long periods of time, Gwynnie often accompanied us on our outings around town, including visits to restaurants that allowed pets. Surprisingly, no one ever complained about Gwynnie’s presence as we sipped wine or ate dinner at an outside table. A few people would shudder as they walked by, but many asked if they could pet her or have their photo taken with her.
That’s not to say that her presence was always appreciated.
One morning, Hubby and I had grabbed breakfast at a popular downtown restaurant, accompanied by Gwynnie who remained in her faux-Chanel, pink and black quilted carrier bag throughout the meal since we ate indoors. Afterwards, Hubby took off in one direction to run an errand and I headed to my car. As I exited the restaurant, I removed Gwynnie from her carrier bag, placed her on my shoulder and proceeded down the sidewalk. As I turned the corner, I passed a dark-haired woman standing alone, draped in a blindingly-loud, floral-printed dress and holding a small infant. As any person who walks the streets with an exotic animal will tell you, it’s not unusual for passersby to react. Particularly if you pass close to someone who has an unjustified and phobic fear of your particular species of pet.
However, as I passed the woman, she said nothing. Ten seconds later, she still said nothing. Fifteen seconds later. Nada. By now, I’m half a block away from her. Twenty seconds later a hear a piercing scream followed by, “It’s a rat. She’s got a rat!” I stopped and looked over my shoulder at the woman. She’d gone into hysterics. “Oh, my Gawd!” she screeched, pointing at me as she clutched her child protectively. For the next half a minute, Crazy Lady continued to scream to everyone around her and in the Sarasota/Bradenton metropolitan area that there was a rat somewhere in my general vicinity. It’s interesting to note that when I passed her earlier, she’d apparently been waiting alone for friends who were in the restaurant. Now that they were standing nearby on the sidewalk, she had an audience. And she was suddenly very, very afraid.
I have a strict policy against attempting to engage hysterical wackadoos in rational conversation, so I turned back around and continued walking away from her. The fact that the supposed threat was receding further and further from her location did nothing to muffle her crude Jersey-accented cries that the sky was falling and that the appearance of a rat must be signaling the coming Apocalypse.
In The Expression of the Emotionsin Man and Animals, Darwin argued that the “fight or flight” reaction in animals demonstrates a heightened ability to react to a threat, and concluded that the use of emotion to prepare to either fight or flee gives those animals a physical advantage over others. However, Darwin didn’t examine the animal who reacts to an event that is, in fact, not a threat. Had I been walking towards Crazy Jersey Lady, then it would have made sense for her to react emotionally and to bare her teeth and shriek in preparation for a fight. Clearly, she wasn’t the fleeing type. However, as I was walking away from Crazy Jersey Lady and was over half way down a long block when she finally reacted, I have to assume one of five things:
1) Crazy Lady had deposited another infant – this one completely unprotected and covered in honey – ahead of me on the sidewalk;
2) Crazy Lady’s understanding of ”fight or flight” involves a physical scuffle with other Delta passengers in order to determine who gets to use their Frequent Flyer Miles to upgrade to First Class;
3) Crazy Lady had no depth perception;
4) Crazy Lady thought that Gwynnie was the reincarnation of her former husband – whom she had murdered – and feared he was now seeking vengeance on both her soul and her jugular; or
3) Crazy Lady was suffering from histrionic personality disorder – a condition in which people afflicted behave in an emotional or overly-dramatic manner in order to attract attention to themselves.
Having known a few people who suffer from the latter, I have little tolerance for this kind of behavior. In fact, it’s at times like these that I wish a giant dinosaur would appear from nowhere and simply gobble the shrieking nitwit up in one bite. However, as this was not an option, I stopped again, whirled around and shouted, “Hey, I didn’t say a word about that ugly dress you’re wearing!”
Staring at me open-mouthed for a moment, the woman finally clamped her lips togther and I resumed my stroll to my car.
Upon relating the tale to Hubby later that afternoon, he suggested that I should have replied, “Hey, I didn’t say anything about that monkey you’re holding.”
“But it wasn’t the baby’s fault that her mother was a muumuu-wearing lunatic,” I argued. “She didn’t cry or raise a stink. And she was a cute little monkey to boot.”
Moreover, a parent’s phobias are not necessarily passed down to their young. My mother calls in a SWAT team if a Daddy Long Legs wanders over her threshold. If a roach crosses her path, she won’t hesitate to crush it beneath her foot. However, the presence of two extra legs and spinneret glands render her completely immobilized. I realize that in the comic book world, Spider Man’s web-shooting abilities are considered a super power, of sorts – but he can’t compete with real superheroes. Let’s face it, the only lamer super hero is Aqua Man. Unlike my mother, I possess no such fears of arachnids, though I’m not necessarily a fan. I admit to a fantasy in which I remove all of a spider’s legs and then let it just sit there – give it some time to think about its reputation and all the flies it has sucked dry in its lifetime.
Let’s face it. Spiders and rats share a similar reputation. They’re believed to be sneaky. Both have beady eyes – though spiders have multiple sets of them – and fangs. We like to think that neither of them are up to any good – and with spiders, that’s probably true. Rats, on the other hand, are the most intelligent and social of domestic rodents and make the best pets. A recent study has confirmed that rats even feel empathy and express altruism for other rats – a trait previously thought to belong only to humans. In fact, Scientific American reports that rats broke their buds out of cages even though it meant sharing chocolate chips with them. Chocolate chips, people! No woman on this planet suffering from PMS would bother rescuing their screaming infant from the path of an oncoming train if a bag of Hershey’s Kisses was waved in front of her nose. Rat are seriously unselfish creatures.
Unlike gerbils and hamsters who spent their nights dreaming of finger burgers, rats aren’t biters. Unlike cats, their urine barely smells, doesn’t stain, and can be used to mask your own personal BO. What’s that smell? Oh, it’s not my armpits; Fifi just had a little accident on my shoulder. And unlike children, they eat their veggies and fruit without complaint and have little to no interest in owning an Xbox, iPad, sneakers, or 17 shades of nail polish. They also won’t force you into taking them to see Madagascar 9.
And if you’re lucky, some lubberly, beef-witted giglet will freak out at the sight of your rattie, you’ll film it, post it on YouTube and it will go viral. Like this video:
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