I have a complex relationship with rats.
Let me explain. For most of my early years the only image of a rat I’d come across was that of Templeton from Charlotte’s Web, a fairly likable fellow, if a bit of a glutton.
I was raised in the suburbs, in a house built in the 1970s, occasionally accessed by a mouse or two, but nothing remotely so threatening as a rat.
The times, oh how they have a changed.
Now navigating my twenties in an at-least-ninety-year-old apartment closer to the city, I’ve got myself a rat story.
It all started with a broken pipe. Our maintenance man, upon fixing said pipe, left a gaping hole in the ceiling of our bathroom. Fine. Later in the week, it would be fixed.
It was evening. Nearly nine o'clock. Dark outside and quiet. I was in the bathroom, attending to business as usual, when I heard a familiar scuttling inside of the wall behind the toilet. I’d heard this sound before, as had my roommate. Not everyday, but occasionally. We’d always attributed it to squirrels scaling the brick of the building. Nope. We were wrong.
The scampering sounds suddenly paused. At that moment, I looked up and there, from within the hole in our bathroom ceiling a large rat gazed down at me. We had a moment, the rat and I. We looked at one another. Sized each other up. In the brief instance of this occasion the rat seemed to be thinking “well, this is different.” I merely thought, “well, that ain’t no squirrel.” It lasted mere seconds. No sooner had these thoughts escaped our minds when the rat scuttled away into the depths of the walls and I fled the bathroom, yelling all crazy like, eventually resorting to duck taping a baking sheet over the hole so I could settle down for the night.
The next morning I woke up, went to work and took care of rats.
Like I said, it’s a complex relationship.
I have killed rats. Yup. With my bare hands. I think rats are the only mammals I’ve ever simply killed. It is one of the more traumatic moments in my life and certainly the worst part of my job. We kill rats at the Zoo to feed birds of prey, snakes and a sandcat. I hate killing rats, but Mufasa said it best–tis the Circle of Life.
I also gut rats. In order to train the Great Horned Owls at the Zoo we need little bits of rat to use as an immediate reward. The owls love rats, but they don’t like the guts. Therefore, many of my days begin with a rat in one hand, scissors in the other and a grotesque little surgery full of unpleasantries.
On the other hand, I once trained rats. There were six of them, all sisters. They were called “The Rainbow Rats” named for all the colors in the rainbow—Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple and Violet. I trained them to run on ropes and through an obstacle course, spending hours getting them used to the clicker bridge and rewarding them with seeds and corn.
Three years into their lives, as is universal truth in rat world, these rats began to grow old and sick and through this time I helped to nurse them and care for them and make the transition from one life to the next easier on them. They had black and white spotted coats and soft noises with long whiskers and curious, bright eyes. I truly cared for these rats.
And so, I have a complex relationship with rats.
They exist, breeding rapidly, living short, little lives as a constant, renewable food source for a plethora of creatures. Yet they are bright, food motivated, easily trained, sociable creatures. And, wow, can they create a fabulous nest.
I have never found rat feces within my apartment, never discovered my cereal having been gnawed on, never seen anything mysteriously chewed to bits.
As I reminisce about sitting on my toilet looking up at that rat, I remember its pink nose. Just like my Rainbow Girls.
That rat scuttled back into its little world within the walls of my apartment and I returned to my usual routine, right there on the other side.
And you know, I have a complex relationship with rats. But we both seem to be getting by just fine.