An interesting news story circulating on the Web this week really caught my attention. The headline read “1000 rats rescued from California Home.” The basic story is that the reality TV show “Hoarders” found over 1,000 of the critters in a man’s California home during filming. The rat colony was a result of one pregnant pet rat being brought home by a child who lived in the house. The rats practically destroyed the interior of the home, chewing through walls and furniture. Neighbors called the show when the animals made their way out of the house and into the surrounding neighborhood.
I was appalled by this story. Not because the idea of 1,000 rats gives me the shivers. Actually, I own two of the lovable pip-squeaks myself. I was disgusted by this story because this is clearly irresponsible pet ownership. I would like to give this family the benefit of the doubt that they were just new to the rat ownership thing and didn’t know how to properly care for them. But hundreds of people in California buy their first rat every year, and as far as I know, none of them have ended up with a colony over 1,000 rats strong.
I think it is important to make the distinction between owning rats and having a rat infestation. All of the rats rescued from this home were fancy rats, the pet variety. They are bred as domestic pets (or sometimes feeders) and they rely on human care to survive. They normally will not survive it in the wild if they are released or if they escape. I have owned several of these little guys over the last few years, and they can make excellent pets.
People usually get squeamish at the idea of a pet rat, but they are actually very clean and lovable. The thing that bothered me the most about this story of 1,000 rats is that it promoted the animals as destructive, dirty and prolific. My two boys, Cocoa and Marshmallow, both see a vet regularly. They are disease free, and Marshmallow was even neutered for health reasons. Rats are considered “exotic” pets and vet care can be expensive and hard to find. This is something every owner should keep in mind before they take on a rat. Marshmallow cost me $5 to adopt from the Stanislaus County Animal Shelter, but I have easily spent hundreds on vet care, cages, toys and food. Owning any pet is expensive, and people need to consider long term costs and care when they adopt a pet.
It is true that rats can breed very quickly. Gestation is between 20 and 25 days and female rats can reproduce as young as 5 to 6 weeks old. However, one of the most basic tenants of rat ownership is that you never, ever let them breed unless you have a plan for the offspring. Clearly this family didn’t bother doing any basic research when their pregnant female had babies. They could easily have prevented this overpopulation by separating the males out at 6 weeks and keeping them in another cage. They can’t mate if they never come in contact with each other. And if you decide to keep every rat, it is a good idea to get the males neutered, because rats are notorious escape artists.
I also have to wonder how this family was feeding 1,000 rats. Two rats can go through about a pound of food a week, if they have good appetites. Was this family actually buying 500 pounds of food a week? This might explain why the rats chewed through the house and made their way outside. Rats will sometimes chew through things out of boredom if they are left unattended. I personally have lost a sweater, a pillow case, and the power cord to my TV to the teeth of rats. But I think these rats may have just been hungry. Proper feeding, a sturdy cage, and chew toys will keep them from ruining the furniture.
Luckily for these rats, a rescue group came to their aid. North Start Rescue, a rat and small animal rescue group, is hoping to neuter and place all 1,000 rats in new homes. For now they are temporarily housed at Andy’s Pet Shop in San Jose. They are seeking donations of food and toys to keep the rats healthy and happy until new homes can be found. The rescue estimates that the rats will be available for adoption on Dec. 5, once their health quarantine is up. Visit http://northstarrescue.org/ for more information about the rescue operation.
To contact Andrea Goodwin, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2003.