Animal Scene - - ANI MYTH BUSTING - Text by CHAR­LENE BO­BIS

Rats de­serve our love and care too!” It’s the ral­ly­ing cry of rat keeper Rat­tus Yu, whose per­sonal ad­vo­cacy for the hum­ble, “or­di­nary” rat is chang­ing per­cep­tions about what was once com­monly con­sid­ered ver­min. And yes, she’s re­fer­ring to the rats you see scur­ry­ing about in garbage dumps and sew­ers― sci­en­tif­i­cally known as Rat­tus norvegi­cus. “Why?” is likely to be the first ques­tion on most minds. Why not the cuter white rat sold in pet stores, or pinto mice, or some­thing cuter and “cleaner”?

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween the white rats sold in pet stores from Rat­tus norvegi­cus? Does Rat­tus norvegi­cus make a bet­ter pet than those white rats?

White rats are ac­tu­ally the al­bino ver­sions of Rat­tus norvegi­cus! “Ba­si­cally, noth­ing sets them apart in terms of phys­i­ol­ogy. Just to set things straight, ev­ery pet rat, lab rat, or wild rat you see be­long to the species of brown rats, whose sci­en­tific name is Rat­tus norvegi­cus,” Rat­tus ex­plains.

Yu, who is known online as “Lady Rat­tus,” laughs and shares that her path to­wards be­com­ing a rat ad­vo­cate was not that of a typ­i­cal pet lover. “I was rat-pho­bic up un­til I be­gan this jour­ney with them. I saw a hooded rat in a pet shop late in De­cem­ber 2008, and my fear of them turned into cu­rios­ity and awe.” She was so fas­ci­nated by it, she be­gan dream­ing of the rat, and de­spite know­ing that there would be is­sues re­gard­ing her keep­ing a rat, “I went back to the pet shop with zeal­ous de­ter­mi­na­tion, what­ever any­one else would say about them. Pinaglaban ko ta­laga sila (I fought for them).” Three months later, her fear of rats was gone, “…thanks to their friendly na­ture and tire­less re­search about what’s fact and myth about them.” Per­haps the next ques­tion on any­one’s mind would be, did she try to do­mes­ti­cate wild rats? “I tried to cap­ture adult wild rats be­fore out of awe and des­per­a­tion. Their coats were very beau­ti­ful, and back in 2009 you never see that coat color or mark­ing in the trade. Although some were caught, most of them died of stress or never re­ally ad­justed well to me or their room­mates, so I even­tu­ally let them go and stopped catch­ing them,” she says.

Does this mean you can’t get wild rats as pets?

You can do­mes­ti­cate wild rats if you catch them as ‘pinkies’ or baby rats. “There were only two in­stances that I found pinkie rats, both of whom grew up well in cap­tiv­ity, weeks be­fore the On­doy (2009 typhoon), and weeks be­fore the Haba­gat (2012 heavy down­pour). Catch­ing pinkies is a rare op­por­tu­nity, and if you do get some, it would be chal­leng­ing to raise them if you can’t find a sur­ro­gate mother rat.”

Rat­tus ad­mits that it’s an up­hill fight when it comes to ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about rats. Hear­ing peo­ple call­ing them ‘ver­min’ and ‘stupid’ frus­trated and an­gered her at first―but then she hit on the idea of putting up a group ded­i­cated to rats as pets. “The goal of Pet Rats Philip­pines is very sim­ple: to ed­u­cate the public about rats as won­der­ful pets, and (that) they de­serve our love and care too,” she de­clares. She even started a ca­reer thanks to her pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cacy: “At that time, no­body was re­ally pay­ing any at­ten­tion to them; there were very few of us who proac­tively cham­pi­oned these furry an­gels. In or­der to get peo­ple to love them and also to ed­u­cate peo­ple about them, I also cre­ated a blog―and this was the be­gin­ning of my blog­ging ca­reer in­dyrat­tus. com, which now also cov­ers beauty, food, and mu­sic.” Her first or­der of busi­ness was to cor­rect mis­con­cep­tions about rats: that they were tem­per­a­men­tal and could bear grudges, among oth­ers. “The most com­mon mis­con­cep­tion we hear about them is about (how they are the main car­ri­ers of) ra­bies or lep­tospiro­sis. Those are not in­nate dis­eases and pet rats are not ex­posed to con­tam­i­nated sources (of the dis­eases) so there’s re­ally no health risk…(pet rats are) to­tally safe, even when they lick me on my lips!”

“But they’re just ver­min! Brown rats are stupid!”

RE­AL­ITY: Have you ac­tu­ally han­dled and in­ter­acted with a brown rat? Rat­tus asks. “Han­dling the tame and healthy ones raised as pets can help set peo­ple straight. Rats are in­tel­li­gent crea­tures; this is why they are among the top crea­tures sub­jected to tests of in­tel­li­gence in lab­o­ra­to­ries.”

Did you know that Rat­tus norvegi­cus can be taught and can even do tricks? “They’re very in­tel­li­gent crea­tures, and they tend to form ‘habits’, which is one way for me to iden­tify who is who in case there are looka­likes. It’s best ex­plained by the psy­chol­ogy of as­so­ci­a­tion. You as­so­ciate a cer­tain sound to a cer­tain com­mand/event. For ex­am­ple, I make a whis­tle sound ev­ery time I feed them. That way, ev­ery time I whis­tle, they know it’s feed­ing time. It’s best to do this with con­sis­tency and rep­e­ti­tion,” Rat­tus ex­plains.

As for rats be­ing ver­min, the feral na­ture of the av­er­age brown rat is also the fate of many an­i­mals, par­tic­u­larly those aban­doned as young pets, which live on the fringes of hu­man so­ci­ety and sur­vive on our dregs. They are un­healthy be­cause they are un­cared for, and can carry dis­eases like any other ne­glected an­i­mal.

What ad­vice can Rat­tus give some­one who is in­ter­ested in keep­ing rats as a pet and is do­ing it for the first time? And what mis­takes can they avoid, based on her ex­pe­ri­ence? “Many peo­ple who have rats as pets for the first time in­sist on hav­ing a male and fe­male pair, only to end up with un­planned preg­nan­cies. For new pet rat own­ers, it’s best to put off breed­ing un­til you al­ready have at least 6 months of ex­pe­ri­ence in han­dling them. You don’t just pair them ran­domly when breed­ing rats. You also take into con­sid­er­a­tion their ge­netic record―(to see) if they have hid­den genes that might pop out gen­er­a­tions later, history of ill­ness, tem­per­a­ment, phys­i­cal qual­i­ties, and oth­ers.” Which is not to say it’s go­ing to be easy. “There’s al­ways a learn­ing curve for first timers―i’ve been there! Like any other pet, do re­search be­fore tak­ing them home. They also have spe­cific diet and other needs. Their diet is sim­i­lar to that of hu­mans; (in their) food pyra­mid, 95% (of their diet) should con­sist of car­bo­hy­drates and grains. A good ex­am­ple of a sta­ple food is bar­ley, which you can get from poul­try feed stores for only PHP 25 per kilo­gram.” So for be­gin­ners, Rat­tus and her fel­low hob­by­ists “…rec­om­mend get­ting a pair of males prefer­ably of the same age, since males are more docile when han­dled; fe­males tend to be hy­per­ac­tive and rest­less. They are a small, docile and hardy species, which is why they’re one of the most ideal pets around.”

(You can learn more about pet rats by con­tact­ing Rat­tus Yu through the blog­dyrat­, or the Face­book pages face­­dyrat­tus and face­­trat­sph, or youtube. com/rat­tuschoki.)

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