My husband is working away this week and evenings in our little home are quiet, just me and the pets. Last night, although Ty and Harvey were out too – building dens and hiding behind bookshelves, as is their way – I spent most of my time with my little old man, Winnie.
He has seemed even older than he has done up to now in the last little while, and his free ranging consists of cuddling in as close as he can (usually on my shoulder!) and bruxing and boggling away, or settling in a sleeve and being happy to stay there even if I come and go, one handedly making cups of tea and stirring soup with the other providing his chosen carry spot for the night.
Winston is nearly 2 years and 4 months old now and is quite a wee inspiration – he’s had so many health problems in his life and we’ve spent many a Saturday morning driving up and down to the vets – at first all planned out in the travel cage and laterally just cuddled in a hoodie pocket as relaxed as you like. Most of his ailments have been chronic, and he’s struggled with respy problems and abscesses on and off, but he’s never let any of them stop him enjoying life and has always been so enthusiastic about life in the cage and out.
Now, he seems to actually enjoy everything more than ever, the slower pace suited to the natural inclination he’s always had to take things easy, and times enjoying soaked easy-to-eat food seeming to be the highlight of his day, although loving long hours squished between Harvey and Ty in their bed too.
One of the main drawbacks of keeping rats is that they seem to reach old age so soon – but the joy of all the phases of their little lives are so worthwhile, and after the curiosity and exuberance of his kittenhood, the middle times reclining with his brother Chae and teaching Harvey and Ty a thing or two when they were just young things, it’s so lovely to enjoy Winnie’s pottery old age with him too.
Our rat-keeping adventure, which enters its sixth year this year, began back in August 2010. I was living alone at the time, and had just returned home after a love-and-animal-filled break at my parents’. Feeling the emptiness of my little flat by comparison I decided, somewhat impulsively, to take myself to Pets at Home and have “just a little look” for a potential new roommate. Little did I know then I was about to start a journey of love and learning that would be more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. I will always remember walking shyly and with my heart pounding round the cages, and then being completely captivated by a small black and white rat, just as captivated by me and staring straight at me, so curious and intrigued. I had kept rats when I was younger, and remembered them as such wonderful pets of my childhood. Looking straight into the eyes of this bright little animal, who would become my Peatie, there was no going back.
Smokie was very affectionate and always game for an adventure, coming for long walks with me tucked in a collar and always interested in everything; Peatie was a force to be reckoned with, always up to something in her younger days, getting into scrapes on more than a couple of occasions and keeping us on our toes, although settling to be a very contented lady as she got older.
Smokie was plagued by some of the health problems I know now are so common to pet shop rodent-farmed pets, and in her little life she taught us a lot about rat health and care through necessity as we journeyed backwards and forwards to the vet. She had various eye problems and tumours, and with two successful operations she led the longest and happiest life she could, but at just under 2 years old she became the first of the rats we have loved and lost.
Nothing quite prepared me for that, and that first blow was a really hard one. It almost made me immediately want to say not again, the characters were too vibrant and wonderful to deal with lifespans so short, but our Peatie was clearly lonely and still in good strong health, and so, a few weeks later, we went to the SPCA rescue centre to look for some friends for her, and there found “Chloe” and “Nibbles”, two beautiful ladies who were around a year old and needing a new home.
Chloe, who would become our Sylvie, was a beauitful silky dumbo rex, utterly gentle from the moment we laid eyes on her, and Nibbles, a brown capped dumbo, who would quickly shed her telling name and become our Lizzie, sealed the deal on coming home with us with a strong bite to my finger and an immediate retreat to the back of her cage in what I would come to know (but thankfully see less and less and her time with as went on) as her most afraid expression. I had been reticent about “replacing” Smokie and was only doing it for Peatie’s sake until that point, but in that minute I knew Lizzie was so afraid and needed us, and (after a swing by the hospital for a tetanus shot!) we got them home and settled.
Introducing Sylvie and Lizzie to Peatie was our first experience of introductions and was a nerve-wracking experience. Reading on blogs and forums we tried to learn as much as we could, but when we finally let Sylvie, Lizzie and Peatie meet it was so rewarding. Lizzie, ever shy, was content just to make friends and be there, and Sylvie and Peatie did engage in a fairly dignified tussle over who would call the shots, but, thankfully for Pea, Sylve eventually conceded defeat and Peatie got to live the rest of her days – a lovely long six months or so, happily accompanied by her two new friends and even more happily ruling the roost.
In their own right, both our new girls were wonderful pets. Sylvie was the sort of rat you’d hope for a child to have the joy of owning, not that we were complaining about having that ourselves, gentle, kind and especially as she got older in love with a quiet seat on a knee of an evening; and Lizzie, one of the two biggest “project rats” we’ve had, going through such a transformation as time went on – never really losing her shyness and never really taking to free-ranging far, but adorably warming to time with me and especially my husband, looking to us always for her security in a way that melted our hearts, happy to sit all night by our sides – and within just a few weeks of coming home, leaving her terrified biting behind her forever. Sylvie and Lizzie, who we think in their pre-rescue days may have been breeder rats rather than pet shop, their build and health so worlds apart from Smokie and Peat’s, lived long and happy lives, losing Lizzie towards the end of 2013 and Sylvie in early 2014.
This brought to an end the first phase of our rat-keeping and, thrown again by the sadness of the losses of our girls, I thought perhaps the end of a lovely chapter. However, it was only a week or two before the lack of rats in the house, even though we had Simba and our little hamster Darcy at that time, was overwhelming. There’s something about engaging with the rats that keeps you ever busy, and so in love, and this hole in our home combined with the local news story about a huge rat rescue group all needing homes led to the arrival of Chae and Winston, the first of our boys.
At 16 weeks when they came to us, they were the youngest rats we’d had in a long time and we had a lot to learn from them too in their different behaviours to the girls and their youthful fun. They were both wonderful characters, Chae full of an unbelievable energy for full-pelt darts around the living room, and Winston at first much shyer, choosing to hang in his cage in his first weeks with us, usually out of the door with one foot ready to step out and a comical look of indecision on his face. (This is hard to imagine now, having spent last night celebrating the second anniversary of Winston’s arrival home with us with his little face pressed tightly into my neck, as it has been every night in the last few weeks, not only all nervousness left behind him years ago but now the cuddliest old man you could ever hope to meet).
In October 2014, having settled into life with Chae and Winnie, we decided to get another companion for them to ensure one was not left without the other, and revisited the rescue centre again where we were found a single rat who had actually been part of the boys’ original litter in the large rescue, still at the centre and looking for a home. Pipkin, the beautiful but petrified boy we took home that day, was like no other. He was at least partially blind, had quite bad breathing problems, had two raggedy ears as a result of fights with other rats, after which he’d been kept alone, and more than any other rat he needed so much help and support to come out of his shell and relax into being the lovely soul he was.
The original plan did not quite work out, with Pipkin never making it in with his brothers, being incredibly nervous and aggressive whenever he met them and getting himself into too much of a state to keep trying. On his own, however, I fully believe Pipkin led a happy life. He spent much of his time out of his cage and just with us wherever we were and enjoyed being next to the boys in the other cage without being in with them. He became relaxed and happy, and was a really special soul. Pipkin lived to just over 2 years old, and made our home such a happy place by being in it.
In the meantime, we did eventually succeed in finding companions for Chae and Winnie, this time not through a rescue but through a local breeder, where we found Harvey and Ty in February 2015. At 6 weeks old when we first met them, they were impossibly tiny and absolutely gorgeous.
They lived alone together for a few weeks as they grew and eventually in spring were successfully intro’d to Chae and Winnie, another tense but wonderful to watch period of introductions. In a four, their characters found new ways to blossom, Chae such a sweet and submissive wee soul, Winnie and Harvey vying for top dog but with good natures about it, and Ty tentatively finding his place in the group.
We lost Chae just a few weeks ago in December 2015, and his loss was felt not just by us but by the whole group, re-adjusting to their shared life without him. Now, Winnie is the dodderiest of old men, though still fairly well, enjoying soft food and lots of cuddles, and is well looked-after in the cage by his sleeping companions Harvey and Ty, both of whom are also finding their feet in their nightly explores and becoming more “people rats” with every passing day.
Our little mischief has taken us on a rollercoaster of a journey over the last years, with many challenges, lots of lessons learned, some periods of heartache – but over-ridingly so much love and joy. In this blog I hope just to capture some of the little moments of everyday life with the pets that make up this wonderful experience so rewarding. Thanks so much for stopping by. x