Arnold Sciberras with Mawsi, his three-year-old daughter’s pet rat. Photo: Steve Zammit Lupi
Rats are pests to some and cute to others. Sarah Carabott spoke to rodent expert Arnold Sciberras about his pet subject.
A man whose livelihood depends on pest control has managed to breed 20 pure lines of rat.
Arnold Sciberras is not “wild about rats”, he admits as he cradles his three-year-old daughter’s pet rat – called Mawsi – in his arms.
But the owner of what he believes is Malta’s largest rat farm, where he breeds them for sale as show animals and pets, clearly understands their importance. Just as he understands, he says, that wild rats could be a major pest and would hurt biodiversity if uncontrolled.
“Rats are revered in parts of the world and considered a delicacy in others. On this side of the globe, they are seen as carriers of diseases and detrimental to agriculture.
“However, rats have also been highly beneficial for scientific research and they are very sociable and intelligent, so domestic rats are also an ideal pet,” says Mr Sciberras.
He believes rats make a good pet if brought up from when they are small, and he would “definitely” not trust the rat with his daughter if it were dangerous.
Even when dealing with clients who want their house clear of rodents, Mr Sciberras tries to counter the culturally-rooted fear of them.
Asked about sanitation – seeing as rats are not considered the cleanest of animals – Mr Sciberras retorted that any stray animal would be dirty.
“Unlike wild rats, which have to survive on the streets and sewage, domesticated rats are clean and gentle.
“An added advantage is that a pet rat marks the house as its own territory and it doesn’t allow other pests on site.”
His interest in rats grew by chance “just how you suddenly fall in love when you’re not looking for a girlfriend”.
Photo: Arnold Sciberras
While carrying out research on insects and lizards, he realised that rats were driving into extinction a lizard that was endemic to St Paul’s islands.
“They were feeding on the rubbish left around by summer visitors, but immediately turned their eyes on lizards when leftovers were not as abundant in winter.”
Captivated by their intelligence, observation skills and endurance, he went on to study these rodents more closely.
Mr Sciberras graduated in agribusiness and pest control management, and he dedicates a large chunk of his time to studying entomology and the conservation of local wildlife.
He is affiliated with several local groups, such as the Malta Herpetological Society and Nature Trust Malta, and is always harping on responsible ownership of any animal.
“Domesticated animals released in the wild could either die within a few hours or days, or become invasive species, feeding on local flora and fauna.
“The chameleon was introduced less than 200 years ago but it has spread across the islands. The fresh water terrapin has also been released in the wild and become an invasive species. Both were brought over as pets.”
Domestic rats were introduced in Malta for research, the consumption by other animals such as reptiles and more recently as pets.
He therefore set up a club called the Malta Rodent Society, which encourages responsible breeding and proper care, the registration of locally available species – and the smashing of taboos. “Why do many consider the rabbit as a cute pet but would not raise a rat pet? What’s the difference? One of them – the rat – is more intelligent than the other.
“The rat is also not as large, so easier to accommodate, and has strong caring instincts. If you put two expecting female rats together, the one that gives birth first will be helped out by the other one, until she too births.”