Going to bat for the much-maligned rat

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Dec 6, 2011 in Rat News | Subscribe

During the course of my 35 years in the newspaper business I have seen many changes.

And I have heard many, as well.

The newsroom used to be a veritable cacophony of reporters banging out their copy on typewriters, of the clatter of teletype machines delivering national and international stories from various wire services, accompanied by the occasional clang of a bell that announced a particularly notable story.

These days the loudest sound in our newsroom is the ringing of the telephone.

I once had a boss who chastised us for allowing a phone to ring more than once or twice, no matter whether it was clear across the newsroom.

“You’d better answer it. That call could turn out to be the biggest story of your life.”

I’m still waiting.

 But his words stuck with me, so if a phone rings, I’m on it. I react like Pavlov’s dogs to the sound of a bell, except I don’t drool. Much.

As a result I’ve answered some interesting phone calls over the years. One Monday morning many years ago, I answered a phone in our sports department and found myself talking to actor Lee Majors, or someone who does a dead-on imitation of him. He wondered if his beloved Oakland Raiders had won their football game the previous day.

Once I answered the phone only to have a lady begin chewing me out because she hadn’t received her paper.

“It’s 11 o’clock and I don’t have my paper. What’s the matter with you people?” she complained.

As tactfully as possible, I reminded her it was 11, all right, but 11 p.m., and our paper wouldn’t even be printed for another hour. She hung up.

Another nighttime phone call was from a really distraught lady who complained about us neglecting to run the horoscope feature in that morning’s paper.

She said we had forced her to remain indoors all day because she couldn’t bear to leave her house without knowing her horoscope. I hung up.

I have been cussed out on more than one occasion and have been subjected to long-winded rants about some real or perceived slight or transgression.

On occasion, usually late at night, someone will call simply wanting to talk. I have spent hours working with a phone held to my ear by one shoulder, listening to some person who just couldn’t face another night talking to the four walls.

And then there was Monday.

“I just wondered if you knew today is World Rat Day,” said the woman on the phone.

I thought she said World Rap Day, a celebration of hip-hop, or perhaps World Wrap Day, a day commemorating the marriage of paper, ribbon and bows.

Nope, she said World Rat Day.

So I did what every self-respecting journalist who receives an unexpected and unusual call from someone who may or may not be a few apples short of a bushel — I transferred the call to my boss.

But then I had second thoughts. Was this the worldwide celebration of disease-carrying vermin? Was this the day to commemorate two-legged rats who walk upright like Bernie Madoff, Moammar Gadhafi and Osama bin Laden? Or maybe this is the day to listen to tunes by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and hoist a glass in memory of the Rat Pack. Perhaps this is the day to recognize those who snitch, tattle or “rat” on other people.

Or was this perhaps simply some sort of terribly tardy April Fool’s joke.

None of the above. World Rat Day, the ninth annual version of which was indeed celebrated Monday, is, according to the World Rat Day website, “A holiday designed to recognize the fancy rat as a wonderful pet and companion animal for people of all ages.”

I must admit when I hear the word “rat,” I don’t think of a pet. I think of beady eyes shining next to a pile of trash in some dark, big-city alley.

I, then, am guilty of the very prejudice World Rat Day is designed to combat.

“All true fans of the pet rat know that these dear, sweet animals deserve greater recognition and admiration, and that their image suffers from ignorance and unthinking prejudice,” reads a purpose statement on the World Rat Day website. “The pet rat is intelligent, devoted, clean, gentle and imminently lovable.” Well, that’s more than can be said for me.

So I did a little research into the care and feeding of fancy rats. Rats, it seems, have been domesticated for more than 100 years. They are warm, cuddly and friendly. Again, they have me beat.

Pet rats carry no diseases and require no vaccinations. Would that the rest of us could say the same. And about the whole Black Plague thing? That wasn’t caused by the rats, but the disease was carried by the fleas who just happened to live on the rats.

Rats can be taught to recognize their name, to come, to play basketball, to figure out complicated mazes and to compete in Rat Olympics. I recognize my name, at least most of the time.

According to American Veterinary Medical Association statistics, some 452 out of every 1,000 pet-owning households are home to “other rodents,” which must mean rats.

There are rat shows, a rat breeding registry and various rat merchandise like books, calendars and clothing (for owners, not their rats).

I had no idea. Rats make great pets, not just pests. Fancy rats, and those who love and keep them, deserve consideration instead of condemnation, support instead of sarcasm.

And all this time I’ve simply thought of them as vermin.

I feel like such a … rattlebrain.

Why, what did you think I was going to say?

Mullin is senior writer of the News Eagle. E-mail him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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