Humane Society’s ‘ambassador rats’ share compassion

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jan 19, 2018 in Rat News | Subscribe

JEFFERSON — It can be amazing what joys ultimately come from grief.

One such journey brought Rebecca Golz to the Humane Society of Jefferson County — and later, what the shelter now calls its “ambassador rats.” They are used each year as the School District of Fort Atkinson teaches first-graders about compassion.

“There’s something about a bond with a rat,” said Golz, who uses the pet rats as a teaching tool that also talks about fear. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Sara Lastusky, the community outreach coordinator at the Humane Society, agreed.

“I think kids think about being compassionate to a puppy or a cute little kitten (but not a rat),” she said. “If they’re not used to them, they’re a little taken aback.”

The story started with Golz roughly four or five years ago, when she lost the last of her personal pet rats. While dogs and cats often last at least a decade and many times longer, pet rats generally have a lifespan of about two to three years, she explained.

“I was grieving, and it wasn’t getting any better,” Golz said.

About that time, she decided to start volunteering at the Humane Society shelter, hoping she could find some healing by working with animals. Not long thereafter, three rats — Anika, Allegra and Autumn — were surrendered to the shelter.

“They were terrified,” Golz said of the rats. “Whenever anyone tried to touch them, they would try to bite.”

Golz became what she calls a “foster fail.” She took the rats home to foster them, and ended up adopting them. Around the same time, two other rats — Mimi and Shaniqua — were surrendered to the shelter. As they were senior rats, the shelter didn’t want to adopt them out if they only had a few months of life left.

Those two became the shelter rats and, as Golz explained, “just as a joke, we started calling them ‘the ambassadors.’

“They were incredibly social,” added Golz. “I begged our executive director (Lisa Patefield) to keep them.”

With those two rats, the shelter began to realize it had a potential teaching tool. Add in Ala and Bama, the next two rats into the shelter, and the true work of the ambassador rats began.

Lastusky can’t remember whether Ala and Bama or Mimi and Shaniqua were the first, but the program has deepened into what she and Golz view as an incredible learning opportunity for youngsters.

“It works really nice with the rats because they’re different,” Lastusky said. “The kids’ perceptions really change.”

Lastusky accompanies Golz on the school visits, and gives her a brief introduction before handing off the reins.

Golz said she’s used to having to work with the children to accept the rats — the current pair being Dory and Coral — holding them and letting them climb on her while she talks to the youngsters.

“We kind of discuss why people think they’re scary,” Golz said. “We ask them if they’re still afraid of the rats once they’ve met them, and usually they’re not.”

Once Golz is done talking, “Dory goes to the end of my lap. (She) waits at the end of my knees for the kids to meet her.

“She gives them kisses all over, and then she climbs up their arms and sits on their shoulder,” Golz added.

She said the rats are incredibly friendly and well-trained, adding that not only can pet rats be taught tricks, but but they can be trained to use a litter box, as well. She said they are intelligent, but also very empathetic.

“There’s something about a bond with a rat,” Golz said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Golz’s time with the rats also has helped evolve the small-animal program at the shelter.

“They pretty much let me help build their small-animal program,” Golz said. “I feel we have one of the best small-animal programs in the state.”

But while other small animals have joined the rats at times, the original ambassadors hold a special place in the hearts of the shelter staff — and Golz, as well.

“The fact that they let me teach people about rats … it’s wonderful,” Golz said. “Those rats have changed a lot of minds.”

Including that of Lastusky, who at first, she admitted, wasn’t high on the rats. Now she sees them offering a great opportunity to teach people that something they fear isn’t always what they seem.

“We can fix that,” Lastusky said.

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