Rat-dical: Rats all the rage among New York pet owners | New …

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 11, 2017 in Rat News | Subscribe

NEW YORK: When Breonne Rittinger, 21, and her boyfriend, Taylor Cowan, 27, were looking for a pet last year, they considered their options.

As models who travelled often, the couple wanted a pet that required less oversight. They shared an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with two other people, and one of their roommates already had two cats. A dog didn’t seem feasible.

So Rittinger had an idea: rats.

Now they have three.

“I’ve definitely turned into a crazy rat lady,” Rittinger said while her rat Zelda stashed Cheerios in Cowan’s backpack and another rat, Nibbler, raced through an empty LaCroix box in her cage. “But I’m totally OK with that.”

Nibbler and her sister, Leela, arrived in January, adopted from a Staten Island family who had rescued them from a local pet store. And then, a few weeks later, came another duo, Liliu and Daisy, from a reputable “rattery” on Long Island. When Leela died in April, and Liliu soon afterward, Zelda joined the pack.

Rittinger was familiar with rodents as pets, having grown up with gerbils in Georgia. But Cowan was hesitant. His previous apartment, on the Lower East Side, had been infested with rats, a problem he later attributed to the landlord. After he did some research, Cowan came around to the idea. “It was really hard to find negative things online about pet rats,” he said.

Initially, Cowan said his sister was “grossed out” by the new pets, as were several of their friends. When Rittinger brought the rats to her modelling agency, two employees refused to meet them. The couple were met with a handful of baffled stares when they took their new pets to Central Park.

These experiences, rat owners say, are nothing new. Rats, known for scurrying through trash heaps and nabbing pizza slices at subway stops, have long been the scourge of the city. Recent research suggests that the street rat population could be near 3 million. It is easy to grasp why many New Yorkers will not embrace their domestication.

Rat owners say it is all a big misunderstanding.

“When you say the word ‘cat,’ people automatically associate that word with a pet at home, not a feral cat on the street,” said Melissa Stewart, 34, who works in TV and film production. “Whereas, when you hear someone say ‘rat,’ they immediately think it’s feral or a street rat.”

Although rare, there are stories of street rat domestication, but these rats, she said, have a much harder time finding a home. Street rats, she explained, are brown rats, which are said to be less civil and healthy, and are different from “fancy” rats, the species that most New Yorkers look to adopt.

Stewart was first introduced to the idea of pet rats eight years ago at a studio party in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn, where someone told her that a rat named Minky was up for adoption. Stewart, a native New Yorker who had owned a hedgehog in college, was interested.

“As soon as I got her, I was so amazed by how incredibly cool, smart and sociable they are,” she said. “They don’t bite. They’re like little dogs, mixed with a cat.”

Very few doctors treat rats. “Most veterinarians either don’t have the interest or treat mostly dogs and cats, and, without the right exposure, often provide a disservice to these types of pets,” said Dr. Anthony Pilny, of the Centre for Avian and Exotic Medicine, in Manhattan, who recently owned five rats.

He said this deficit of caregivers drove the community to online forums and Meetup groups, where “proud rat moms and dads” swap tips, tricks and photos. Breeds like Dumbos, known for their floppy ears, are described in detail, while new parents ask for advice: What’s their hygiene? (They clean themselves, but their tails can get dirty.) Do they need company? (Definitely.) What do they eat? (Probably not pizza.) And cohabiting with cats? (It depends.)

Having that community can be comforting, owners say, as requests for rat sitters and medical questions are often met with rapid response. Forum participants encourage breeders over pet stores, which typically sell rats as feeders for snakes, while wheels in cages are also hotly debated and rat products are peer reviewed. The home craft website Etsy, it turns out, is a major source for rat hammocks, rat homes, rat sweaters and even rat costumes in the shape of pepperoni pizza slices.

Rat adoption is happening in places other than New York. After using the hashtag #ratsofinstagram when she posted her photos online, Stewart connected with owners in Europe, where rat adoption groups reportedly saw an increase after the Disney movie Ratatouille opened in 2007.

It is a sense of acceptance she hopes her hometown will one day adopt.

But practically since its creation, New York has waged an endless war against rats, with some citizens even taking it upon themselves to hunt them down. In 2015, the health department invested an additional US$2.9 million in targeting “rat reservoirs,” or areas with high concentrations, and has recently begun small-scale tests with a fertility sterilisation compound. The city also offers free workshops in Rat Management Training to landlords and building superintendents. — NYT

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