Rats! Nobody gets these rodents

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Sep 13, 2012 in Rat News | Subscribe

In theory, the room at the top of the stairs in Arianne Hughes’ Eastgate townhouse is a guest room and her husband’s study.

In reality, it is the Rat Room.

It’s where 30 bright-eyed rodents stare curiously at visitors from a half-dozen cages, some lounging in tiny striped hammocks, others taking a break from the rigors of the running wheel or the chew stick.

Arianne has hardly entered the room before she opens a cage and slips out Sweet Pea, a friendly, matronly rodent whom she promptly kisses on the mouth.

Arianne is the Rat Woman, director of the Rattie Tattie Rescue – the area’s only rat rescue – which is headquartered in the aforementioned bedroom.

For 10 years, she has poured out her heart, her money and hundreds of pounds of rat litter to save more than 1,000 domesticated pet rats from abandonment and mistreatment.

While all animals can be abused or neglected, rats are seen as casually disposable. People buy them as a novelty and when the novelty wears off, they think nothing of flinging them out the back door, where they’re likely to starve to death or be eaten as prey.

In fact, rats have been wrongly maligned throughout history, Arianne says. And she acknowledges it’s an uphill climb to change public perception of an animal whose name is typically preceded by the words sewer, street or lab.

For years, she’s been countering misinformation over the Bubonic plague (fleas carried the disease; rats only carried the fleas), and Hollywood’s clichéd shots of rodents pouring down gangplanks and swarming out of basements.

She likes to point out that, with their superior olfactory system, rats are now being deployed overseas to sniff out land mines. They’re also used in construction to ferry wiring through tight spaces. And for 200 years the humble Rattus norvegicus – the lab rat – has helped advance research for diabetes, cancer and heart disease since almost all human genes associated with disease have counterparts in the rat genome.

“Rats are doing a lot of good,” she says.

But it’s really not their heroics that drew Arianne to the species. It’s their intelligence, their sociability and – yes – their charm.

It turns out rats are highly trainable animals. They can be taught to recognize their names and come when called. They like to play hide-and-seek and have tug-o’-wars with their owners. Arianne taught her rescue rat Sasha – one of 200 rats she’s personally owned – to “ballerina dance,” and walk three feet on her hind legs.

The movie “Ratatouille” aside, who knew rats were capable of such things?

Which gets to the heart of Arianne’s mission, begun after she took over the rat rescue from a Covington vet-school student 10 years ago.

She is weary of seeing people shrink back at the mere mention of the word rat. She is tired of hearing rats characterized as disease-carrying and dirty when domesticated rats (the only kind her rescue takes in) constantly groom themselves and are no more likely to pass on disease than are cats or dogs.

And she believes rats fit neatly under the umbrella of vulnerable living creatures that deserve human kindness.

Besides, she says, mice are stinky and guinea pigs and hamsters relatively boring. The clever, loyal tame rat should finally get its day in the sun.

“It took a long time for the ferret to become a household name,” Arianne says matter-of-factly. “It’s what we hope for rats.”

That said, not just anybody gets one of Arianne’s rescued rats. Potential adopters must fill out a no-nonsense application that inquires about other household animals (snake owners not welcome), what kind of food and bedding material will be used, and how much time the adopter can devote to daily interaction with the rat (a half-hour minimum required).

Arianne has been known to dial up landlords to make sure rats are allowed in rental properties, and veterinarians to confirm that medical care will be given.

It’s fair to say Arianne takes rats personally.

When she met her would-be husband Ross seven years ago, she made it clear disliking rats was a deal-breaker.

“He spent five minutes with the rats and fell in love, and thank goodness. He wouldn’t be my husband if he didn’t,” she says.

Ross puts it this way: “I didn’t have to accept the rats. They had to accept me.”

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