“Up!” calls my nine-year-old-son in a cooing tone reserved for babies and cute animals. His command is directed to an animal risen onto hind legs, dark eyes trained on my son beseechingly, wispy whiskers speeding forward and backward almost invisibly. You could almost dub in a line from some talking animal movie for this small creature perched on two claws. My son scoops the little guy in his hands and dumps him on his head. We all laugh. My son — coincidentally named Remy, the starring rat in Ratatouille — has pet rats.
Me? I’m neither a dog nor a cat person, a sheep nor a chicken person. Some may consider it a personal failing — even I do — but I’m really not an animal person at all. I can half-heartedly argue that when other parents began acquiring puppies for their families, we had babies. As a result, we have a kid in preschool, one in elementary school, one in middle school, and one in high school — yes, count em, four. So when people inquire whether we might get a dog, I am emphatic: “Absolutely not. We have four children. Middle-of-the-night wake-ups and poop? Done and done.”
Well, not quite, it turns out. Enter the rats.
Long story short: we decided to move Remy to a new school — an idea that displeased my son, who was in second grade at the time. A neighbor also happened to be moving. Among the many items he unloaded onto us: a large, metal cage suitable for pet rats.
My dear spouse was certain that rats were our best bet, since they’re smart, low maintenance, highly engaging — even cuddly — but don’t shed or smell bad. Against just about everything I stand for (save appeasing my sweet, lovely, articulate, and sometimes completely miserable third boy), I agreed to put the cage in our basement. I wasn’t saying yes just yet even though I’d acquired a rat cage. I’d simply edged one step closer.
Fast forward to September. Remy, now the new kid at school, was extremely effective at communicating just how despondent he felt about the school switch. And he was about to turn nine at the end of the month. Quoting Remy, “The only thing I want for my birthday is a pet.”
As a parent, you probably already know what comes next. After a particularly bad evening with my sobbing boy child, who wished he could magically return to the normalcy of his comfortable life with his old pals, I turned to my spouse and relented. “Okay, a rat it is.”
Two rats, actually — it turns out rats are social creatures and need company. We found a local breeder for Dumbo rats, which are big-eared and (thankfully) domesticated. We chose two girls because they’re more active and less stinky than boys (and we already have adolescent human boys in the house). We’d be able to take them home at eight weeks, when they were old enough to leave their mama.
Before the pair arrived, I found myself obsessed with what their names might be. Back when I was a fiction writer, I loved naming my characters, and my husband and I toiled over the rules we had set for our children’s names: at least three syllables even if nicknames were shorter, not made up but definitely not well-trodden names, either. (Remy is short for Remiel.) Our pets-to-be were no exception.
I began with the obvious: famous girl duos like Thelma and Louise, Cagney and Lacey, Gertrude and Alice. I also quite liked the notion of Dorothy (of Oz) and Alice (of Wonderland); my eldest boy had spent the entirety of his preschool years playing a make-believe Dorothy and Alice game with his best friend. But I also thought of Pip and Squeak, a cute little play on pipsqueak — and rats, I imagined, might squeak. Remy, the proud pet owner, gave that last idea a big thumbs up.
I firmly believed that I owed these pets to my third-grader and was reasonably certain I could handle their presence in his room, where they were removed from my everyday tasks. By mid-December, when the rats arrived, Remy’s transition to his new school was complete. In fact, he had come to love it. And while the rats were promised to him before he loved school, like a consolation prize, I couldn’t break that promise now.
What surprised me though, was this: the rats were so cute. White Squeak, who had grey markings on her face, and charcoal grey Pip were adorable. Even my elder teen, vehemently opposed to the notion that rats would reside in the house, was instantly won over. They were so soft. We were all entranced, nearly to the point of cooing. Beyond their beseeching eyes (who knew?), they introduced our family to all the goods pets have to offer: some creature to cuddle with and fawn over, a novelty for visitors to meet, the endless fun of building mazes with Duplos and blocks for a purpose bigger than marbles. Oh, and responsibility.
Even though Pip and Squeak were adorable, because of my general aversion to animals, it took me about a week before I worked up the courage to hold one of them. But once I picked one up, I realized I had nothing to be afraid of. Their claws are sharp enough to surprise you but not sharp enough to hurt, and their ears are so endearingly not quite floppy but suggestive of floppiness. Their big dark eyes peer quizzically, and their whiskers are never still. Yes, they have rats’ tails (they are rats), but I don’t get the fuss about that. By the time the boys and papa were all away for overnight trips, the little sister and I had no problem feeding and playing with the rats.
Perhaps my favorite part about the new additions to our family is seeing how my kids have taken to them. To Remy and his friends and his little sister and her friends, well, Pip and Squeak are endlessly entertaining. They scamper under the blankets. They zip around mazes created by my son and his pals with LEGOs or blocks. They sit on shoulders. They climb on shirts. They peek in on chess games and try to sneak away with pawns.
But all that wasn’t what made me realize I was falling for the rats. That revelation came after a suspense-ridden nightmare. I dreamt there were cats in our house, and I found myself breathless with that can’t-move-quickly-enough dream terror that I wouldn’t reach Pip and Squeak in time to save them from the felines. I awoke with the sensation of trying to speed through something thick, like swimming against the tide. And what formed in my sleepy, scared mind was this: I love the rats.
I feel like a confirmed bachelor suddenly married with children, who’s savoring his newly minted family-man status. I am dealing with an unintended consequence of becoming a fan, defender, and lover of Pip and Squeak. While I wouldn’t call myself an animal person yet — there are no dogs and obviously, no cats, in my future — at the very least, I am a rat person.
Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser has had her work appear in numerous publications, including The New York Times, Brain Child Magazine, Bamboo Magazine, the Huffington Post, and Babble, amongst others. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies including The Maternal is Political, the e-book anthology Welcome to My World, and Wait a Minute, I Have to Take Off My Bra. Check out more from Sarah at Standing in the Shadows.
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