Fancy rats, fine friends

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL

John Gotti, Al Capone, Bugsy Malone, Jimmy Hoffa—there’s no shortage of mobsters and mob associates, fictional or otherwise, to be found in the Fayette home of Scott Stevenson and Ashley Matesic. Of course, that’s in title only.

The couple has named quite a few of their pet rats after criminals, but they hold the animals in much higher esteem than they would habitual lawbreakers. How quickly their brood of pets has grown is proof of that.

When Scott and Ashley moved into their apartment in May, they didn’t have a rat between them, but Ashley had a friend who kept rats and always wanted some of her own. Unfortunately for her, the animals were off-limits in her parents’ house.rats.2

So, after settling in to their new abode, one of the first things they did was drive to Tony’s Pets in Wauseon and pick out a pair. The next day, they went back and purchased another two animals. Since then, their pack of what they affectionately call New York City Sewer Rats has ballooned to 17.

Why keep so many? They couldn’t bear the thought of such kind and intelligent creatures being sold as snake food, which is one of the reasons pet stores keep the animals in stock.

But also, at two to six dollars a piece, the animals are bargain pets, said Ashley.

“You can teach them tricks, litter train them, teach them to come by their name,” she said. “They are very, very, very intelligent.”

They may jokingly refer to their pets as sewer dwellers, but the breed of rat they keep—fancy rats—are actually very clean.

A domesticated breed of brown and black rat, fancy rats aren’t called “fancy” because they’re fancy, but because they are fancied, or bred and domesticated, by pet owners.

In addition to weekly baths, the rats clean themselves and each other as many as six times a day, said Ashley. The emphasis rats place on community cleanliness is an advantage to keeping them in groups of four or five, she said.

Additionally, a socialized rat is a happy rat—rats are very social animals, so much so that the National Fancy Rat Society considers it cruel to keep a rat on his or her own.

However, Ashley and Scott had to make an exception for Tucker, a female that was prone to walking around in circles, bumping into things and tilting her head at strange angles.

About a week ago, they took her to their veterinarian at the Northwest Veterinary Hospital and, after a few simple tests, he had his diagnosis—due to an illness, Tucker was going blind. The veterinarian prescribed an antibiotic and Tucker gets her own cage while she undergoes treatment, which consists of a daily shot in the mouth with a tiny syringe.

And yes, getting a rat to sit still long enough to administer a shot in its mouth is as hard as it sounds, said Ashley.

Things didn’t turn out so well for Clyde Barrow, who was also exhibiting some unusual behavior. Another trip to the veterinarian revealed that he suffered from a number of congenital health defects, and would never lead a healthy life. Ashley and Scott made the decision to put him down.

Dealing with death is part of owning most any kind of pet, and the couple believe the benefits of keeping their furry friends around far outweigh the costs.

As nocturnal animals, they spend most of the day loafing in the hammocks and artificial hiding spots—an old boot, for instance—in their cages. At night, they spring to life, performing acrobatics and play-scrapping with one another.

The animals don’t always get along—the more aggressive animals will sometimes hassle the less aggressive ones, but that’s part of any group dynamic, said Scott.

“A few have always been skittish, but most are fat, happy and friendly,” said Scott.

Rats are omnivores and can eat almost anything humans can eat. Most of the time, the pack is fed pre-rendered rodent food, but Ashley and Scott also include small portions of cooked hamburger, fresh vegetables and even noodles in their diet. The one food the rats prefer above all the rest is Gerber’s carrots and applesauce.

“With the baby food, it’s every rat for himself,” said Ashley.

At other times, the rats are all about teamwork. For instance, Scott woke one morning to find one of their female rats lounging on the living room floor. As it turned out, four females had spent an evening chewing through the corner of their plastic cage. Following a short scramble, the remaining rats were found tucked in various nooks around the apartment.

After that, the cage was reinforced and things went back to normal.

Of course, can life alongside 17 rats ever be considered “normal?” For many, perhaps not, but Ashley and Scott love their little pals—so much so that they even considered including them in their wedding next month.

They nixed the idea after protests from Ashley’s grandmother.

Rats.

• Ashley and Scott will bring a few of their rats to Normal Memorial Library next week for the after-school program, scheduled at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday. The special library program is planned for children of all ages.

    - Nov. 1, 2006
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