It’s hard to have a pet die in your hands and remain unmoved.
My ten year old daughter keeps pet rats, as I did when I was a kid. And if you have never had pet rats, you have entirely the wrong impression of rats. They’re excellent pets. Affectionate, tame, intelligent. Easy to care for and not particularly stinky as small caged rodents go.
I had a lot of rats when I was growing up. One that would ride in the pocket of my army field jacket all day. I had a number of them when I was in my twenties as well, one or two at a time. My daughter got her first rat a few years ago and we’ve had several since. She adores them.
Rats don’t live very long though. Two or three years, tops. Most are lucky to see two years. I recall them living longer when I was a kid, maybe they were less prone to infections, maybe they were raised differently, or maybe I just remember it through the blurred lens of memory.
Given how many rats I’ve owned, it takes a lot for one to stand out. Most rats are pretty much just rats; all about the same. The odds ones are memorable; one who had some sort of neurological disorder and would sway, and the sometimes leap at you and strike when startled. She was a beautiful tawny ray with deep red eyes, but not at all right in the head. The one I had when I was a kid who loved in my coat pocket. A couple of others that I particularly remember.
Sunday, we lost possibly the best pet rat we’ve ever had.
She was a sort of a windfall. We had too many rats at the time already, four, kept in a big ferret cage. We had no intention of buying another. But we made a stop in Petaluma, CA on the way home from Oregon, and I took my kids to a pet shop while Barb shopped for something.
Addison was in a huge converted aquarium full of rats, and she came out to see us, as eager and friendly as any little rat I’ve ever seen. She tried to climb the wall of the tank to get to us.
Olivia, my ten year old, begged to get her. Offered to spend her own money, earned babysitting her sister on our Oregon trip, if I’d let her take this little rat home.
I played the weak parent, used “We’ll have to ask mom” as a dodge. Cheap technique but it’s sometimes the best way to get out without buying a pet. But in this case, it didn’t work, because this rat was so endearing, no one could resist her. Barb was as smitten as Olivia.
This little rat rode home with us, nestled in Olivia’s clothing, all the way from northen California, across the foggy golden gate bridge. We all remembered that day, the little rat snugged down in olivia’s shirt collar for warmth when the temperature dropped when we hit the SF fog.
She never changed, from that friendly, eager, hyperactive little pup she was. Olivia named her Addie after a character in “Dial-A-Ghost” by Eva Ibbotson, though later she changed the rat’s name to Addison. Addie was the rat counterpart to Olivia; never still for a moment. Like two hyperactive peas in — well, never in for long, usually out of — a pod.
Many pet rats need to be socialized, tamed. They need time to get used to being handled, being around people. Not Addie, she was instantly happy and comfortable around people, always moving. We let our rats roam the house when possible, and where many of them will wander off and need finding later, Addie would always return as if to check that we’re still where we belong. Soon, she would come when called, first with the usuall kissing, clucking noises that seem to be a universal animal call, but later when called by name.
When she was in the cage, she was always moving. Not much of a wheel-runner, she’s instead climb the cage walls and walk upside-down like a bat on the underside of the cage top. She never stopped doing this, even in a smaller cage, even the last week of her life. We had other, older rats in the big cage with her, and she’d annoy the hell out of them; she was never daunted by thier rough treatment, never gave ground even when the adults beat up on her.
One by one, the elder four rats died; each one lamented, but no one a particularly special pet. Soon she was alone, and we moved her in with another rat oddity, a hairless dumbo rat named Chibi, about whom I’ll talk later. Chibi looks like a cross between Gollum, Dobby the House Elf, and a small ferret. She’s a deeply odd creature, wholly unlike a rat in many ways. She and Addison formed an odd-couple, and were by pure coincidence the two most unique, social, friendly rats I’ve ever had. I’m not really sure either one had any idea they were the same species; they certainly don’t look it.
We’ve known for a while that Addie was getting old. You can tell – they start to get skinny, they slow down, they have more respiritory trouble. It always seems too soon; when you live to be two and a half, you’re aging almost before you’re an adult. They tend to go quickly once they start looking old, yet for all the Addie had the signs, she never stopped being active. We could tell she was losing her hearing because she didn’t come when she was called as well, and that her eyesight was going, since she seemed to find treats more by smell. But she would still romp when we let her out, she wrestle with Chibi, still climb and bat-walk. She’d sit still, though, when it was cold, crawling into our clothes for warmth. That was one of the biggest signs she was old, for the first time, she wasn’t hyperactive.
No matter how many I’ve lost, it’s never easy. I’ve kept snakes and fed them live rats; I’ve had to euthenize animals. I’ve even dealt with human death without crying, when my brother committed suicide. But it never is really easy when a family pet goes. No matter how much you expect it, no matter how much you’re used to it, it still hurts.
Sunday morning. My dear frined Andie, as beloved by my children as she is by me, was over making breakfast with me. Simple family sunday morning, fantastic french toast, my super-strong coffee which Andie describes as liquid crack. After breakfast, Olivia went to clean her rat cage (something she takes very seriously.) She came in with a worried tone and said “I think there’s something wrong with Addison.”
I knew instantly. The rat was lying on the bottom of the cage. Even from across the room I could tell something was wrong. When I got close, I could see her gasping for breath. She was icy cold to the touch, and unable to move. A stroke, we think; she’d been active earlier that morning.
It’s one of the times one wishes one could pray.
I took the tiny ice-cold body of of the cage and held her against me to try to warm her. I could feel hear heaving, struggling, breathing only by pure force of will. I tried to wrap a rag around her to warm her but having it over her face upset her, so I used my arms and hands and the skin of my chest
to cradle her and warm her.
Oh, god, I thought, wishing, but not praying, don’t let this take a long time.
She struggled to breath, each one a little harder. I tried to stroke between her eyes, something that always made her sleep, but she triesd to squirm away. Then, as her cold body began to warm, I could feel her relax.
One breath. Two. Gasps, each one, her mouth gaping, her head rearing back with the effort.
And then she tucked her head down against my arm, tensed, then relaxed, like an animal getting ready to sleep. Warm, finally, and thinking, I can sleep now.
And she stopped breathing.
I waited. Knowing another breath could come, wanting it, yet dreading it, not wanting it to go on any longer. Waited.
And the next breath never came. And tears began to rolls down my cheeks.
I could not cry for my brother’s death, nor my father’s. Yet for this six ounce animal with it’s tiny blink of a lifespan, tears came easily.
Feeling another living creature die in your hand is unlike anything else on this earth.
My children know pets die. This wasn’t the first, nor the last. I warned them that it might be time. I’m so glad to have had Andie there with us, to help hold Olivia, to comfort Ruby. I had nothing to give my children for a few minutes as I wrapped the little body up and put it away to be dealt with later.
I’ve lost dogs, cats, frogs, many rats, many, many fish. But I can only think of one pet since I was an adult whose death touched me this way, a cat named Max. I guess you never really know who’s going to turn out to be incredibly special in life. It’s not always who you expect, when you expect it.