Yesterday was a hard day. I had to take my daughter’s pet rat to the vet to be put down.
I cried and cried as she fell asleep in my hands and then died peacefully. She was the sweetest animal that has ever been in my care.
I know, I know. I know EXACTLY what you’re thinking. “Rat” and “sweet” do not belong in the same sentence, unless it’s something like, “We killed the rat, SWEET!”
I’ve never been fond of rats, and a year living in downtown Baltimore almost 25 years ago sealed the deal. Even looking at them made me nervous. Movies like “Willard” and “The Bone Collector” merely confirmed my harsh opinion. And no one ever disagreed with me.
Oh, from time to time, I’d hear people say, “Oh, but pet rats are so SWEET!” My response was, “Yeah. Right!” A stint as a rat handler at our local human society changed my mind substantially, but I still got nipped a lot. I grew to see their charms, and I could see how desperately they sought affection. But never really thought I’d grow to see one as an uber-pet.
Until this particular little rat came into our home.
My daughter bought her as a baby at a local pet store, and snuck her into the house. She hid her inside a large box in her bedroom for months before I discovered her. (Waist-high piles of clothes and books and girl trash were very effective at keeping me out of the room.)
When I discovered the rat, Robin thought it was funny her parents were so “dumb” they hadn’t known she’d had a rat for months. I pointed out it wasn’t exactly cool to have a room so messy, you could hide rats in it.
As Robin’s friends and boyfriends dominated her life more, and she spent less time at home, I felt guilty about the rat. I did a little research and learned they are intensely social animals. So social, one source admonished, that having a single rat was tantamount to….well, rat abuse. I resolved to spend an hour every evening handling the rat while I watched TV with my family.
And I ended up falling in love with that silly little thing.
Robin called her Mavra (MAHV-rah) after some Welsh thing, and we never did learn what it meant or how it’s really spelled.
Mavra slept most of the day, and when the TV came on, she knew it was social time.
She’d scrabble out of her house, a little cardboard box we’d cut doors in. Inside that box was her her nest. I now understand where the term “rat’s nest” comes from. It’s a large, carefully constructed bird’s nest made with everything they can get their paws and teeth on. Every time we cleaned her cage, we gave her a new supply of newspaper strips, toilet paper, a rag or sock. She would carefully pull each piece inside her box and trim them down to bite-size pieces. Then each piece would be carefully stuffed into the next. This would keep her busy for hours. They were amazing to look at.
I’d pick her up and let her run around my lap and legs a little, before settling in for a cuddle. Sometimes I’d stick her in a pouch or an old cloth purse, and actually “wear” her into my studio. I’d do some work or read e-mail while she scrabbled around happily, eating tortilla chips, occasionally sticking her nose out for a peek.
She was very much like a dog in her behavior–happy, affable, curious. She never once bit me or anyone else while being handled, not even when she was given food. She even learned not to pee on us, once she realized we didn’t like it. We didn’t have to do much–we would just say, “Oh, Mavra!” sadly and put her back in the cage and go clean ourselves up. She figured out what was up with that, and rarely peed on us after that.
Mostly, she loved to lie happily in my lap and have her head stroked, just like a dog. Long strokes from her nose over her eyes and deeply rubbing her ears. She would chatter her teeth, rat behavior that means, “YES!! I LIKE that!” Often she would fall asleep.
Robin took Mavra with her last fall to her first internship. I’m so glad she did! The internship fell through, but not before Robin had spent months alone in a tiny studio apartment, in a tiny town hours away, so isolated her only social contacts were at the restaurant she worked lunches at. Mavra kept her company during the long, long hours of solitude.
I owed Mavra one for that.
I guess what broke my heart as she died is I know very few people would ever look further than her ratty head and her snake-ish tail, and see deeper to the loving and gentle heart inside. Even my husband never looked at her without shuddering, and most people’s initial reaction was “eeeuw!”
But rat lovers know.
Many folks are not who they seem on the outside. Some are pretty pretty, but shallow and cruel inside. Some are ugly or unassuming, but they are loving and kind.
Give me the rats of the world any day.
I found an old soft t-shirt of Robin’s to bury her in. I tucked her in the pocket, and tucked her tail in around her. Doug and I buried her in our backyard with our other beloved pets. I found a stone from a beach in Rhode Island that amazingly, looked like a rat–gray and long, with one pointed end and a rounded end, and flat on the bottom. I put it on her grave.
Goodbye, sweet Mavra. I hope you find a warm little nest and a pile of tortilla chips in heaven. And someone to soothe you to sleep each night.
I will not forget you soon.