“Rats deserve our love and care too!” It’s the rallying cry of rat keeper Rattus Yu, whose personal advocacy for the humble, “ordinary” rat is changing perceptions about what was once commonly considered vermin.

By Charlene Bobis

Photos by Jeffrey C. Lim

And yes, she’s referring to the rats you see scurrying about in garbage dumps and sewers―scientifically known as Rattus norvegicus. “Why?” is likely to be the first question on most minds. Why not the cuter white rat sold in pet stores, or pinto mice, or something cuter and “cleaner”?

Yu, who is known online as “Lady Rattus,” laughs and shares that her path towards becoming a rat advocate was not that of a typical pet lover. “I was rat-phobic up until I began this journey with them. I saw a hooded rat in a pet shop late in December 2008, and my fear of them turned into curiosity and awe.”

She was so fascinated by it, she began dreaming of the rat, and despite knowing that there would be issues regarding her keeping a rat, “I went back to the pet shop with zealous determination, whatever anyone else would say about them. Pinaglaban ko talaga sila (I fought for them).”

Three months later, her fear of rats was gone, “…thanks to their friendly nature and tireless research about what’s fact and myth about them.”

Perhaps the next question on anyone’s mind would be, did she try to domesticate wild rats? “I tried to capture adult wild rats before out of awe and desperation. Their coats were very beautiful, and back in 2009 you never see that coat color or marking in the trade. Although some were caught, most of them died of stress or never really adjusted well to me or their roommates, so I eventually let them go and stopped catching them,” she says.

Rattus admits that it’s an uphill fight when it comes to educating people about rats. Hearing people calling them ‘vermin’ and ‘stupid’ frustrated and angered her at first―but then she hit on the idea of putting up a group dedicated to rats as pets. “The goal of Pet Rats Philippines is very simple: to educate the public about rats as wonderful pets, and (that) they deserve our love and care too,” she declares.

She even started a career thanks to her passionate advocacy: “At that time, nobody was really paying any attention to them; there were very few of us who proactively championed these furry angels. In order to get people to love them and also to educate people about them, I also created a blog―and this was the beginning of my blogging career in www.ladyrattus.com, which now also covers beauty, food, and music.”

Her first order of business was to correct misconceptions about rats: that they were temperamental and could bear grudges, among others. “The most common misconception we hear about them is about (how they are the main carriers of) rabies or leptospirosis. Those are not innate diseases and pet rats are not exposed to contaminated sources (of the diseases) so there’s really no health risk…(pet rats are) totally safe, even when they lick me on my lips!”

What advice can Rattus give someone who is interested in keeping rats as a pet and is doing it for the first time? And what mistakes can they avoid, based on her experience?

“Many people who have rats as pets for the first time insist on having a male and female pair, only to end up with unplanned pregnancies. For new pet rat owners, it’s best to put off breeding until you already have at least 6 months of experience in handling them. You don’t just pair them randomly when breeding rats. You also take into consideration their genetic record―(to see) if they have hidden genes that might pop out generations later, history of illness, temperament, physical qualities, and others.” Which is not to say it’s going to be easy.

“There’s always a learning curve for first timers―I’ve been there! Like any other pet, do research before taking them home. They also have specific diet and other needs. Their diet is similar to that of humans; (in their) food pyramid, 95% (of their diet) should consist of carbohydrates and grains. A good example of a staple food is barley, which you can get from poultry feed stores for only PhP 25 per kilogram.” So for beginners, Rattus and her fellow hobbyists “…recommend getting a pair of males preferably of the same age, since males are more docile when handled; females tend to be hyperactive and restless. They are a small, docile and hardy species, which is why they’re one of the most ideal pets around.”

Pet Rats 101

What’s the difference between the white rats sold in pet stores from Rattus norvegicus? Does Rattus norvegicus make a better pet than those white rats?

White rats are actually the albino versions of Rattus norvegicus! “Basically, nothing sets them apart in terms of physiology. Just to set things straight, every pet rat, lab rat, or wild rat you see belong to the species of brown rats, whose scientific name is Rattus norvegicus,” Rattus explains.

Does this mean you can’t get wild rats as pets?

You can domesticate wild rats if you catch them as ‘pinkies’ or baby rats. “There were only two instances that I found pinkie rats, both of whom grew up well in captivity, weeks before the Ondoy (2009 typhoon), and weeks before the Habagat (2012 heavy downpour). Catching pinkies is a rare opportunity, and if you do get some, it would be challenging to raise them if you can’t find a surrogate mother rat.”

“But they’re just vermin! Brown rats are stupid!”

Have you actually handled and interacted with a brown rat? Rattus asks. “Handling the tame and
healthy ones raised as pets can help set people straight. Rats are intelligent creatures; this is why they are among the top creatures subjected to tests of intelligence in laboratories.”

Did you know that Rattus norvegicus can be taught and can even do tricks?

“They’re very intelligent creatures, and they tend to form ‘habits’, which is one way for me to identify who is who in case there are lookalikes. It’s best explained by the psychology of association. You associate a certain sound to a certain command/event.

For example, I make a whistle sound every time I feed them. That way, every time I whistle, they know it’s feeding time. It’s best to do this with consistency and repetition,” Rattus explains.

As for rats being vermin, the feral nature of the average brown rat is also the fate of many animals, particularly those abandoned as young pets, which live on the fringes of human society and survive on our dregs. They are unhealthy because they are uncared for, and can carry diseases like any other neglected animal.

Pop Rats

It’s somewhat funny that people fear or loathe rats, yet they are an important part of popular culture and superstitions. Here are just a few of the pop culture references to rats:

• In the Chinese zodiac, rats are the first sign. They are highly regarded as intelligent creatures and bringers of good luck (especially the albino/white ones).

• Popular films featuring rats: Ratatouille, An American Tail, The Secret of NIMH, Stuart Little, The Rescuers.

• People often say “Rats!” to take the place of a more vulgar or offensive expletive.

• The popular manga/anime Fruits Basket features a lead character, the “prince” of the story, turning into a rat when he is hugged by girls as a result of a curse. The background story featured in the series says the ox should have been the first animal in the Chinese zodiac and the cat was Buddha’s favorite, but the smart rat gave the cat the wrong date for Buddha’s party then rode on the ox to get to the venue, leaping off its back to arrive there first.

• In India, there’s a temple, Karni Mata, in Deshnoke, which is dedicated to the worship of rats. They are considered sacred there and are hand-fed by visitors. The white ones are considered auspicious. Rat statues are also always found in temples of Ganesh, the elephant god.

(You can learn more about pet rats by contacting Rattus Yu through the blog www.LadyRattus.com, or the Facebook pages facebook.com/LadyRattus and facebook.com/PetRatsPH, or youtube.com/RattusChoki.)

This appeared in Animal Scene’s June 2015 issue.