What's with the pet rats?

When I was about 13, I was "the rat girl" in my biology class.  I took care of the classroom rats, feeding, watering, etc.  On my own, I decided to do an imprinting study on baby rats after seeing an article about duck imprinting in my dad's Scientific American magazine.  I took home two baby rats before their eyes opened and hand fed them formula-dipped bread.  I don't think they ever thought I was their mom, but they were friendlier to the students than some of the other rats.

In retrospect, I realize now that my biology teacher, Mr. Holzer, kept the rats mostly to feed his pet owl and boa constrictor, also housed in the classroom.   I was blissfully unaware.

In college I thought I needed undergraduate research to get into medical school.  With my rat experience, I ended up in Sue Carter's psych research group.  Her focus of study was Microtus Ochragaster, the prairie vole, one of only a few known monogamous mammals on the planet, evidently due to a single gene.  My job was mostly to watch time lapse VHS video of prairie voles mating (which they did for 24-hours at a stretch, and to record the time it took for them to mate, or groom, or sleep, etc.  That's a whole 'nuther story.

I spent a summer break changing cages on the rodent floor of the U of Illinois research labs, and handled mice, rats, chinchillas, hamsters, two sloths and a bunch of turtles and frogs.

Young Smough, circa late 2013

Young Smough, circa late 2013

I knew I wanted to get an MD/PhD, as I was inspired by one of the U of I ophthalmologists at the time, J. Terry Ernest (who ended up as my chairman twenty years later at U of Chicago), but didn't know what to specialize in ( especially after being told by the biochem chairman that I should not go into biochemistry - yet another story).  But with the whole rat and vole history, I ended up in Benita Katzenellenbogen's lab looking at breast cancer in rats.  

In all of my rodent jobs, I could never bring myself to sacrifice any of the animals.  I just couldn't. The prairie voles were sometimes quickly and mercifully decapitated when they were due to be sacrificed, but I physically couldn't do it.  I'd try and my hand would just be paralyzed or something.  The best I could do was put them down with carbon dioxide.  Gah.  Horrible.   I ended up working in Benita's lab on cancer cells in dishes;  I couldn't bear to work with the rats or any other critters.  

Boo, about 10 weeks old.  This breed of domesticated rats is known as "Dumbo" rats. They are called that because of their lower-set, forward-facing, "Dumbo"-like ears.  (Compare with baby Smough, above.)

Boo, about 10 weeks old.  This breed of domesticated rats is known as "Dumbo" rats. They are called that because of their lower-set, forward-facing, "Dumbo"-like ears.  (Compare with baby Smough, above.)

And look, I'm not some sort of animal rights warrior and I'm not a vegetarian.  And right now animal testing is the best we have for a lot of research for humans, and I'm very happy that nowadays research animals are expensive to buy and maintain and they must be housed in the most humane environment possible.  But I understand that right a lot of the benefits of human society require animal sacrifice.  Eventually I hope we'll be doing all research with AIs and eating meat grown in labs.  

Regardless, I figure I owe not only much of my career to rats, but also my life, if you take into account the life-saving drugs I've taken that have all been animal tested.  The least I can do is give some of them long happy lives.

Boo and Salad, six months old, Dec 2016

Boo and Salad, six months old, Dec 2016

A few years ago I took over the care of a bunch of rats my son had gotten as pets.  They were rescued rats from a feeder breeder (who kept the rats in DRAWERS until they were big enough to sell to snake owners - heartbreaking!), and feeder rats are universally horribly sick and short lived. I spent literally thousands of dollars in medical care for those rats, and near the end of their little lives I was giving them daily nebulizer treatments for their lungs.  Crazy.  I dearly loved those rats, each had their own personality (I should write about those ratties) and I felt I'd at least saved them from a horrible existence in a drawer and then in a snake.  I was closest with a rat my son had named Executioner Smough (after an NPC in Dark Souls); he was incredibly clever and affectionate.  Sigh...  I miss that little guy.  When the last of those eight rescue rats died, I decided I had to have new rats, but this time I'd get some pure bred rats.  Just for my own mental and financial health.  

I adopted Boo and Salad in the late summer of 2016.  They are completely adorable and I would have loved to have gotten more than two (when one of a pair dies the other gets very depressed. One of my rescued rats, Ornstein, died three days after his best friend Beep died.  He just stopped eating.)  But the bred rats, especially the "Dumbo" rats like Boo and Salad, are in high demand.  Mostly because they are so freaking cute and bred not to have the genetic problems that plague feeder rats.  Look at that little face on Boo!

They really are wonderful pets.  You can litter-train them, teach them tricks, and they are more affectionate than most cats.  As with all pets, they each have their own personalities.    

...anyway, that's why I have pet rats.  

Today's Norwegian Phrase: rotter
  Pronounced: (lrot-TEH).
   (Translation: rats)
Exercise: Use "rotter" in a sentence:
Example: "Jeg elsker søte små rotter!"
   (I love cute little rats!)