Reub's journey

07 June 2011

In honor of Mr Bojangles, the rat

Mr. Bojangles, the endearing rat to whom I was introduced over two years ago, has died: complications of old age, natural causes, he is sadly missed. The death of this little guy brought back the memories of that time when our son C and his girlfriend MG moved their stuff to our house and then left for Europe, on a meandering work tour of organic farms. I hadn't planned on keeping their two rats...and then there were three...

This is what I wrote:

Engraving from Kingdom of Nature, published by Thompson & Thomas. The artist is not named.

For starters, there are 66 houseplants, each of them freshly watered, sitting atop my son's
scavenged coffee table, and scattered about the house. There is a kayak. There is a futon in need of a bit of repair, and a bright green chair. There are heavy boxes of books, and stacks of blankets. There is an old bicycle, and a pair of snowshoes. There is a fabulous antique typewriter, in good repair, and very romantic. And there are three good-sized rats.

I have just awakened the rats and let them out of their cage."They will become depressed," he had said, "if they don't have an hour or so out of their cage." As he unloaded sunflower seeds, walnuts, bran flakes, raw peanuts, pretzels, and vanilla chips into a plastic storage container for the rats' food, he added, "They like to listen to the radio. It gives them something to do." There were detailed instructions for cleaning the cage, even a rat website to check out. There was a bag of clean rags, a supply of water bottles, a roll of duct tape, and other sundry supplies. And then off he went to France, with his beautiful girlfriend, whom we love. See you in June!

At first I was against it-- the rats--not the trip. I love animals, but these animals? Carriers of the flea-born plague, not to mention
Salmonellosis, Rat Bite Fever, Leptospirosis, Lymphocytic choriomeningitis, trichinosis, typhoid, and dysentery? Little creatures with awful tails, and the ability to bite with a pressure of 7,000 pounds per square inch? Animals that added a further dimension of terror to Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, not to mention the 15,000 scary rats in Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyr? And then there are the rats of literature: Templeton, the self-absorbed rat from Charlotte's Web, the enemy-rats of Brian Jacque's Redwall series, even pathetic Ratbert from the Dilbert comics. And what discussion of rats could omit the story of the Piper of Hamlin? Just listen to Robert Browning:

They fought the dogs, and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cook's own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men's Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women's chats,
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.
Yikes! I am beginning to scare myself. This is enough for now. Later I will have to explain what brought me around, and why I am now the surrogate mom for three large rats.

Mr. Bojangles

Rat sketches, by Georgia Relman

...both the goose and the gander were worried about Templeton. And with good reason. The rat had no morals, no scruples, no consideration, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything. (From Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White)

At first I wanted nothing to do with the brothers Ansel and Berbatov, Christopher and MG's two rats. "Find them a home while you are gone," I said, "because I don't want them here." And find a home they did, but there were conditions. Here is what happened:

There was a young couple with a big snake. They fed rats to the snake, which is normal, and usually a relatively quick business. One terrified little rat, however, escaped the snake again and again...and the point where the snake owners (although not the snake itself) took pity. They decided to spare this little rat. They offered to care for Ansel and Berbatov until June, but after that all three rats would belong to C and MG. Christopher offered to introduce the rats to one another, a tricky business, it turns out. It needed to happen at our house. It needed a good bit of rat research. And it needed about $15 worth of real vanilla extract, plus a spray bottle of water.

Are you still with me? Because as you have guessed, I became fascinated with the process. It took about a week. C washed out their cage repeatedly, doused them all with vanilla so that they would smell the same, and sprayed them with water when they started to fight. The new young rat, Mr. Bojangles, had his own little igloo to hide in. Then one day, they were all friends, napping together in a round ball of furry contentment. It would work! I thought "Good! Now they can all go back to Bend, Oregon, and live happily until June." But of course by this time, I was already engaged with them. I had handled them and realized how curious and friendly they were. They would not bite me. And I would not contract the plague. Did I want them to go live with The Snake People? So when MG asked me, haltingly, "Do you think they will be upset, will they know what is happening, when in the next room they hear the snake...going after...their kind...?"

So, obviously.

And you know what? There are morals, scruples, considerations, decencies, kindness, compunctions, higher feelings, and friendliness, all of these things involved here. Rats. Three rats.


  1. The food chain is really a bitch. I struggle with it all the time.

    Rats are far more intelligent and discerning than we give them credit for. I hate it that we use them in the lab. It's so wrong.

    I'm not a fan of rodents in general or snakes in particular. But what a beautiful story. Thank you for this!

  2. oh, i think rats are just fine as pets - just keep them out of my horse feed and bird seed and we'll be fine!

  3. Well, you did the right thing. The poor rats would have sensed what was going on next door and died of fright that it might be their turn next.

    May Mr. Bojangles rest in peace, rather than in pieces.

  4. That's a good long life for a rat, isn't it? Lovely story, told so well :-) Only I'm going to be singing Michael Jackson for the rest of the day...

  5. oh, mr. bojangles. we loved you. you were our first rat-love, you know...

  6. I think rats get bad press. yes, they can be all those nasty things but that's wild rats, much like wild cats. wild anything. when I was a little girl, my pathologist father would bring the lab mice home over the weekends when they needed tending. That's one of my earliest memories, the mice in their cages brought home.

  7. Wow what a great piece of writing!! I almost moused away (pun intended) after the first couple of sentences but stuck with it and was well-rewarded.

  8. Reya, This is a tale of the food chain, or at least of interference, isn't it?

    I don't have an answer for the ethical question of using rats as lab animals; that's a hard one.

    ywg: Yep, keep those critters out of the house and barn!

    Friko: Thank you! Mr Bojangles saved himself from the snake and thus deserved a long and peaceful life!

    Patience: Rats don't usually live to be 2 and 1/2; that is ancient.

    I had to google the MJ song about a rat; I wouldn't have known it was about a rat unless you had told me!

    Ellen: I can just imagine a little girl looking into the cages of white mice, and remembering it forever.

    B&B: you almost "moused away?" haha! Glad you stuck it out!

  9. Slim: Your girls were so sweet to Mr Bojangles last November. I'm sure he appreciated their careful handling.


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