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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tugging Behavior

Domino is finally getting to be trust trained to the point of grooming me. According to one rat expert, he should have been at that point long ago. He licked food off of me fingers, though, following it with bites.

Once visitors were witness to him grabbing the skin of my hand and pulling, tearing long gouges in my skin.

He was neutered two weeks ago, which has calmed him somewhat, but he still tugs on my clothes. I've noticed several rats doing that, though. Sometimes, I know they want the fabric of my clothes for nesting. Sometimes, I know they are enticing me to play. But, Domino, I am not sure of. I've been bitten by him about 6 times now and may just be gun-shy.

I tried to play with him once, and he took offense. Just now, he will let me touch him briefly, without biting.

Finally, today, he sat in my lap and nibbled my fingernails...clear grooming. And when he tugged on my shirt, he was careful not to get skin. But I don't know what it means. And I wonder if I will ever completely trust him.

My closest guess is that rats use their teeth like hands in some ways. Know how you may playfully pull at a loved ones clothes? Or tug on a sleeve to get someone's attention? That's what this feels like to me.

Something I read recently said to give your animals a job, so that they feel useful. I asked Domino to bring in new volunteers, so I always thank him when we get a new one. Maybe that is what the tugging behavior is...he's letting me know he's pulling in a new one!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Security in Rituals

Bernadette has to have her teeth trimmed every two weeks, due to a malocclusion. She has become so used to it that she sits calmly on my lap at the vet, admired by all who come in.

Today she had a lot of anxiety. She climbed all over me, digging in her nails. She could not stay still except to climb under my arm to urinate...very unusual for her.

At first I thought it was because I was tense...the holidays, the traffic, forgetting the office would be closed until the last minute and having to rush.

I was really concerned. She is almost two and her brother died of bone cancer. Anything off in her makes me antsy.

Then I realized my behavior in the office was different. Instead of sitting on the bench in front of the front desk, I sat in a chair and looked at a magazine. Change can be enough to throw any of us off, especially in a potentially scary situation.

Over and over again, I have noticed how important ritual is to least to rescued rats. The only change they seem to enjoy is new toys and a clean cage.

Anything new in Bear's routine takes him until the second time to become comfortable with. The first time I put him in my lap to tickle him, he was confused. The second time, he got it...we can also do tickles in mommy's lap. When I let him run around in the bathroom while I dress or bathe, he knows exactly what my last move will be before time to leave. Right beforehand, he will clamber to get up my leg and onto my I don't leave him behind? All of them seem to be as relieved to go back to their tables as they do to get off of them.

Though sometimes I'm off with the timing of meds or dinner, I make sure to do everything in the same order right down to who gets their dinner bowl first. I can feel the anxiety in the room, if I don't. Bless their hearts...born into lives of chaos and danger, they cling to every measure of security and safety. Don't we all?

Next time I take Bernadette, forget the pleasure of People magazine and a plush chair. I will take my seat on the bench, where everyone who comes in can see her, and she them...where she will feel safe.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Here, I was given an opportunity to speak for 5 minutes in front of an audience of 800 people. One month later, it was on youtube.

Watching this today, for the first time, and listening to the audience's response...well no wonder I cried. How difficult to be right in the midst of a rescue it and breathing it every day, then trying to talk about it to unsympathetic listeners.

If it weren't for Sara, this may not have been received well at all. I knew her brief life was for a purpose...this was it. The audience turned when I cried on stage.

All the discussions us "rat people" have about which antibiotic to use first and which diet is best fades in importance when so many are being put to their cruel deaths every day.

Last night, I read accounts of how rats suffer when strangled to death by snakes and how, because we have minimized the importance of their lives, they are treated with unimaginable cruelty in the name of fun.

As I held the soft, warm bodies to administer medication, I could not fathom how or why a human could bash one of these bodies against a wall to knock him out...or step on him in order to crush him to death. But then, we know the same atrocities have been committed against our own kind, so why not these helpless creatures?

I think what we do to small animals is symptomatic of the big problem. As long as we think there are people or animals that are lesser than ourselves...less worthy...less deserving...we will not have peace. We will not have peace in this world until we learn to treat our littlest creatures with care and realize that every living being has a right to be here and to be treated with respect.

I don't encourage everyone to have a companion rat, but, I encourage everyone who wants a healthy world for themselves and their progeny to have respect enough for every living creature to speak out against tortuous and barbaric behavior of every kind.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Senior Living

Cleaning Bernadette's cage today put me in a reflective mood. I filled her area with warm hammocks, interesting places to climb and fresh toys. Six people live on this 5' banquet table with 2 open cages. Every time I clean a cage, I change things a little.

When I finished, Bernadette was at the end of the sofa, waiting. Some of them know when I've finished and they wait, eagerly, to see the changes.

I sat and watched her check out every toy, climb through every tunnel and test the beds. Twice she came back to me to thank me and offer her approval.

Next was little Sammy, then Jack Frost and Bartholomew. Each of them spent a good 10 minutes exploring.

Last I went to get Irene and Mocha. I found them together, under a blanket, Irene lying across Mocha's back...a young boy making a soft place for a senior. I sat and watched them for a few minutes, remembering. Bernadette and Irene are nearly 2 years old. When they arrived, they were with 2 cage mates, who later died. Then they were introduced to Buddy, who also died. Then they lived with Tot and Pongo, who were adopted.

Finally, I chose four "sanctuary" rats to stay and be their companions, because Bernadette and Irene are permanent residents. Bernadette wanted nothing to do with anyone else. Now she can be found curling up with each boy, in turn, on any given day.

Irene has always loved everyone else. She came from a very sad took months to get her to trust us enough to let us pick her up. To see her contentedly snuggled with her young companions and know that she will have companionship for the rest of her life is such a comfort, as it is to be able to give her a good life in many other ways.

I would be happy to live out my last days with the kind of life these older rats have...surrounded by friends, caretakers, entertainment, warmth and good food. May every senior citizen of every species have opportunity for similar blessings!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Healthy Bear, Healthy Me

I've witnessed karma in action with Bear. Bear bear, baby boo, baby names for a rat that wiggled his butt so that he could sink his teeth into my arm on the first day we met. The bruise took nearly two weeks to heal.

This morning, we use every excuse to touch each other gently...him rubbing against my hands, nose to my face, reaching to be picked up...and I tickle or touch him each time he passes me. I adore him and know he loves me deeply.

Love is a given after trust-training. I've never trust-trained a rat and not had a mutual bond form. But Bear and his biting brought an extra blessing of laughter.

I don't laugh much. This business is too sad; I don't always feel so good; and I don't work very hard to bring laughter into my life. But Bear...well, Bear has me giggling twice a day.

I guess it's his huge, muscle-packed enthusiasm. Everything is great fun to him and his whole body shows it. Most of his movements are hops, leaps, bounds or running. He is excited about: my peeling an orange, the smell of an apple, the smell of other rats on the sofa, the possibility of a hidden rat in the blanket, getting a piece of orange, getting a peanut, finding an M&M and being tickled.

He lets me know when he is ready for tickling by leaping toward my hand and doing a 180 degree turn. Then he grabs my finger (gently) and wrestles a bit.

He's ready for any new game. I pat my lap, wanting him to hop up and roll over so I can rub his belly. He eagerly hops onto my lap and looks at me...not sure what I want, but ready to try.

He appears to be trying to squeeze in all the happy moments he missed in his previous life, into this life. Everything I do, everything I give him delights him.

And even when he has kept me laughing for 30 minutes straight, when I put him back on his table this morning, he has one more trick. He picks up a toy, carries it to the edge and drops it on the floor right in front of me. He looks very pleased as I burst into laughter one more time this morning.

I have often sensed that when we laugh, our rats enjoy the sound. Our laughter seems to increase their antics. Bear works twice as hard as any other rat I've known, to keep me laughing. The bite didn't even leave a mark, but the laughter is carving some deep grooves into my marred soul.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

From Buddy to Bear to Domino

If you've kept up with The Rat Retreat, you'll know Buddy passed away. He became fully trust-trained, was introduced to and lived with two girls, one of whom he dearly loved, had a huge tumor removed and recovered to live several more months. Every moment of working with him was worth it as I witnessed him living a life of joy. When a second tumor formed and attached, he was put to sleep. He had not been eating well for two days. He had spent enough of his life suffering.

The next rat that required a lot of work was Bear. His success story and the details of trust-training a biting rat, are documented on The Rat Retreat Facebook page.

Now I am working with Domino. I will not repeat his history, also documented on The Rat Retreat Facebook page, but will start with today.

He was neutered about 4 days ago. Yesterday, in front of a visiting group, he grabbed the skin on my wrist and tried to pull me that way. When I got my arm away, he lunged and caught my hand in his teeth. I was quicker! I only got deep scratches, but everyone gasped and exclaimed. I saw this morning that Domino was suffering the rat's equivalent of embarrassment over that incident.

Every morning I trust train him, leading him into my lap with food, waiting for the hormone-inspired, territorial impulses to die out. After yesterday, I decided to keep some distance. I brought my bowl of cereal to the end of the table and offered to share. Domino just looked at me...sad and puzzled. I realized that he himself did not understand why he had bitten me yesterday, and was unhappy about it. I explained to him that it was just hormones...part of his nature...and that he would begin to feel calmer and less territorial. I took him a piece of cereal and told him I was not mad at him.

After eating the cereal, he slowly crept across the table. I felt so sad that this beloved creature didn't come to me boldly. I have only worked with him and spoken softly to him, hand-feeding him tidbits to let him know that I want peace with him. Perhaps my having to wrap him in a towel to return him to his table after biting, was causing him to feel less than loved. I know he must have felt some kind of sting yesterday, too, as our 9 visitors played and laughed with the other rats, while avoiding him.

I encouraged him to come to my bowl and share my breakfast. He finally took a mouthful of banana and cereal and went back to his hiding place. After he finished that, I carried to him the last two bits of cereal and waited for him to finish those and return to the bowl. He drank some soymilk from the bowl, but refused my offer to climb into my lap. At least when he walked away this time, he did not cower. He had a return of some pride...knowing he is loved. I took the last of the bowl and lay it in front of him...a hopeful offering for a better day tomorrow.

I have noticed that we both have to take a few steps backwards after a bite. I have to relearn to trust him and he to trust himself. Tomorrow will be 6 days since neutering. If he starts to pull on my clothing with his teeth, I will quickly wrap him in a towel and remove him from my lap, again. Better to risk embarrassment than the setback of another bite.