Essays - Spring 2016

Meditation on a Rat

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Who would have thought that this unlikely creature could help make a family whole again?

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By Lucy Ferriss

February 29, 2016


 

 

The boy’s version of The king is dead! Long live the king!: “Why’d you have to kill the dog? When do we get another one?”

For most of the 17 years that Samba was alive, we thought of her as my husband’s dog. A gift from a work colleague, she arrived one night when I was in bed with the flu, and by the time I recovered, she’d made herself at home. Only when I left my husband, moving to a new house, beginning a new job, and gaining full custody of our two prepubescent boys, did Samba become mine. Mine and the boys’, that is. By this time, she had gone blind and incontinent. I didn’t want her, but I couldn’t let go of her either. One day, my husband found me cleaning up her mess in the front hall and insisted we put her down. She was his dog, he said, and he was making this decision.

We hadn’t gotten divorced yet. I tunneled through the days. We didn’t kill the dog, I told the boys. We kept her alive longer than nature would have, and now we had let her go. In her honor, we planted a dogwood in the back yard. “And you can get another dog,” I went on, determined to limit my responsibilities, “when you have spent six months caring for a pet whose death I will not mourn.”

Months went by. Just as I had with the dying marriage, I waited overlong. Each Sunday evening, my older son, Luke, the prime mover in the new-dog project, announced that he was ready for the pet store. Each Sunday I promised we’d go during the week, when the store was open. Then he forgot until the following Sunday. Finally he screwed up his courage on a Friday, and we drove to Fins & Feathers, where it was love at first sight—with a $250 ferret.

I amended the conditions. A pet whose death I would not mourn and that cost less than $60. Thirty seconds of whining, then we moved on.

To the turtles, the fish, the canaries, the geckos, and the gerbils. There is no shopping quite so strange as small-pet shopping. Here’s this plethora of carbon-based life forms yanked out of their environments, bred to withstand captivity, and assigned a price tag. Taking them home in their bowls and cages, we name them and foist on them the full weight of our anthropomorphism. We mistake their survival strategies for affection, their hunting or mating rituals for play and song, their bright or carefully camouflaged markings for adornment. They support a nearly $60 billion industry, die young, and spread disease.

Luke considered a turtle with a neck like my grandfather’s. He paused in front of a parrot that regarded him with ball-bearing eyes and refused to say he wanted a cracker. Finally he made his choice. For $20, a gray-and-white, pink-nosed baby rat.

“They’re very smart creatures,” the Fins & Feathers guy said, pulling the rat from its glass cage to show Luke. “He’ll triple in size, but if you handle him regularly, he’ll become very affectionate.”

I wondered if they were trained to use the word affectionate about every creature in the shop. I watched the rat’s tail, its hairless gray thickness, the wide, pale pink stripe midway down its length, the dry reptilian texture of the skin. “How long do they live?” I asked.

“Year and a half, if you’re lucky,” said the F&F guy.

“Maybe we can get two of them,” Luke said, “and they can have babies.”

“They’re social creatures,” said the guy.

“Mom?”

“I said one pet whose death I will not mourn.”

The guy looked at me.

“It’s an expression,” I said.

“Well, it’s hard to tell sometimes,” said the guy, “if they’re male or female.”

“This one’s a boy,” Luke said, petting the thing behind its pinched ears. “I can tell.”

I let Luke ask the questions about cage size, feeding, cleaning, handling. “So you’re sure,” I said, when we had assembled all the paraphernalia, “you want a pet rat.”

“I’m naming him Skibber,” Luke said.

“Why?”

“Because he looks like a Skibber, duh.”

When Luke’s brother, Dan, saw the rat, he said, “Ew,” and then, “Cool.” Luke cleared the top of his dresser, and Skibber moved in. Two weeks later, my husband and I put our marriage—shambling, blind, incontinent, beloved—out of its misery.


The breed of rat kept as a pet is known as a fancy rat, from the British idea of fancying an exotic pet. They were first bred in the 19th century for the blood sport of watching a terrier slaughter a corral full of them in record time. By the early 20th century, pet rats were sitting on ladies’ laps in the finest English households. Though their brains are smaller than those of their wild counterparts, they compensate with increased tolerance for noise, smells, crowding, and the other conditions of domesticated life.

Though I didn’t have the horror response of our favorite babysitter, Alyssa, who would not set foot in Luke’s room after Skibber moved in, I held the rat only a few times. I never felt comfortable with that tail draped over my wrist. Luke, however, wore Skibber around the house like a coonskin cap, and even brought Skibber to the dinner table. When I would not let the rat wander among the placemats, he perched on Luke’s shoulder and ate the bits of lettuce and broccoli that Luke passed his way. Both boys liked to do their homework in the living room, and often Luke deposited Skibber in the potted plant by the sofa, where he nested in the dirt. I would go to turn out the light and have to call up the stairs, “Luke! Come get your rat!” Although I told myself I would not mourn Skibber’s demise, I was not eager to discover him dead under the piano at the end of a trail of rat shit.

As a draw for neighborhood boys, Skibber was unparalleled. Both Luke and Dan got street cred by pulling Skibber out of his cage and passing him around. “Your mom lets you keep a rat?” the other boys asked, impressed.

“Sure,” my guys said. “We’re getting a dog soon,” they said. Or, “We used to have a dog,” but the other boys didn’t seem interested in news of a dog.

“Can it do tricks?” they asked.

“Making rats do tricks is mean,” Luke said with authority.

“My mom’d freak out,” one boy said.

“What if you got a mouse to keep it company? Would it kill a mouse? That’d be cool, to watch it kill a mouse.”

“Skibber,” Luke said, holding the rat on his flat palm, stroking it with one finger from head to tail, “wouldn’t kill anything. He’s a vegetarian.”

“He’s my rat, too,” Dan sometimes said, and to my surprise, Luke let him take Skibber to pass around his own circle of friends, down in the basement. Dan liked to set up mazes for Skibber, usually with a chunk of cheese at the end. I’d wander downstairs to see a dozen boys peering over the walls of books and planks. When Skibber hit a dead end, he would sniff the air and begin licking his paws. Eventually Dan would turn him around and nudge him through the labyrinth again. “He’s not hungry enough,” Dan would complain when his friends grew bored with the performance.

“We’re not going to starve him,” Luke said.

Sometimes Luke took the cage out to the middle of a broad field across the road from us. I’d stand at the front window and watch him open the cage, coax the rat, then finally reach in and pull Skibber out. He’d set him down in the long grass and kneel alongside, or stretch out on his belly. After 10 minutes, they’d return. “Skibber doesn’t understand he’s free,” Luke complained. “I want him to run in the field. He should get exercise.”

“Luke, a rat in the middle of a field is a target for a hawk. Skibber knows that. He’s frightened in the field, he wants to hide.”

“I wouldn’t let a hawk get him.”

“He doesn’t know that.”

“He should trust me.”


How peculiar it is, this business of pet owning. One mother I know gave in to her son’s begging for a boa constrictor. Snakes need to be handled regularly lest they become aggressive, so when the kid lost interest, she began wearing the snake around the house as she picked up toys or cooked dinner. Once, she forgot and answered the door draped in snake. Other families we knew cultivated iguanas, gerbils, a monkey, a pony, a mongoose. In the boys’ younger years, in addition to the dog, we’d made our way through a chameleon, two betta fish, a passel of goldfish, and a brief series of rabbits. Caring for a pet is supposed to be a healthy experience for a child. Frequently animal care is prescribed to help the mentally ill learn empathy and acceptance. But we know nothing of how the animals feel about this relationship. In the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” he proposes that “our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms … and that one spends the day hanging upside down.” But at least we know that the animal Nagel is discussing exists in its natural environment, where the usual needs for food, shelter, and reproduction apply.

For the animals we keep, none of these imperatives holds. Moreover, most of these animals have been bred, like Skibber, to be more accommodating to our needs. Bearing only a distant family relationship to animals found in forest or stream, they exist more as a fulfillment of human wish than as animals in themselves. Although Nagel asks rhetorically, “What would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?” he doesn’t address the notion that we are engineering creatures whose subjectivity is inextricably bound up with their altered biology.

So maybe a word like trust can be applied to a creature like Skibber, or maybe not. Maybe he feels his cage is a home; maybe he feels imprisoned, whatever that means for a rat. In the Rat Park experiments of the 1970s, rats living in an “enriched environment,” with male-female colonies, plenty of space, and ample amusement, proved immune to morphine addiction, whereas caged rats took to the drug with gusto. That this stark difference conveyed a message for humans about social conditions and heroin addiction seems irrefutable. But analogizing Rat Park as Utopia and the cage as the slum doesn’t mean that Skibber’s experience is anything like that of the large black rat in Richard Wright’s Native Son. At the start of the novel, the rat that Bigger Thomas aims to kill emits “a long thin song of defiance,” foreshadowing Bigger’s own entrapment and dehumanization. Yet does the rat defy anything? Can it sing?


Six months went by, eight, 10. Luke turned 14. He cleaned Skibber’s cage, kept the water bottle filled, dispensed food and treats, reminded me when supplies were low. If he slept over at a friend’s house, the cage moved to Dan’s room. The system was perfect. Maybe, I thought, a rat was enough. Maybe they had forgotten about the dog. This was fine with me. I had never been a dog person. I’d spent much of my childhood overcoming a keen fear of dogs.

Then one Sunday night, Luke looked at the calendar and counted the months. “Hey, Mom,” he said, “let’s go to the pound.”

“They’re closed right now, honey,” I said. “We’ll go during the week.”

The pattern reestablished itself—Sunday night bids followed by a week’s worth of reluctance—until, after Skibber had been with us well over a year, Luke thought of the pound on a Thursday afternoon. With a queasy sense of dread, I kept my part of the bargain. We came home with a terrier puppy that the boys named Bernie, after one of their favorite NBA players.

Luke was now taller than I was. He’d started to be interested in girls. Dan was blossoming into a fiercely competitive athlete, with a travel schedule and practice every afternoon. I had been a single parent for two years and saw a steep climb still ahead. “You can make up a schedule for Bernie,” I suggested, as we set him up with chew toys and pee paper. “One of you walks him in the morning, the other at night. Or whatever you boys decide. Just scoop the poop, and be sure he’s got fresh water at home.”

It was late October when we took Bernie on his first tour of the neighborhood. The nights had gone cool and dry; leaves carpeted the lawn. Luke unhooked the dog from his leash, leaned down, and hugged him. When he’d straightened up, he hugged me. “Now we have a dog,” he said. “Now we’re a family again.”

And I knew that, whatever responsibility I might try to assign for the dog, my fate was sealed. I could refuse to mourn a rat. A family was different.

As for Skibber, the boys were determined that he and Bernie would be pals. Terriers, I pointed out, are bred to hunt rats. One snap of Bernie’s jaws would spell the end of Skibber. The prospect of rescuing Skibber at the last moment tantalized them, but I foresaw disaster. I called the vet. How old is the dog? he wanted to know. Had Bernie seen the rat in its cage? Had he smelled the rat? Well then, he said to my surprise, they should be fine.

And they were. The boys set them up on Dan’s bed, with blankets and pillows pushed to the side. Bernie shoved his nose aggressively underneath the reptilian tail, and Skibber regarded him with the patience of an elder whose clumsy grandson is being a nuisance. Luke and Dan squealed like the children they were rapidly leaving behind. When Bernie began batting at Skibber with his paw, they put him back in the cage and went off to call their friends.


What I thought was the end came one day about three months after Bernie moved in. Luke called me at work. Something was wrong with Skibber. He was walking funny. His head was shaking. No, Luke hadn’t taken him out of his cage. No one had handled him.

“He’s had a stroke,” I said when I came home to find the rat gimping around the side of his cage, his head cocked oddly and bobbing repeatedly.

“How do you know?” asked Dan. “You’re not a doctor.”

“I’ve seen strokes,” I said with adult-simulated confidence.

“Is he hurting?” Luke asked.

One of the debates that roll on about nonhuman animals is the degree to which they suffer. Feeling pain, apparently, is one thing, suffering another. It presumably involves some awareness of pain, perhaps some sense of time—that is, I suffer from this headache because it has gone on and on, whereas an ant with an injured leg may avoid walking on that leg because it increases the pain, but the ant has no awareness of the pain’s persistence and so does not suffer. If we could just breed the suffering out of chickens and cows, some argue, we could bring many vegetarians back into the carnivorous fold. Luke was asking, I think, whether Skibber was suffering.

I hedged. I thought of Samba, the cataracts clouding her eyes. Friends had advised me, as my marriage slowly frayed, that a clean break would be better all around. Fewer lingering doubts, less scar tissue, less suffering. “Skibber’s lived a lot longer than he was supposed to,” I said. “I think this is his way of telling us he’s ready to go.”

“Go where?” said Dan.

“She means die, stupid,” said Luke. Then he fixed me with his stare, a vampirish scowl he’d picked up from the movies. “You’re not killing him, too,” he said.

“What I think would be kindest,” I said, “would be to let him go into the woods. That’s where he wants to be. I mean, he’s a rat. He’ll just go somewhere quiet and die peacefully, on his own terms.”

“Maybe the vet can fix him,” said Dan, watching Skibber round the corner of his cage, Quasimodo on four legs.

“I don’t know if the vet treats rats,” I said.

“You could ask.”

“I could.”

“When you asked about Bernie and Skibber being friends, the vet said you were wrong.”

I took a deep breath. The boys were 15 and 13 now. Already the lesson of this whole experiment was fading: I took Bernie for his nightly walks, I kept his water bowl filled. “But you remember our deal,” I said. “Skibber is your pet. If you want him to go to the vet, you need to arrange that.”

“You mean pay for it,” said Luke.

I nodded. Luke locked eyes with Dan, who was better at hoarding the cash from allowances and odd jobs. “How much?” said Dan.

I gave them the number of the vet, and Luke called—$65, he reported, for an office visit and exam. Dan put up $40, Luke $25. The first appointment they could get was the next morning, when they were in school. “All right,” I relented. “I’ll take him. But if the vet says I’m right, that there’s nothing to do for Skibber, do you want me to leave him there?”

Luke had gone with his dad to be with Samba when she was “put down.” I had not been at all sure this was a good idea, but forbidding it raised a specter of the unknown that was almost equally disturbing. He’d come home rattled. She was there, Luke had said to me that night, holding my hand before he fell asleep, and then she wasn’t there anymore. I thought it would be different, he’d said, and tears ran down his cheeks.

Now he conferred with Dan. No, they said. If the vet says Skibber must die, bring him home and we’ll let him go in the woods, like you said.

Thus I found myself sitting in the veterinary waiting room with $65 worth of crumpled small bills in my pocket and a cage with a stroke-ridden rat on the bench next to me. When I was called in to the examining room, I apologized. The vet confirmed that the rat had had a stroke. “But is he eating?” he asked.

“He ate some yesterday.”

“Drinking?”

I nodded. He set the cage on the floor and pulled the rat out. Skibber bobbed and gimped his way around the examining room. “He’s fine,” the vet said.

“But he’s had a stroke!”

“Sure. People have strokes, too. And they go on living.”


The real end came a few weeks later, while I was out of town with Dan at a tennis tournament. Alyssa was babysitting. On the phone Luke reported that he’d come home from his summer program to find Skibber motionless. “Aw, honey,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay. He died peacefully. But I don’t know what to do.”

“Do you feel up to burying him?”

“Not by myself.”

Alyssa, I knew, would not touch the rat. I told Luke to put the cage in the basement, where it was cooler; I’d take care of it in three days, when we got home. Dan, texting his friends, looked up to say he would miss Skibber. By the time we returned, both he and Luke seemed to have forgotten about the death. I descended to the basement and flicked on the fluorescent light. Skibber’s cage was in the corner, behind what was left of one of the old mazes Dan used to construct. Looking deflated on its floor, like a ratskin rug, Skibber lay. As I drew closer, I saw the maggots going in and out of his eye sockets. I clamped my lips over my scream. Quickly I carried the cage upstairs, through the kitchen, and around the corner of the back yard.

Dan was upstairs unpacking; Luke was playing a video game. “Was that Skibber?” he asked when I came back inside to hunt for a trowel.

“Yes, honey. I don’t think you want to see him.”

He paused the game and looked at me. “I guess not,” he said when he saw whatever he saw in my face.

“I’m going to bury him,” I said.

“Thanks, Mom.”

We didn’t discuss whether disposing of the carcass was part of being responsible for a pet whose death your mother would not mourn. Dan, I gathered, thought Skibber had already been buried. But I felt unexpectedly terrible as I reached inside the cage with the trowel to pull out Skibber’s infested body and lay it in the hole under the dogwood. It seemed wrong to have let him rot like that, for four days unburied. Despite my best efforts, the rat had awakened in me that familiar, unsettling sense of sympathy.


I don’t recall what happened to Skibber’s cage, his bottle, or his bag of kibble. He would be the last penned-up animal with whom I would cohabit. The dog has lingered—living long, as mutts do, while my boys have grown up and moved away. Now my partner and I take turns walking him at night; we bemoan the cost of kenneling him when we’re out of town. For a while, my partner pointed out that since neither he nor I wanted a dog, Bernie might be happier in a home with kids who would play with him. Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t—what is it like to be a dog? Either way, you can’t relinquish that which made you a family again. I can’t, anyway. Luke and Dan expect, when they come home, that both Mom and the dog will greet them with sustained and unbounded ecstasy.

The morning after I buried Skibber, I was standing at the kitchen window with a cup of coffee and noticed Bernie frolicking about the back yard. This was no ball or stick he was playing with. Luke and Dan were still asleep, and I ran out barefoot, in my bathrobe, and shooed the dog away from the quarry it had dug up. Then I took hold of the rat by its handy tail and flung it over the fence, into a neighboring copse. I slapped my hands clean and went inside, leaving the dog panting, his memory of his playmate erased like a cartoon on a chalkboard, the transitory stuff of our imaginings.


Lucy Ferriss is the author of 10 books, the latest of which is a novel, A Sister to Honor. She is writer-in-residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.


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