I missed Pudding when he went.
We were now settled in our new family home, I still had my private rabbit shed, and soon I began to wish I still had a pet rat.
That year we went to the prestigious London Championship Show, which then was still held at the Alexandra Palace. There were rats there for sale, and I came home with two boys; a silver fawn Rex named Roobarb, and a champagne hooded Rex named Stig - a curly Pudding! I loved the rex rats and have done ever since - my rattery is not complete without a fat curly boy in residence. Sadly Roobarb was found dead in his cage one morning for no reason I coud see, but Stig lived on and was loved.
Rat articles were just beginning to appear in "Fur & Feather", including Eric Jukes' celebrated series. I learned a lot from these articles, and soon realised that I wanted to try breeding. The National Fancy Rat Society had been formed a few years previously and was just starting to become known.
The rise of Punk music, and the release of The Stranglers' first album, Rattus Norvegicus (with a gorgeous picture of a rat framed by an incandescent sunset on the cover) helped to make rats a fashionable pet. People wanted something different, and if it offended the sensibilities, more the better!
My first female rat was Daisy, found in a pet shop in Taunton, Somerset. I had just started art college there, and on a free afternoon saw her and fell in love. By then I knew enough to know she was an agouti hooded, and not badly marked either, with a long straight saddle that stopped just short of her tail. She came home with me, and when big enough was put in with my two boys. Although I didn't know then which was the father of the litter, when I learned about genetics I understood it was dear Roo, before he died.
The litter were wonderful - 14 squiggly babies, mostly hooded but some Berkshire and self, of various colours. Some were Rex, some normal coated. A silver fawn hooded was adopted by my sister Jennie and named Handsome, or just Handy - he was the most charming rat you could hope to meet. One of my friends took four bucks of various colours - black, champagne, agouti and cinnamon, all Hooded, including two Rex. I managed to find homes for them all and we just kept Handsome as a companion for Stig.
I kept my rats in the same hutches as my rabbits in my shed, giving them plenty of space. Modern rat keepers may think this odd, but not only were there no books or rat foods avaialable then, but the only cages one could buy were tiny hamster cages no more than a foot long. Clearly these were not suitable for such active little creatures, so they lived in spare rabbit hutches with wire that could not be squeezed through.
Handsome and Stig lived for a while in a two-tier hutch with a blue Dutch rabbit buck in the apartment below. One day I went into the shed and had quite a surprise. Unknown to me, Handsome had found a way to chew through the wooden floor of his home, and there he was, curled up asleep on the back of the rabbit's neck behind his ears. These two formed a strong attachment and lived together permanently, Handy was always next to his bunny friend.
Another remarkable story came from the first litter of rats I ever bred, but that's a tale deserving its own space, and you can read more about Daisy's babies below....
From left to right: Henna, Penny, Laura, Hatty
litter was my first litter of rats, and I loved handling them every day
from birth, watching them develop. Daisy didn't mind me touching them at
all, as did none of the many female rats I later owned and bred from.
As they grew they became more adventurous, and one night when Daisy's litter were about 3 weeks old, two little babies raced energetically out of the cage door under my hand, and before I could do anything to stop them, they tumbled off the shelf, fell to the shed floor and vanished beneath a stack of hutches.
I looked in vain for them but they had disappeared. For days I hoped they might come back to their mother, but that was the last I saw of them. I tried rigging up a hamster cage as a kind of live trap but the cage was empty day after day, and the days slipped into weeks, which then became months. Winter brought snow, and I sadly resigned myself to the thought that the babies had been too young to survive for long.
More than a year later I had a disaster in my animal shed. One morning I discovered that "something" had chewed through the wood of my chinchilla cage and poor Horace the Chin was lying there dead and partly eaten. I had experienced a similar thing before when we lived in a more rural area: wild rats had attacked and massacred my family of pet guinea pigs in the same way. I wondered about what to do, but scarcely had time to worry, as one night a few days later I glimpsed, by torchlight, a brown and white patterned rump and long tail disappearing under the hutches! By some incredible means, one of the tiny babies from Daisy's litter had survived!
I rigged up the hamster cage again. This was the old type which had a spring loaded top opening: I removed the spring from the top door, attached some string to it and tied a piece of fresh bacon rind to the end. To get to the bacon, the rat would have to go inside the cage, and reach up to pull at the bacon, which would pull down the lid.
About a week later I went into the shed and was amazed to see a fully grown agouti Hooded rat in the trap. She (for it was female), was healthy and strong, and terrified of me. I smuggled her into my bedroom and started to try and tame her.
She would allow herself to be handled, would not bite, but her whole body would go rigid and tremble. It was amazing to feel the strength in her hard little body, and she was incredibly well muscled and fit. After a few minutes she began to relax. I worked on her every day for a week, and soon she was as calm as my other rats. I named her Laura.
In the meantime, I saw evidence that she hadn't been alone. Another rat was at large in the shed, and I soon found a hole in the floor under a heavy hutch. I hoped it was Laura's sister who had escaped at the same time as she, but it could have been a wild one, as all I saw was a dark agouti shape one night. I almost caught it one time, and bravely stuck my hand down the hole, where my finger was promptly bitten to the bone!
This one took a little more cunning to trap, and a little longer, but in turn she also took the bacon. I was rewarded with a stunning red agouti Berkshire doe, who was so richly coloured she looked as though she'd had a henna rinse - I have never seen another rat of this colour, before or since. It was Laura's sister, and named Henna, she joined Laura in my bedroom, but was always a little more nervous.
A few months after their return, Laura had become so tame that I entered her in the Pet class at a show. Being awarded second place out of ten amazed me - and everyone else who heard her story.
my experiences with Henna and Laura, I strongly believe that early handling
of baby rats every day from birth "imprints" them and gives them a bond
with humans which stays with them for the rest of their lives. They were
3 weeks old when they escaped, and over a year old when next handled by
NOTE: This story occurred 20 years ago, when knowledge and understanding
of Weil's Disease (Leptospirosis) was not widespread. This disease
is carried by wild rats in their urine and kills many people every year
- farm workers, cavers, windsurfers, sewage workers, and anyone who comes
into contact with water contaminated by rat urine. Laura and Henna could
have caught this from wild rats during their time living rough and infected
me, my other rats or anyone else who handled them.
Nowadays I would not have welcomed them, nor handled them without having them tested first (though I would not have found a vet back then who could have done this anyway!). As I have mentioned, knowledge has changed over the decades. Some years ago The National Fancy Rat Society brought in a rule stating that any member who owns wild Rattus Norvegicus may not show or sell rats until the wild rats have been tested negative for Weil's Disease.