The History of Pet Rats

The following story is the true history of pet rats. The facts are all here, but they are told with my own style and interpretations thrown in for interest. It comes from many sources including a few text books and websites (I have forgotten them because the facts are implanted in my mind) and Nick Mays' book The Proper Care of Fancy Rats (T.F.H. Publications Inc. 1997)

Human Folly and Disease

Once upon a time, there existed a group of the smartest--and stupidest--species on earth: human beings. These people were rather slow to figure out that they lived in the worst possible conditions. In the 1300's in Europe, human beings were living in crowded cities where there was little to no thought of health or sanitation. People threw garbage and even their own waste (urine/feces) into the streets. They let dogs and pigs run loose in order to help clean up, but there is only so much dogs and pigs can do. As would be expected, this human (and dog and pig) filth attracted all of nature's sanitation workers, including bugs, stray beasts, and of course rats.

The rats in Europe at this time were the species Rattus rattus also called the black rat. This animal was small and lithe, a climber. It was also host to a little flea that carried a deadly disease. How and why the disease got in this flea and this flea got on this rat is not really known. Perhaps God decided people were getting by on dumb luck too much and needed a serious wake-up call to get their acts together and clean up their filthy lifestyles. Whatever the case, the humans were there, encouraging these rats to come and stay by offering them so much food and shelter with their poorly designed cities and piles of waste.

So, of course, people got sick, many people. Most who got the disease died from it. They didn't have medicines to treat the disease, and they didn't have the planning or conditions to prevent the disease or its spread. It killed enough people to be called a plague. In fact, to this day, we call it "The Plague" or "The Black Death" for the blue-black color of the skin of those infected.

Fighting the Disease

The Plague continued for 300 years. Think about it, 300 years there existed this terrible disease, which had several major outbreaks throughout Europe. Human beings tried their best to get rid of it, but as inventive as they were, human attempts had limited success.

I imagine the first thing they tried (since this is the train of thought for human beings) was improving medicine. So, they got better medicines and could treat sick people. Not as many were dying. Remember, however, that the poor could not afford the medicine. The people still lived in filthy conditions and they were getting worse because the cities were getting bigger and more crowded. The disease would not go away despite the medicine.

At one point, people decided that cats were 1)evil and 2)the cause of the disease or spreading it. Then came the brilliant human solution to kill all the cats, which would stop the disease. Many cats were killed. The black rats were probably very happy about this and enjoyed some extra freedom and a population boom.

Eventually, people decided that cats were no longer a major problem, but there were a lot of rats, so they tried killing the rats by training dogs (terriers) to kill them and by setting traps and poison. Good idea, right? Wrong. With their prefered hosts dead, the fleas sought out new hosts, most often human beings. When the rats were around, those fleas (remember, the fleas are diseased, not the rats) preferred rats, but now they were biting people more. And no traps, poison, dogs, or anything else could kill all the rats, because rats are clever animals. And as long as there was plenty of human filth to live off of, the rats would live in the cities.

Humans were slowly starting to figure things out. They redisigned their cities and improved sanitation. Less people were getting sick and more people were getting medical treatment. People were gradually improving their health and cleanliness, and it was working to some degree. By this time, however, rats were quite comfortable and happy living in human structures and off of human food and waste. As the people improved their structures, the rats devised better ways of getting what they wanted from people.

The Unsung Hero

During this time, another conflict was occuring, one of natural competition between species. A new species of rat had made its way to Europe. This rat was Rattus norvegicus also called the brown (or Norway) rat. (This rat was mistakenly thought to come from Norway; actually it came from Asia.) The brown rat was a larger animal; it was more of a ground-dweller and burrower, well suited for life in the new cities and their new sewer systems.

As I said before, the plague fleas would prefer to stay on the black rats rather than people if it could. The fleas also were not fond of brown rats. They were simply not seen as hosts by these disease-carrying parasites. In short, the black rats were vessels for the plague, while the brown rats were not.

Human cities had changed, and now two species of rat were competing for the position of "sanitation worker" and the ability to live off of human spoils. Being larger, better able to handle cold weather, and well suited to burrowing and life underground or in sewers of the redisigned cities, the brown rats spread quickly, driving the black rats out of cities and much of Europe.

And the black rats took their disease-ridden fleas with them.

Persecution Begins

Newcomers to Europe, brown rats were immediately singled out as scape goats for all the diseases and problems in human society and labeled as filthy and diseased, mostly because of the plague, which they not only didn't spread, but actually helped eliminate. It can't be denied that rats did and do their share of structural damage and food contamination, but all animals come into a lot of conflict when they live alongside human beings. (Humans are greedy creatures that cannot compromise or cohabitate with other species unless they are "domesticated.")

Rats were not given any breaks or consideration in the world. Even ones that were doing no harm or far from civilization would be killed on sight. People did not recognize them as living creatures by any stretch. (Even today, laws protecting all other species often do not extend to rats.) People remained the stupidest intelligent animal, and could not accept that they have to share the world with other animals, many of which are not cute. Myths and urban legend arose to further condemn the rat. I believe what angered and frightened people the most was the fact that rats could outsmart them. They could get into their houses, eat their food, elude their traps, avoid or build immunities to their poisons. Rats were very good at self preservation and that made people furious, because people felt they held the unquestionable right to dictate the positions, habitats, and even existance or non-existance of every animal on earth. How dare rats survive when people wanted them dead!

A hideous human sport was popular at this time--and it persists today as evidence of cruel and sadistic human nature. The sport is called pit fighting. In some forms it was training and fighting two dogs against each other until one was dead or near death. Sometimes, people would fight several dogs against a chained bear. Another favorite was putting a terrier in an enclosed place with a hundred rats and time how long it took him to kill them all. Yes, rats received a lot of bad treatment and it continues today. I sincerely doubt they did anything to deserve it. All they've ever done is survive....

Pets vs Pests

Somehow through reproduction and random mutations of genes, some rats were born that were not "brown" but more attractive colors. When people came across these animals, they would capture them and keep them as novel pets. A man named Jimmy Shaw ran an establishment that hosted those horrendous pit fights that I just mentioned. When visiting the establishment, Henry Mayhew (author of London Labour and the London Poor 1861) noted the following:

"After finishing his statement, the landlord showed me some very curious specimens of tame rats--some piebald, and others white, with pink eyes, which he kept in cages in his sitting room. He... handled them without the least fear... the little tame creatures did not once attempt to bite him."

There we had captive rats, not far removed from wild ones, already trusting people enough to allow handling without fear. These creatures, who had no reason on earth to trust human beings and every reason on earth to fear them, were acting tame, perhaps even tamer than many domesticated cats and dogs. Shaw was breeding these animals to get these attractive colors. He was obviously handling them and showing them off, probably selling them as pets.

That isn't the first account of rats bred and sold as pets. A man named Jack Black was an exterminator for Queen Victoria. He was known for reaching into cages full of wild rats and pulling them out for crowds to see while (amazingly) not getting bitten. He wrote an article on how to avoid getting bitten by rats. (Black supplied rats to many of those pit fighting rings, by the way.) Black ran across many unusual colors of rats including black, albinos, fawns, and even shades of gray. He kept and bred them for colors and patterns and sold them to ladies who kept the animals in squirrel cages.

The animal that had been despised and hunted with great hatered was improving its image, at least to a select few. Clubs were formed to show rats, and they started becoming more accepted--years before the appearence of hamsters and gerbils in the pet trade. I think the saddest thing of all is that these animals had to change their outward appearence before people would stop and consider what their personalities were like. They had to be beautiful or unusual for people to hesitate in their "destroy-on-sight" mentality. These animals have been fighting hard for survival, tolerance, and acceptance from the very beginning, and they still have such a long way to go. Human beings remain very stupid animals...

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