“Honey, can my friend the anaconda tamer come and stay with us for two days?” I asked my husband.
“Is she bringing an anaconda?” he asked, alarmed.
“No, the anacondas live at the aquarium,” I replied. “But she’s bringing her six rats.”
“Six rats!” he exclaimed.
“That’s why she can’t stay at the inn,” I explained. “And one of the rats is sick. So she can’t leave them at home.”
In the end, my gracious husband welcomed our multi-species guests, but only two of the rats showed up. My best friend and fellow columnist Liz Thomas was upset. “What happened to the other four?” she asked. She, like me, had wanted to meet all six, and was disappointed that my friend had left four of them behind.
Rats bring out vastly different feelings in people. Those who despise rats are usually laboring under one of many rat misconceptions — like the recently exploded myth that rats brought the Black Death to Europe. (Maligned for eight centuries, black rats were finally exonerated just last February, when University of Oslo scientists discovered the culprits bringing plague-infected fleas were really Asian gerbils.)
Those who appreciate rats tend to be folks who can look beyond an animal’s reputation and see the creature’s true nature — people like my friend, the anaconda tamer, Marion Lepzelter. (Her anaconda exploits will be the subject of a later column. And no, she does not feed rats, or any live animals, to the anacondas.)
“Rats are as smart and affectionate as dogs,” Marion assured me as she took Zero, a white rat, age 2, out of her sturdy travel cage for me to hold. Soft and warm, Zero looked me in the face quizzically, whiskers questing, eyes bright and curious. I offered her some yogurt on the tip of my finger. She licked it speedily and cleanly with her tiny pink tongue, and thereafter we were fast friends. “This is Sy,” Marion told her, just as if she were introducing two people.
Rats understand some human words. They easily learn their names and will come when called. They can fetch, walk a tightrope, and sit up, among other tricks. Marion has taught several of her rats to “play basketball,” eagerly carrying a ball toward a mounted hoop, standing up, and then pushing the ball through the hoop with their tiny, dexterous hands. A Belgian charity has trained giant African pouched rats to detect landmines and diagnose tuberculosis.
“Zero’s just a plain old white lab rat, but she’s the snuggliest rat I ever had,” Marion told me. As she chucked Zero under the chin, Zero closed her pink eyes in ecstasy.
Zero came along to provide comfort and companionship for Pepper. At age 3, Pepper, named for her dark fur, is ancient. She’s blind, missing some teeth, and like many elderly people, takes a variety of medicines, including Viagra (which was originally developed as a heart drug.) But she still relishes loving touch. When she’s not cuddling with Marion, Pepper snuggles with Zero, who is her best friend.
All rats — the genus Rattus has more than 60 species — love to snuggle. Rats are social animals. They help other rats in trouble, establish friendships, sleep together, groom, and play with each other.
And like people, rats laugh when they’re happy. Using a bat detector to make their ultrasonic chirps audible, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp discovered this in 1990. Rats laugh when they play with each other, and they laugh when they’re tickled. Laughing rats playfully seek tickling from their people just like dogs urge their people to play.
In later experiments, Panksepp discovered that happy, laughing rats are more optimistic. He trained rats to associate pushing a lever that yielded a treat with one tone, and a lever that could avert an electric shock with a different tone. He then tickled one group of rats and merely handled another. Then he played a third tone, one that sounded similar to both the others. The rats who had been tickled rushed to press the level that yielded yummy food. Because they had laughed and were happy, they expected good things from life.
Perhaps we can learn from them, and from Pepper and Zero. When we approach an animal expecting it to be clean, intelligent, and friendly instead of dirty, stupid, and mean, more often than not we may find our expectations rewarded — and begin to enjoy the company of an animal we may have previously feared.
Sy Montgomery co-writes the weekly Tamed/Untamed column in the Globe, and is the author of 20 books on animals and nature. Send questions on animals to firstname.lastname@example.org.