This past Friday, my wife and I saw the new film from the reunited (I’m happy to say) Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, Ratatouille. The Pixar films are always an event for us, but I went into Ratatouille looking for more than just Pixar’s usual dedication to quality animation, character, and story. I wondered if, as they had with toys, fish, and automobiles, Pixar would get rats "right"?
The way they walk, the way they run, the way they sit up and look at you, even the look of rat bites; Pixar clearly did a great deal of research into the behavior, movements, and habits of real rats and it showed in all of main rat Remy’s actions. As much fun as I had with the characters and story of Ratatouille, I enjoyed watching Remy BE a rat just as much.
Why the interest in real world rat accuracy? Simple.
For almost the first half of this decade, rats were a huge part of my life.
My wife and I are pet people. We adopted two cats within four months of moving in together and bought a bearded dragon soon after that. We also thought it’d be cool to have a Small Animal pet. She leaned toward guinea pigs. I did some research though and come up with something different. Something out of the ordinary. Something perhaps, yes, a little bizarre.
I wanted rats.
This is Warren. He was one of the first two rats we got (we kept more than twenty over four years) and, when all was said and done, was probably my wife’s favorite. We got Warren and his cage mate, who we called Malden, from a Petco in the Union Square section of Manhattan and my wife had to trundle them up to our apartment in the Bronx on the subway. Keeping them out of harm’s way on that harrowing trip was, I think, the first thing that helped bond Warren to her, but there was more. Rats, you see, are not only quite intelligent, but quite emotionally sensitive, too. They choose their favorite humans from those available and prefer to spend their time accordingly. I didn’t quite believe it when I read it in my pre-rat research but it’s absolutely true; rats are like little dogs. They’re loyal, they’re sweet, they want to spend time with you and, unlike dogs, you can walk around the house with a rat happily riding on your shoulder. In short, rats are pets that love you back and Warren, though already quite old when we got him and never before properly cared for, learned to trust and love my wife and I for as long as he lived with us, which wouldn’t be nearly long enough, I’m afraid.
Warran and Malden, both "old men" when we met them, died within a year of bringing them home. But, their work was done and their legacy laid. We were hooked on rats.
That’s Bosco over there. We kept many rats I loved, but he was my favorite. Unlike Warren and Malden, we got Bosco and his cage mate T-Bone when they were wee. Bosco is only a few months old in that picture but, already, I felt the bond forming. Bosco chose me, you see, and would always gravitate my way when the rats were out for play time. In fact, I remember the first night we had Bosco and T-Bone, we brought them into the play area and I ended up with Bosco in my shirt and T-Bone up my pant leg. At the same time. Even though we’d had Warren and Malden for a few months, it was a bit overwhelming to have to two little rats inhabiting my clothes. It was a good trial by fire, though, and we quickly learned keeping young, energetic, inquisitive, outgoing rats was a different animal altogether.
Bosco grew into a little Sherman tank of a rat. Once he and T-Bone moved in with Warren and Malden, Bosco established himself as the Alpha Rat in waiting (as you saw in Ratatouille, rats are extremely social animals with a definite hierarchy) but, being the kind of soul he was, never forced the issue. In fact, when Warren grew hobbled with age and disease, the other rats would move aside to allow him access to the food or water. And although he was clearly in charge of the cage at this point, Bosco always treated Warren with deference and respect, which only made me love him more. It was all at once heartbreaking and adorable.
Bosco would rule the roost until his death but, in the meantime, he and I had a lot of fun times together. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a rat groom the hair on your arm, or on the back of your neck…just because he loves you.
Bosco was my friend. I miss him.
Somewhere along the line, we discovered there was another whole world of rats available to us. Like dogs, cats and rare, exotic reptiles, there are rat breeders, my friend.
And, as a toy collector, you’ll appreciate that that means variants.
Warren was a an albino, essentially a lab rat. Bosco was what’s called a Bershire, meaning dark with a white belly; a common variation. The gentleman on your left is what’s called a dumbo rat…and I think you know why. In case you don’t, it’s because his ears are on the sides of his head, rather than the top (and there’s another Disney connection to the world of rats). The thin, white stripe along his snout is called a blaze and is a prized marking. His name was Gordy and, along with his brother Wally, another dumbo, he came from a breeder in Pennsylvania we drove two hours, each way, to get to. Gordy was, without question, the cutest rat we ever had, and that I have ever seen. He was another outgoing, bossy type, though not quite the gentleman Bosco was, who also choose me.
Wally, far more timid and kind of wussy, didn’t really have a favorite human but, as you can see, knew how to look adorable when necessary. Gordy and Wally were the best of the breeder rats we kept. They lived full lives and enjoyed themselves as much as we enjoyed them. Gordy even spent some time as the Alpha Rat.
So, you’ve met Warren, Bosco, Gordy, and Wally. All awesome rats. Each of them one of the best pets I’ve ever had. But none of them are involved in the coolest rat story I have to tell. In fact, the coolest rat story I have to tell doesn’t involve me, or any of the rats that chose me. No, the coolest rat story I have to tell involves a rat who chose my wife and bonded to her like none of our rats bonded to anyone.
His name was Julius.
This is Julius. Let me explain.
There are such things as hairless rats, it’s a variation (or I suppose some might say, a mutation) of the regular domestic rat. That’s not what Julius was. Julius was a double rex, which is another variant in which the rat is hairless but for some dark fur around the snout. Julius, like Gordy and Wally, was also a dumbo, so as a result he looked more like your Uncle Morty than any rat. He came to us from a pet store a few counties away along his his brother Irving, who looked about the same, only more so. Julius really took to my wife. He always wanted to be with her. He’d groom her hair. He’d trim her nails. No, I’m not kidding. He was also extremely outgoing and fearless. We used to keep the rats’ food in a big tub that had once held caramel popcorn. There were times when, as soon as the cage door opened and he saw the tub in our arm, Julius would jump out of the cage into the tub and begin his meal there while the other rats clambered in the doorway for the first shot at the food we scooped into their bowls. That was Julius.
But never more so than this one time…
The play area we had for the rats was called The Great Wall. It was basically a large roll of thin, but solid, plastic that you unspooled and wrapped around to form a freestanding pen. The wall was about two feet high and we used to sit in it with whatever rats we had to play with them as they played with and harassed each other. One day, Wally, who wasn’t in a social mood, jumped to the top of The Great Wall and balanced on the eighth-inch thick edge. Quite the feat of agility, even for a rat. Wally just stayed up there, out of the fray, and shimmied along the top of The Great Wall; he never went over to the other side. That was fine with us, but there was something we didn’t know…
Julius had been watching.
Flash forward a few months. My wife was in the bathroom hosing down the cage. The rats were all in The Great Wall. I was on the couch, supposedly watching to make sure none of the rats went over the wall but actually watching TV. I heard a familiar noise and, sure enough, Julius was on top of The Great Wall, doing the Wally shimmy. "Make sure you stay there, Julius," I said. They all knew their names, and most came when called, so Julius knew I knew what he was doing.
But I looked away. And he made his move.
When I next looked at The Great Wall, Julius was gone. I checked the immediate area; no Julius. I was about to call out to my wife to alert her to the breach in security when I heard her say, "What’re you doing, you?" I went round to the hall and there was my wife, carrying the cage back from the bathroom. And there was Julius, standing in the middle of the hall in front of her, waiting to be picked up. He’d escaped The Great Wall and my lax attention for just one reason.
To look for his human.
We don’t have any rats anymore because, while the joy they bring is unparalleled among any pets I’ve ever had, they’re lifespans are cruelly short which, as much as anything else, led to our scramble to get more of them as the ones we had aged and died. Eventually, we realized you can’t outrun time, even on a small scale. If you’re lucky, a pet rat will live about two years, two and and half if you’re really lucky. Bosco lived about that long, so did Gordy. In Ratatouille, Django would be about two, Remy less than a year old, though rats live for less time in the wild, so they might not even be that old.
But, like Remy, most of our rats made the absolute most of the time they had. In retrospect, that’s enough for me.
So, here’s to Pixar for making a movie about rats in which the rats behave as rats. To those who question the decision to make an animated movie about rats in a kitchen to begin with, I can say only this:
It’s not so hard to love this guy…
…when you used to hang out with this guy.