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Rats in a basket

Rats make great pets and even great friends, as attendees at the Bell Museum's July 14 Rat Fest will find out.

The rat thing to do

The Bell Museum presents Rat Fest to celebrate a lovable but misunderstood mammal

By Deane Morrison

July 9, 2007

Sometimes, when they're all in the bathtub together, Stacey De La Luna's three young children like a little extra company. But their mother has a better idea than tossing them a rubber ducky. "I'll just throw in a rat," says De La Luna, a Twin Cities-area rat breeder who keeps several as pets, including one that free-ranges in the house and loves bathing with kids. (No, she doesn't actually throw the rat in the tub.) De La Luna is just one rat expert who will be on hand at the Rat Fest, an all-day expo Saturday, July 14, at the University's Bell Museum of Natural History. It's part of the museum's "Animals Behaving Badly" series of summer events for all ages that playfully explores the quirks and calamities attendant on wildlife and humans sharing each other's back yards. Rat Fest will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Museum, 10 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis. If you meet enough rats at Rat Fest, you'll get a sense of them as individuals. "Each has a unique personality. It's amazing how different two rats can be," says Scout Sheffield, a former rat breeder who will attend the event. "One may be very kind to others and bring them food. Or, they may attack each other." But before going any further on the topic of rats as pets, let's get to the big question: Can you house train them? "Yes," says Sheffield. "Any rodent will typically use the same area [as a latrine] as long as it's kept clean. I would put different bedding in that area." Rats may have small brains compared to cats and dogs, but don't count them out in the smarts category, says Sharon Jansa, a University assistant professor of ecology, evolution and behavior and curator of mammals at the Bell Museum. "When I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, we had pet hamsters and rats in the lab and would let them out of their cages during lunch," she says. "Hamsters were just the dumbest things on the planet. They would fall off the table. But rats never fell. They scampered over bookshelves and computers. "Rats are curious and problem-solving. They would try to get the lids off food containers." Laboratory rats and mice are not native to the Americas, says Jansa. They come from the Old World, most likely Southeast Asia.

"We used to put kittens with the rats," [De La Luna] explains. "The rats would beat them up, and they'd learn not to mess with them. Now, we have a 5-year-old cat that the rats chase."

The world's largest rat is the giant arboreal leaf-eating rat of the Philippines, which measures about two feet from snout to tip of tail. In western and central Africa, another large rat, the Gambian rat, is a delicacy. Its sensitive nose also makes it valuable in sweeping for land mines. But don't worry; the rat is too light to trigger a mine. The rat's phenomenal sense of smell impresses Sheffield. "I'd get chronic sinus infections, and they'd know it before I did," she says of her pets. "They'd sniff one of my nostrils. Two or three days later, I'd get an infection in that side." Unlike owners of cats with hairballs, owners of litter-trained rats never have to worry about "deposits" on their carpets. Rats are unable to vomit; in fact, they can't even burp. (Maybe that's one reason they evolved such a good sense of smell; they have to check out their food carefully, because every bite is a commitment.)

Rodent or not?

Sharon Jansa offers a few tidbits about some well-known rodents and rodent-like critters:

All rodents, including squirrels, have a prominent pair of ever-growing incisors and a big gap between them and the cheek teeth.

Gophers are rodents; they eat vegetation.

Moles are insectivores, not rodents; they eat insects.

The muskrat is a type of vole.

Woodchucks, also called groundhogs, are squirrels.

Gerbils are closely related to rats and mice.

Speaking of cats, De La Luna found an ingenious way to keep feline friends from attacking their natural prey when her back was turned. "We used to put kittens with the rats," she explains. "The rats would beat them up, and they'd learn not to mess with them. Now, we have a 5-year-old cat that the rats chase." Rats love to wrestle with each other, and will even go to the mat with a ferret, she adds. But Sheffield cautions against mixing rats with mice, guinea pigs or other "pocket pets"; rats will kill those species. They love to cuddle with their owners, though--especially older rats. Throughout history, rats have been hated for various reasons, says Jansa. "I think it's because they're a pest," she says. "They're not shy. They eat grain and meat and other human food. "Also, things that scurry seem to trigger a fear reaction in many people. Snakes, spiders, small rodents, and so on. But a rat is unlikely to hurt a person if healthy, well fed and not threatened." Rat Fest goers will get a chance to talk with Jansa about her research on wild rodent populations. Also, adoption representatives from the Animal Humane Society will answer questions about rats as pets, and experts from the museum's Wildlife Information Line will field questions about living with wildlife. Check the museum's Web site for more on "Animals Behaving Badly" or the museum's Thursday night outdoor film series, which begins Aug. 16.