What Raising 14 Baby Rats Taught me About Life, Death and Myself

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Words || Max Lewis 

I don’t really want to be a parent. Given the histories of mental illness and substance abuse in my family, my own issues with depression and anxiety, and the fact that I hate children, it’s probably better for me to stick to pets.

Enter Patty and Wanda. Despite my unit’s strict no pet policy, this year I decided to fuck the system and get two female rats. They were cheaper than you think – after a $5 adoption fee from the RSPCA and about $70 dollars for a cage, some food and toys, I was set. It was strange at first, but I soon came to love my beautiful rodent daughters. They have such strong personalities; Wanda is an albino (white fur and red eyes), and very shy, but can get feisty if you work her up. Patty is grey with a white tummy and a being of pure anger and destruction, but also sweet as sugar once she warms up to you. Patty loves being tussled, Wanda is cool with gentle strokes. They both love diced vegetables, tearing up paper bags, and snoozing in their hammock together.

Around Easter I let my friend – who has four rats himself – look after my daughters while I visited family in the Blue Mountains. When I returned to pick them up he mentioned there was a mass breakout, and some potential hijinks of a sexual nature between his boy rats and mine. I was pretty sure my girls a) would never do that and b) were desexed, but nonetheless I spent some time researching signs of rat pregnancy. After keeping a close eye on their vaginas and general behaviour, I concluded they were baby free after about 3 weeks.

A week later I was about to go to Uni when I heard strange squeaking from their cage. Patty was sitting strangely in her hammock, surrounded by bits of bedding covered in blood. Fuck. I softly poked her to get her to see if she was still alive, and when she moved her head to glare at me, I saw she was sitting on a writhing pile of pink beans.

Turns out she was pregnant after all.

Needless to say, I was rattled. I’d just started getting less shifts at work so money was tight, and I didn’t think I was able to give the babies the support they needed. I was absolutely petrified of opening the cage one morning and finding desecrated carcasses of baby rats – the mother will eat them if they are unhealthy.

As the days ticked by, though, everything seemed fine. Patty looked like she wanted to die every time I opened the cage, and I would often see her gripping the bars with her tiny hands, beady eyes peering at me like a desolate prisoner. Ah, the joys of parenthood. The babies, though, were on track. Their eyes and ears were still closed to the world, but they were quickly getting bigger, and growing unique fur patterns. I made sure Patty was stocked with food – especially cheese and yoghurt for maximum milk opportunity – and tried to tidy her cage the best I could.

What was fascinating was how Patty cared for her children. She’s apparently a firm believer in tough love, because I often saw her stepping on the babies or roughly picking them up with her mouth. Sometimes when I opened the cage while she was feeding she would emerge from her nest with a mass of wriggling beans attached to her teats, screaming as they held on for dear life. If H.P. Lovecraft saw that he would shit his pants to death.

Around day five I was allowed to touch the babies without them being eaten, so I took this opportunity to properly clean the cage and make a good nest for them. Holding a new life in the palm of your hand is a very surreal experience; I kept thinking that this tiny bean that wasn’t a thing six days ago is now a conscious being. In two weeks it would be seeing, hearing and smelling the world. One week later it would be sexually active. Two years and it will be dead.

As the days went on the babies grew exponentially. Around the two week mark, while checking on the kittens, I saw one had opened its tiny eyes and was staring at me. I picked it up and it crawled up my arm with remarkable ease, nestling in the sleeve of the robe I was wearing at the time. Two weeks ago this rat was a wriggly jelly bean screaming for tit milk, and now it’s capable of sight and movement. Imagine if humans grew this fast!

It was around this time my general anxiety about the whole situation was replaced with excitement. All fourteen of them were growing up before my eyes, and I was shocked at how happy I was about the whole thing. I was looking forward to watching them learn to eat, play, wash, being able to give them weird names and watch their personalities grow in no time. The only thing I was dreading was having to give them away.

At the time of writing my boyfriend had taken some HD photos of the babies and put them on his Twitter, asking if anyone wanted to adopt them. The post has, somehow, gotten two thousand retweets and almost five thousand likes. It’s amazing seeing my grandchildren get the recognition they deserve, but also bittersweet. I’ve never interacted with a baby anything, yet here I was helping raise fourteen unique lives and watching them grow with each passing day. Am I willing to part with them?

Sometimes I look at a cute, well-behaved kid and think, ‘Maybe I could do that one day.’ But then another kid will screech and cry, or run into me at Woolworths while I’m trying to buy chives, and I’ll be filled with an unspeakable rage. It’s different when they’re your own, though. Obviously I didn’t create the rats, but I feel an inexplicable connection to them I haven’t really felt before. Right now I have another three weeks or so until they’ll be fully grown and I’ll have to make a decision – keep all fourteen rats (plus the 2 I already had) and raise them all, or give them away and potentially never ever see them again.

Will I become a parent? I still don’t know. But my experience helping maintain new life has left me with a weird feeling. Wouldn’t it be nice to do this for real, with someone I love?

Once I remember the size of baby turds compared to rat turds, though, that thought leaves my mind pretty quick.

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