For years, I have been entrusted with my children's goldfish, stray cats, and hamsters while my offspring traveled, went away to school, and then finally left home without them. But I warned my teenage daughter when she brought a rat home from the local SPCA. "It's yours, my dear. Now and forever."
All I could think of was that whimsical character Templeton in E.B. White's children's classic "Charlotte's Web." Templeton the rat raided Wilbur the pig's stall for warm slops and then, still hungry, rummaged through every trash bin he could find at the county fair. "I am naturally a heavy eater and I get untold satisfaction from the pleasures of the feast," he sneered, patting his stomach.
But White's rat was confined to his muse and the printed page. t didn't live beside his kitchen door, in a cage.
It all started innocently with my confusion over species. Daughter Lara was in high school at the time, taking some heavy science courses, so naturally I expected a field project once in a while.
"Whatcha got there, Lara?" I asked. "Why, that looks like a mouse!" I pointed to the small animal in a cardboard box that my daughter had just lifted cautiously onto the kitchen counter.
"She's just a baby ... r-odent," Lara replied, too quickly. "I'm going to call her 'Lulu.' Don't worry, Mom. I'll only keep her until my biology course is over."
As the school year progressed, Lulu grew, and so did her tail. It grew suspiciously longer and fatter. And her teeth lined up for some heavy-duty gnawing. "What did you say she was?" I asked again.
Lara hesitated. "I think the animal shelter said she'd grow to be a rat - but don't worry, Mom, I'll be taking her with me to college. I hear kids have all kinds of small pets in their rooms."
"Don't forget," I warned. "She's yours."
I was already counting the number of creatures that had suddenly become mine over the years. Let's see: Willie the hamster, Ollie the goldfish, Amos the rooster, Moon the cat. I swore it would never happen again. Ah, but familiarity can breed tolerance, I discovered. Long before Lara left for college, we adjusted surprisingly well to a creature that cities pay huge sums to exterminate. Lulu easily fit into our routine. She could hear me preparing dinner at night, and if I had any leftover bread, I'd stuff it between the bars. She'd grab it with her teeth and jump down off a ledge to where she stashed her loot. I'd hear her chiseling away at it during the night. A rat will eat most anything. I had to warn visitors to stand at least two feet away from her cage if they had anything that looked like a pretzel or a droopy lettuce leaf.
In the mornings, when she slept in, Lulu was no more than a ball of fur, her rubbery tail wrapped around her. Lara would stuff an old sock or a rag in a corner so Lulu could make a nest. She would run around with wood shavings in her mouth, rearranging her bedding every so often, storing a stale biscuit or two underneath.
Everything you read about a rat's nest is true. Yes, they are messy and eclectic. And whatever was in her reach was in her nest: newspapers, house plants, paper bags, and - always - food.
"It pays to save things," Templeton said. "A rat never knows when something is going to come in handy. I never throw anything away."
By the time Lulu was awake midday, she'd be rattling her cage like a monkey. Her pink feet would wrap around the bars, and then she'd chew on one end to make a grinding noise. How else could she tell me she was hungry?
Thankfully, my daughter took responsibility for Lulu's care when she was home. She shampooed her pet in the bathroom sink. She'd put Lulu on our greenhouse window and we'd watch her dig around in the loose dirt and jump from shelf to shelf. (That adventure stopped once her digging moved on to a nearby geranium.)
Lulu's stay at college was short-lived, however. She was in the dorm for only a week before Lara found it necessary to conceal her because of "house rules." In other words, NO PETS. Lulu lived in a cage in Lara's closet for two months until she chewed a hole through a laundry bag. She was home by Thanksgiving.
"Just until I graduate," Lara assured me.
BY the holidays, Lulu had become a way to meet new people and start up a conversation. My daughter traveled around with her on her shoulder in the house and in the car. The neighborhood kids loved to watch Lulu rub her face and handle food with her tiny paws. Friends would come to the house and I'd say, "You'll never guess what I have beside my dishwasher!" Better I tell them beforehand, I figured, than for them to go around the corner and find out. Then I'd add, "Don't worry. She's not staying long."
That's what I thought. But by the time it was clear that our children had really left home for college and jobs, Lulu was still with us. My husband and I had talked for weeks about traveling and changing lifestyles. But what would we do with all our responsibilities, like pets?
Just a few days ago, we noticed a neighborhood fox prowling around our backyard henhouse. He had caught two hens last week. We could breathe a sigh of relief, though, remembering that we'd latched the henhouse door that morning.
Fearing my flock's extinction, I asked, "What do foxes eat, other than birds?"
My husband looked out the window. "Oh, they eat rabbits, frogs, bugs, ... and rodents," he replied. Then he glanced over at Lulu's cage. I felt horrified.
"No way!" I protested. At that moment, I realized Lulu was mine.