Rhonda Mawhood Lee: Bless all the beasts, rats included

Two cute pet rats

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Despite their reputation, rats -- at least the domesticated variety -- are warm, empathetic companions who challenge the lines we draw between “lovable” and “unworthy,” says an Episcopal priest. Remember them and other unpopular pets this St. Francis Day.

A few years ago, like most pet lovers at our church, I took my beloved animals to our annual St. Francis Day celebration and the blessing of the beasts. Because my pets were basically prey to virtually every other animal who would be there that day, I kept them safely enclosed in a carrier.

Among the lovable dogs and cats and rabbits, the pair met with a markedly mixed reception. Although many children rushed forward to meet my small furry friends, others recoiled. But with those who would listen, adults and children alike, I shared stories of the qualities that made these creatures such entertaining and gratifying companions.

Several times a day, they would wrestle, box and chase each other in circles before collapsing into a sleepy heap. They loved to be petted and to snuggle into the sleeves of my sweaters. They would nibble a single raisin with a focus and delight that eludes all but the most devoted human practitioners of mindfulness. They would assiduously groom my hands with a similar intensity that was enchanting.

It meant they accepted me as a member of their family. As their fellow rat.

Off and on over the past seven years, I have had a series of pet rats -- always two at a time, because, like humans, rats are social mammals that need company to thrive. Members of the same species as wild rats but domesticated by human handling, pet rats -- also known as “fancy rats” -- have many of the same attractive qualities as other pets I have kept. They are clean like cats and trainable like dogs. But as rodents that feel compelled to chew everything in their path, pet rats need to be kept in cages and supervised when they’re brought out to socialize.

Ours lived in a 4-foot tower we call “the Rat Mahal,” filled with toys and ramps to make life more interesting for these intelligent creatures. Sadly, lovers of pet rats set ourselves up for frequent heartbreak, as the average domestic rat lives only a couple of years.

Most people who don’t keep rats don’t understand the attraction. Rats have a reputation, and it’s not good.

Most notoriously, wild rats were blamed for the plague that devastated medieval Europe. Because of their large numbers aboard ships moving from port to port and their vulnerability to the fleas that actually transmitted the plague bacterium, they were the ideal disease vectors.

Even today, wild rats can be a public health problem. Just a few months ago, New York City residents became ill and died from rat-borne illnesses in areas of the city where the rodents proliferate. For millennia, rats and mice have also threatened grain harvests, prompting human beings to domesticate cats (or, as many biologists put it, cats to domesticate themselves).

Overpopulation of rats has harmed nonhuman species, too. The seabirds of Australia’s Rat Island are only just beginning to recover from the damage inflicted upon them in the 19th century by the wild rats and feral cats who tagged along with sailors coming to mine the birds’ guano, an important component in both fertilizer and gunpowder at the time.

No wonder rats are seen as a menace, a pest with a lot of suffering to answer for. They can pose real dangers to humans and other creatures. No wonder most parents can’t imagine their children having rats as pets.

But having counted rats among my friends, I have seen their other side. Research confirms my impression of rats as warm, empathetic companions. Studies have shown that rats will wait to enjoy a treat until they have rescued a fellow rat in distress. Back in the 1950s, researchers found that rats refused to press a food-dispensing lever once they realized that pressing it would deliver an electric shock to another rat.

It’s probably not fair to compare behavioral studies among different species, but it’s worth noting that most human participants in the notorious Milgram obedience experiment did not show such compunction. Calling an untrustworthy person a “rat” may insult the rodent more than the human.

I suspect the real reason for rats’ bad reputation can be found in the negative side of human nature, in our propensity to sin and our desire for scapegoats. Too often, people have blamed rats for what happens when we fail to love our neighbors. When rats infest working-class areas and public housing, it’s the consequence of a breakdown in community. It’s the sign of a society in which too many don’t have what they need to lead a decent life because those with more haven’t provided for the common good. Even the rats that devastated the seabirds of Rat Island were a concomitant of colonization and war, as the guano miners sold their product to Europeans occupying aboriginal lands and to manufacturers of gunpowder.

I always enjoyed taking my rats to church for a blessing on St. Francis Day, because their presence there questioned -- in one small way -- the lines that we draw between what we consider “lovable” and what “unworthy.” That’s a line St. Francis of Assisi himself was always crossing. He embraced lepers, denying that their illness was God’s judgment on their worth. He begged for his living, making himself vulnerable to other people’s generosity or lack thereof. He refused to kill what he feared, whether an insect, a wolf or another person.

The whole of St. Francis’ Christ-shaped life challenges us to do far more than open the church doors to pets one day a year. Keeping companion animals is an act of hospitality. As we’re asking God’s blessing on them, we might also ask for whom else we are willing to open our hearts and our homes.

Keeping pets also means having power over them. As we celebrate St. Francis, we might reflect on how kindly, cruelly or neglectfully we use our own power and what forms of power we could give up so our fellow humans -- and other creatures -- might live more freely.

At a St. Francis Day service a few years ago, another priest blessed my rats just before I blessed a pet snake who would gladly have dined on my rodent friends. As the snake’s person and I made eye contact, we shared a knowing nod as guardians of unpopular pets. We won’t be bringing our pets together for a play date; we don’t yet live in God’s peaceable kingdom. But when we learn the lessons that come from loving them, and seek to love our human neighbors with even a fraction of Francis’ fervor, we can make that heavenly country a little more visible from here.