Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever

Misunderstood: Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever

by Rachel Toor

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As much a moving memoir as it is an amusing pet manual, Misunderstood is a unique nonfiction book for teens and tweens about domesticated rats in general and a wonderful rat named Iris in particular. Brimming with smarts and energy just like its furry subjects, Rachel Toor's text blends history and science with profiles of interesting people and autobiographical anecdotes as it joyfully sets the record straight about why this reviled creature is actually a most amazing species. Readers will come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation of domestic rats—and may be convinced to adopt one themselves.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374303099
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About the Author

Rachel Toor has been an admissions officer at Duke University, a high school cross country coach at the North Carolina School of Science and Math, an SAT prep tutor, and she currently teaches writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. A featured columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education, she is the author of four previous books including the YA novel On the Road to Find Out.

Rachel Toor was an admissions officer at Duke University for three years. She currently writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education and various running magazines.

Read an Excerpt


Why the Humble Rat May Be Your Best Pet Ever

By Rachel Toor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 Rachel Toor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-30309-9


The Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate

Why do so many people abhor/fear/detest rats?

Iris was my second rat.

My first, Hester, I got after college when I lived in New York City and worked in publishing. Hester and I had a rocky start. She had been raised in a laboratory and had never been handled. Early in our relationship she bit me. Twice. Not hard, not enough to draw blood, but as a signal that I needed to slow down and let her adjust to a new world order of no longer living in a lab. Her affectionate nature outweighed her fear, and we soon came to love each other.

Hester was the perfect apartment-mate. She never cared if I stayed out late, as long as I let her leave her cage for playtime when I got home. She didn't need to go for walks, though I sometimes took her, perched on my shoulder, for strolls around Gramercy Park. When I lived with Hester I learned how misunderstood rats were by the general public — even people who claimed to love animals seemed to feel no compunction about saying "ick" or "gross" when it came to rats, and not just the strangers who saw us on our infrequent rambles. My friends, all of whom knew how much I adored Hester, sometimes made mean remarks about my roomie.

When I met my future ex-husband he realized that the way to my heart was through my rat. He let her play on him, saved tasty morsels of food for her, and when she got sick at the fairly old age of three, he drove us to the vet and held me while I cried. For a long time, I couldn't drive past Hester Street in lower Manhattan without turning into a sniveling wreck.

My future ex-husband convinced me to move in with him by promising we could get a dog. We did. My wonderful mutt Hannah lasted much longer than our marriage.

Then, when Iris came into my life, I remembered how rats are basically like tiny dogs but easier to live with in many ways. Iris, so laid back, so accepting, so willing to go with the flow, became more than a pet. She was a role model.

Having a rat made me think about lots of things, not the least being why, when rats are clearly superior companions, so many people are disgusted by them.

Try to imagine describing a friend and having people respond, Eeeew! Redheads are soooooo gross! Or, People who talk with a Southern accent creep me out. Or, I hate tall people. (I do, actually, hate tall people. Well, not hate them, but a jealousy this strong can feel like hatred. In fact, some of my best friends are tall.)

Most of us have learned it's not okay to smush a diverse group of people into an easily reduced and quickly dismissed lump. Most of us know that even in a field of daisies that look identical, small differences make each one unique if we bother to look closely enough.

When I hear smart, educated, socially aware folks say something as dumb as "I hate rats," I unfriend them.

No I don't.

Though I'd like to.

Instead I remember how bigotry and prejudice rely on ignorance to thrive. And then I try to teach them.

"If you don't like rats," I say in the gentlest, most teacherly tone I can muster, "perhaps it's because you haven't gotten to know one. Have you ever met a rat?"

Then I steel myself like a football player on the line waiting for the hike. I know what's coming. I brace myself.

I wait. It usually doesn't take more than a few seconds.

And there it is: "The tail!" they wail. "I just can't take the tail!"

Even the most articulate of my friends can't find the words to describe what they don't like about a rat's tail. So let's talk about the tail.

It's long. Yep. It's long. That's because rats use their tails for balance. They can climb ropes, maintain equipoise in precarious positions, stand on their back feet, and use their tails like the poles circus performers carry on the high wire.

It's naked, or at least that's what some people who have never examined one up close think. Why would a naked tail be so upsetting? Perhaps when we see animals missing patches of hair we believe they're sick. Maybe that's it. People think a hairless tail is less healthy than the bushy appendage found on, say, dog-taunting, birdseed-stealing, car-crash-causing squirrels.

Or maybe the naked tail reminds them of a snake. It's reasonable to be afraid of snakes, especially if you don't know which are the dangerous ones whose bites could kill you. But far from being naked and snaky, rats' tails are actually covered with tiny hairs and they do another important job. Rats can't pant like dogs, and they don't sweat like horses. They use their tails for thermoregulation. When they get too hot, the blood vessels in their tails swell in a process called vasodilation and the hot blood loses heat through the surface, and when it returns to the furry little body, it's cooled off. When a rat is cold, the vessels in the tail constrict and keep the blood — and therefore the rat — warmer. Pretty nifty trick, huh?

Once I parry the thrusts against the tail, I expect the haters to continue with another line of attack, and I know what's coming.

Rats are dirty. Filthy. They spread disease. And then, gaining momentum, finding their footing by searching what they remember from high-school history, the haters get to where I know they're headed: Plague! They caused plague!

I take a deep breath. I force the corners of my mouth to tilt up. I don't want to be that girl who blames someone for not knowing any better, for being, well, unenlightened. Making myself small and unthreatening, hunching, moderating my voice from the shrill tone that wants to escape, I say, "Well, not exactly."

Rats are not dirty. If you see a dirty rat, he's probably sick. They live in grungy places because humans are sloppy and wasteful and throw away all sorts of great and useful stuff. Rats profit from our profligate ways. They settle in populous areas like cities where lots of people leave lots of garbage. In places where there are fewer humans and less garbage, like the vast landscape of the American West, you don't find many rats.

Rats themselves are more fastidious about keeping clean than a heart surgeon afraid of being sued for malpractice.

They spread disease. Rats do spread disease. It's true. Hantavirus, eosinophilic meningitis, leptospirosis, rat-bite fever, Seoul virus, murine typhus, trichinosis — sure. But dogs, cats, cows, pigs, bunnies, birds, squirrels, and lots of other animals also carry these diseases, and more. Nature is filled with icky things. We've come to think that what's natural is good. But nature can kill you. If you need to be reminded of this, go for a walk outside during a big storm — rain, snow, thunder. Or stay inside during an earthquake. Or even just go for a swim in the ocean. There's some crazy scary stuff in the ocean and you'll never catch me anywhere near it.

As for plague, also scary. During the Middle Ages, when the Black Death took hold, it wiped out about a third of the population of Europe.

But rats did not cause plague. They, like humans, were casualties of it. Fleas carried the disease — in the form of the bacterial microbe Yersinia pesits — and they infected the rats they lived on, who itched, scratched, and then died. It's not the meek who shall inherit the earth, it's the insects. Fleas found their way from the bodies of the rats they killed to humans, who died and were too ignorant to blame the correct critter.

Fleas spread plague, people! Not rats.

If you want to know more about this, you can find a plague of books written on plague. The malady existed well before the Black Death — people afflicted with plague-like symptoms appear in the Bible, in Periclean Athens, in the ancient Fertile Crescent, in early-fourteenth-century China. And it still exists on a large number of plague-infected but adorable prairie dogs in the western United States. Where there are very few rats.

New evidence links the spread of plague to — are you ready? — gerbils. I can't tell you how this delights me. I have a suspicion that the "pocket pets" — gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, ferrets, hedgehogs — got together and hired a public relations firm to convince people that they make better companions than rats. Hamsters are vicious, guinea pigs are spastic, gerbils are anxious, ferrets are stinky, and hedgehogs can turn themselves into medieval torture weapons. Gerbils spread plague? Hooray! I can't wait to see those jittery little creeps go down. (Not that there's anything wrong with gerbils. They just can't hold a candle to the brightness of my favorite rodents.)

They destroy things. The most knowledgeable of the rat haters may mention destruction caused by rats. It's undeniable: Wild rats cost humans zillions of dollars. They eat tons of grain and chew through wires, sometimes causing outages and fires. They even gnaw on concrete. Wild rats do this because they are trying to survive, just like other pests: insects, wolves, hawks, deer. But how often does someone claim to hate Bambi?

It's understandable not to like the things that scare us. Wild rats tend to come out at twilight. We don't like things that go bump in the night, or that skitter and scratch. We don't like knowing they're there and that we can't fully see them. Rats are good at staying out of our way, and at most we catch only a glance of a wild one. A tail. A dark shape scurrying in the periphery of our vision.

Rats are excellent at procreation. A single pair of rats and their offspring may produce fifteen thousand descendants in a year. Exterminators are often the biggest admirers of the success of rats. They point out that when rats are killed off, the pregnancy rate of the surviving rats increases and the survivors are hardier. They gain weight rapidly and become stronger.

I think that's amazing and impressive.

* * *

When I talk to haters about their problems with rats, I can relate to their fears of the wild ones. I would no more bring a coyote into my home than I would a wild rat.

"But," I say, "I'm not talking about wild rats. I'm talking about domestic rats, love bugs like my little Iris."

"Same thing," they say.

"Ick," they say.

"No, no, no," I say. "You just don't understand."

Iris belonged to the species Rattus norvegicus, also known as the brown rat, common rat, street rat, sewer rat, Hanover rat, Norway rat, brown Norway rat, Norwegian rat, or wharf rat. Iris was not brown, did not live on streets or in sewers, and her forebears came from neither Hanover nor Norway. In fact, the critters called Norway rats are about as Scandinavian as I am. Which is to say, not at all. Iris and her kind came originally from Asia, probably China. Norway is the wrong home, people. Just another misunderstanding.

After too many of these conversations, I started wondering, Is rat hating a worldwide thing? Is it a part of being human?

Um, not really.

People in other countries have profound respect for these resourceful creatures. In the Chinese zodiac, the rat is the first animal of the year. As with many origin stories, it's not clear exactly why this is. Most of the accounts have it that someone, either the Buddha or the Jade Emperor, called on the animals to race. According to one story, the rat came in first because he got up earliest. Some say because rats have four digits on their front paws and five on their back, that makes them special and they get to be in first place.

But another story holds that when the cat and the rat, the worst swimmers, figured out they had to cross a river, they asked the good-natured ox if they could have a ride on his back. Midway across the rat pushed the cat into the water. When they neared the shore, the clever rat jumped ahead and beat the ox. So the rat is first, the ox second, and the poor cat didn't even make it into the zodiac.

Those born in the Year of the Rat are said to be ambitious, smart, quick-witted, resourceful, curious, shrewd, hardworking, careful, artistic, talky, charming, energetic, sociable, and observant. (On the not-so-good side, they may also be greedy, jealous, suspicious, selfish, critical, arrogant, amoral, edgy, and agitated.)

In Hindu mythology, Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, rides a rat. Ganesh is a cool dude: he's the god of beginnings, of letters and learning, arts and culture, intellect and wisdom. It's easy to pick him out in the pantheon of Hindu deities: he has the head of an elephant with one tusk and a trunk, a beer belly, and an indeterminate number of arms, but always more than two.

In northwest India, the temple of Karni Mata is devoted to the worship of the rat goddess, and people come from all over the world to the small town of Deshnoke to see the twenty thousand rats who are fed milk and grain by priests. It's considered an honor to eat food that has been sampled by a rat. I totally get this: each time I shared a meal or treat with Iris, I felt blessed.

So, right, not everyone in the world hates rats. But do you know who does? New Yorkers. New Yorkers hate rats. They scorn and condemn the rodents who live in close proximity to them. Even the most tolerant of animal lovers will quail at the sight of a scampering, scurrying subway rat; people who escort spiders outside or shoo flies away will often take pleasure in exterminating a varmint. This is too bad, because for people living in apartments who don't have the time or ability to take a dog for regular walks, a rat can be the perfect pet.

If you love New York and you hate rats, I have a book recommendation for you: Robert Sullivan's 2004 bestseller Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants.

For a while after I'd read his book, I thought of Robert Sullivan as the enemy. The bad guy. The über-hater. He isn't, of course. He is more like my inspiration, my model, and my counterpoint. He's the reason I wanted to write this book. I'm trying here to provide the flip side of what he did.

In so many ways, Rats is wonderful. Sullivan is a collector of weird information and has the agility of an Olympic gymnast (or a rat) at jumping between topics and linking disparate ideas. Rats is a book about New York City as much as anything. He recounts the landlord-tenant wars of the 1960s; the sanitation strike of 1968; the geography of Wall Street. It's a book rich in information.

He gives us the basic history: most city rats are Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat, that Asian critter mistakenly thought to be originally from Norway. Rattus rattus, the black rat, got pushed out by its bigger brown cousin, though it still lives in some coastal southern cities and, he says, Los Angeles. Hollywood is apparently full of rats.

Montana was the last state in America to be settled by Rattus norvegicus. Sullivan tells us: "Several yearly rat settlements in Montana failed or were wiped out with poisons and traps, but the brown rat finally colonized Lewistown in 1920, and in 1938 the dump in Missoula became the site of an escaped colony of laboratory rats, domesticated Rattus norvegicus."

In fact, I got Iris when I lived in Missoula. Often my running buddies and I would do the "dump run," where we trotted from downtown, through the dump, and over Waterworks Hill. We frequently encountered mule deer, with their big ears, white tails, and funny, bouncing gait, and white-tailed deer, who looked much the same as mule deer to me. Once, I saw a coyote, and occasionally a bald eagle would soar overhead. But I never saw rats.

Not surprising, according to Sullivan. Rats learned to go where there are people, and there just aren't that many folks living in the big rectangular states on the left side of the map.

In Billings, Montana, it is illegal to keep pet rats. It is also illegal for married women to go fishing alone on Sundays, and for unmarried women to fish alone at all. But if you ride your horse to school, the state must provide food and shelter for him or her while you are being educated. It's the law. That's Montana for you.

To the north, Alberta, Canada, boasts about its status as "an essentially rat-free province." If you're found aiding and abetting a rat (or a neighbor who keeps rats), you could be fined up to five thousand dollars.

Sullivan's book is an unusual and wonderful bit of nature writing set in an urban environment. He describes his excursions with exterminators as if they were out hunting grizzly bears. Sullivan doesn't actually come face-to-face with a rat until nearly the end of the book, when, with Dan and Anne from the New York City health department, he manages to trap some rats in order to anesthetize them with halothane, take blood from their hearts, and then kill — or try to kill — them. The author and Dan are impressed by the toughness of the rats.


Excerpted from Misunderstood by Rachel Toor. Copyright © 2016 Rachel Toor. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Haters Gonna Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate, Hate Why do so many people abhor/fear/detest rats?,
Who You Calling Cute? What makes us think something or someone is cute?,
In Search of Positive Images Are there any good representations of rats?,
Mistakes Were Made What should you know before you get a rat?,
On the Road What's it like to travel with a rat?,
Empathy Do animals have emotions?,
The Rescuer What kind of person has forty-three rats?,
The Rat Lady Where do you go for expert advice?,
The Secret Society Who are the rat lovers?,
Get Thee to a Rattery Where does a right-minded person acquire a rat?,
This Is How Grief Works How do you survive the death of a loved one?,
Moving On Does having a rat ruin you for other pets?,
Ratapalooza What does a celebration of rats look like?,
The Girlfriends Can you fall in love again?,
Suggestions for Further Reading,
Illustration Credits,
Also by Rachel Toor,
About the Author,

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