Sunday, March 05, 2006


It is rather cynical for me to put this cheesy 80s pic up for the content matter of the following blog. But who cares? I don't have a jpeg of the rodents involved, and RATT still has two tracks in my MP3 player.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. - Heinlein

This and train an animal.

You ever dealt with a possum? My old boss had this staircase up to his house that I used to have to trudge every morning to wake his sleepy ass up. His wife was always awake and cheerful, and she would hook it up with a cup of coffee as my employer pulled himself together. It was a wholesome atmosphere. His daughter would come out (she was barely 2 at the time) and she would hang out. My godson was just an infant, but he was in the mix too. Wholesome setup. It really had a profound effect on me. One morning, as I was trudging up the staircase, I looked to the side into his trashcan. There in the bottom was a possum. A big one. Small dog sized. Oh, and she was pissed. She looked up at me with those rodent black eyes and hissed. That ugly-ass grey hair and their exposed wrinkled skin underneath. Their faces are perma-sneer and there isn't a nice thing that can be said about them. Who said that possum play dead? This girl wanted to kill me. If she could have gotten her dirty fangs on me, she would have taken a chunk out of me. I was creeped out by the hatred that this thing had for me. I wanted to just see it leave.

My boss' trashcan was bungee corded to his banister. I was fumbling with the cords, taking hiss-shots from the possum when he came out at the top stair. I explained what I was up to. He barreled down a few stairs to take a look. Then he went inside to get his rifle. I got the can free, and dumped it on its side. The pissed off possum wasn't coming out. I went behind the can and kicked it. That animal was cornered and was holding its ground. Stupid. Too stupid to get the hell out.

My boss came out with his rifle, I tilted the can mouth-up, and he opened fire. Automatic rifle fire, I should add. He emptied a clip into that thing. What we did with the corpse is a different, sillier story. The point is that there was no way I was going to negotiate with that cornered beast. She really wasn't happy with me, and if I'd flipped the can over, I am pretty sure she would have gone on the attack.

So, a few years ago, my daughter's class had a pet rat. They needed someone to take care of the rat over the summer.
"Hell no." Was my initial response. But through some sort of default and clerical error, our house became the rat's domicile for the summer.

I was very standoffish with her. I watched at a distance. I wasn't into the rodent at all. But the kids were. They would pick her up and she would play with them. She would climb over them and hang out with them. She wasn't a biter, and she seemed genuinely interested in what was going on. The little thing was intelligent.

Then I got in there. I picked her up and messed with her a few times. She was obliging. She had a spirit about her that was warm. She was happy to kick back. She was happy to have a treat. She would take a light taste of my scotch. Soon, she was on my shoulder perpetually. The kids called her Rufus. That was her "Christian name" but when I was dealing with her, she was the a gatlin gun.

I would get up in the morning and go to the gym. I would shower, get dressed and put the rat on my shoulder. She would hang out there and I would flow her treats in the morning. I would let her hop onto the fridge and hang out when I was doing things that would cause her to fall. She did fall. She did scrabble up my arm drawing blood a few times. But the spirit of the animal was peaceful. I could whisper in her ear. I had a confidant. The little furball grew into my heart.

The next school year, the rat was dismissed from the school because someone in the class was allergic to her. We adopted her. Rufus became a part of the family. We even took her camping with us, twice. She was out and about in the living room when we were all watching a movie. She had her ball that she rolled around in at all times during the day. She was IN.

Then she started to look old. Tired. She started to carry herself in a painful way. Her back looked sore. Fur started to fall out. But she was still there, peaceful of spirit. She would wince when you picked her up. She was in pain.
I didn't pull her out in the morning as often, and she didn't seem to mind. I just didn't want to hurt her. I know rats get cancerous, but I really wasn't ready to lose my little friend yet.

Then she died.

I was torn up about it. I actually shed a tear for that rodent. My friend, my morning confidant: GONE. One morning in the microwave room at work, I was brewing some coffee. Annie came up and asked how I was doing. I almost broke down and cried on the spot. I told her of my loss. I think she understood. I also think that she sort of stays out of my way now.

In a bazillion years, I would have never thought that a little rodent could have worked her way into my heart. A big part of this was her intelligence. She knew EXACTLY who I was. She knew how to deal with me. She knew who other people were, and she dealt with them accordingly. But, to use a teacher-term, we "connected". There was a relationship there. I would walk by the cage and she would jump up and hang on to the side, hoping that I would liberate her. Good times.

I needed a few months to heal. I am not going to lie; there was pain. But now I am back.

So, four weeks ago, Eyeball and I went to the pet store and picked up a young rat for eight bucks. The woman at the pet store was a little timid, but I reached in and grabbed her. I wanted a female because males, although calmer in nature, stink. We boxed her and took her home. We dressed the cage and put her in. Then it was hands off.

I looked it up online. I learned what one must do, and I put the rat on a daily schedule. I would put my hand in there and pet her head. I would bring her the food she liked. ME ME ME. I had to earn her trust. Let me tell you something though, this rat is nothing like the classroom rat that we had before. This is one skittish little thing. She is not even full grown yet. She jumps at the slightest sound. She is scared to death of the clacking of this keyboard right now.

But I have been working on her. Daily regimen. Reaching in and scratching her neck. Picking her up. Holding her. Letting her "test bite" me in order for her to understand that I am not the food, just the bringer of it.

This was the weekend I was waiting for. She is now open game. Anyone in the house can reach in and mess with her. It is time for her to get handled on the regular. We took a community vote and named her Fontina. After the cheese. Gorgonzola was the runner-up name. Fontina is harder though and you know it.

F-Uh-F-Uh-Figgety-FON-F-Uh-TINA. And many more twists on the name are to come.

Here is what I know: She has a trust for me. Today she broke away from me and got under some furniture that had to be tilted in order for her to be reached. I put her cage in front, with the gate open and a FAT chunk of dice. I gave her about an hour. Then it was on. The furniture needed to be tipped and I needed to get her out. So as the furniture was tipping, I reached in. The flash in my head was that of Bill Murray reaching in at Mr. Gopher. I could see her. I was closing in. She flattened down. I put my hand around her, bracing for the chomp. She pulled back and buried herself into the corner. I had to reach over her and prod her. I was tempted to pull her tail, but I respected her. She turned and faced me. I reached in again, she came out, and made a beeline for her cage. She missed the opening though, and stressed out. She took off back into her corner. This time I went in with force and picked her up. She allowed herself to be taken. I dropped her into her cage, and she went underneath the shredded newspaper that I gave her yesterday to process her stressful afternoon. She had been cornered, and she'd had every right to take a chomp out of me and she did not. I do believe that I have earned her.

I have this under my belt simply because my daughter needed a place for the classroom rat to stay. It is getting out of hand though. Eyeball brought home his classroom chicks that had just hatched last weekend. Six teenagers. One of them was the rooster. He just stepped over the rest. Upshot is that chickens aren't so intelligent. They didn't really like being picked up. They also fall asleep wherever their beak lands. Their eyelids blink from the bottom to the top, not like the human top to the bottom. They knock their food over. They poo on everything. They get their poo stuck in their little bladelike nails and it has to be picked out with wet fingers. Our house sounded like a freaking barn last Saturday night. Peeping and scratching and squawking. I think that they can barely keep the relationship going with their mother the heat lamp. Furthermore, I don't think I would want to corner one of those chicks. I am pretty sure I would catch a good pecking. I was happy to see the chickens go on Monday. I don't know if it is possible to earn a chicken the way I have earned Fontina. I am going to convince myself of this, because I do not want any more animals in the house. My heart simply can't take it.