Of Rats and Jen (Inactive)

Tales of a Perpetual
Work In Progress

Sometimes Stories Change While You’re Telling Them

Filed under: Mainely Rat Rescue,Rats! — folkcat at 4:53 pm on Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Gryphon and I voted. There were no lines at Wilton Town Hall at 1 p.m., and we were in and out in about 5 minutes. And that’s all there is to say about that.

I know I’ve left you all hanging with the story of Gabby and A.J. That’s because the story I thought I was going to be telling isn’t what has wound up happening after all.

The next thing after Gabby challenged me with her dominance dance – which is where I left you at “To Be Continued” – I decided that I clearly wasn’t being proactive enough about establishing my place in the hierarchy. So I reached into the cage to pick her up.

She whipped her head around and bit me on the left index finger. I yelped, dropped her back on the cage floor, and slammed the door shut.

As I bled into a tissue before getting the finger bandaged, I was very upset. Not another biter, I thought. I can’t deal with another biter. I e-mailed the folks at Mainely Rat Rescue for advice.

I also spent time researching while I waited for an answer. I found some sites that talked about something called “trust training” that was said to be helpful with biting rats. It seemed promising, so I proposed it to the MRR folks. We all agreed it was worth a try.

The essential concept of trust training is that the rat has to come to depend on you for everything. All food is removed from the cage. The cage is left as uninteresting as possible – nothing to do, nothing to hide in, no place to declare as a center of personal rattie power. Water is kept in the cage. All nutrition otherwise is offered by hand from a spoon.

If that sounds like a lot of work, well – it is. We tried it at first with the normal foods we offer all our ratties – a mix of rolled grains, fresh produce, that sort of thing. It seemed to work. Gabby and A.J. learned to come to the spoon and take their food. With the grains, they even sat right at the cage door, taking bits from the spoon.

I started introducing some touching, lightly touching my fingertip to the top of the head, that sort of thing. After a few days, I was even able to cup my hand over their backs and hold it there.

Still, it didn’t seem like they were any more trusting, really. Reach into the cage, and they still tried to bite. Especially Gabby.

Meanwhile, I was very upset about the process. It felt to me like we were torturing them. They spent their days curled up in the bedding at the bottom of their cage, not looking at all like happy rats.

Dissatisfied with our lack of progress, I studied some more. That’s when I learned that you need to be working with foods that can’t be taken from the spoon and carried away, even a small distance. The spoon feeding must be done with baby foods, yogurt, things of that nature.

I also felt that they were still feeling a bit aggressive about the cage. They came to us with a tall cage with multiple levels and some high spots for nesting, and once they accepted the lack of a hut to crawl into, they took to using a basket up in the highest corner as their spot. This put them above my eye level most of the time.

After further consultation with MRR, we moved them into a single level cage, and switched off to feeding them baby food. They became extremely aggressive about licking the spoon, sometimes almost reaching to bite you if you didn’t refill it fast enough.

It also took a great deal of time and attention to do this. Gryphon and I have been having a rough time of things lately, with his health, my health, and our financial crisis. Adding the intensive work of trust training on top of all that was becoming too much to deal with, especially when we couldn’t see any progress.

I finally told Gryphon that we just had to make a change here. I couldn’t handle the trust training, and neither could he. I missed having joyful playtime with our Perma-Ratties, since we’d had to move their cage away from my chair to make the trust training work. I was finding no joy in how the work with Gabby and A.J. was going.

We were out of our depth, and didn’t feel that we could do this work properly with so much else going on that needs our immediate attention.

We wrote to MRR, and asked permission to discontinue the trust training, and to merely do our best to take care of the foster girls without attempting to socialize them further.

MRR agreed. And that’s where we are now. Gabby and A.J. will have a home with us until MRR can find one that has the ability to give them the training they need. In the meantime, we are feeding them well and freely again, they have a wheel to run in (and are the first ratties we’ve ever had in the house who actually use it as intended!), and they are getting quiet and fond care from us, without physically interacting with them. (I did make a mistake of reaching my hand in several days after this change, and Gabby is still aggressive enough that she nailed me again, this time on the right index finger. *sigh* Will I ever learn? The biting score: Foster Rats 7, Jen 0.)

Part of me feels like we’ve failed these girls. A larger part of me, however, knows that we made our best effort, but got overwhelmed by circumstances that have nothing to do with the foster rats. And we made the smart move of both seeing that we weren’t up to the task, and making sure the rescue knows what’s going on and can take appropriate action.

There’s no telling how long Gabby and A.J. will stay with us. We’ll take care of them as long as needed. We just won’t be cuddling them any time soon, I guess.

And that’s how the story of Gabby and A.J. that I began telling has wound up. It was meant to be a helpful and instructive tale about gaining the trust of two unsocialized rats, and teaching that humans are good and not to be bitten. Instead, it’s the story of how large a task that is, and how Gryphon and I aren’t able to handle it at this time.

The Perma-Ratties moved back to their proper place by my chair the instant we decided we couldn’t deal with the trust training, and Gabby and A.J. moved to a table across the room. The entire Rattie colony celebrated by immediately coming out onto my lap and running all over the place, with Lola settling in for a nice long cuddle and head skritching.

It felt very good.


Comment by Liz

November 5, 2008 @ 11:51 am

Jen, you’re doing a great job with the rats. Not every rat can be easily socialized, I’m sure, just like dogs or cats or wild beasts. You’re giving them a good temporary home with warmth, food, and as much love as they can take/want. Nothing to feel badly about.


Comment by Carol

November 5, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

I imagine rats are like other critters, some will come around and some won’t. Some needs loads of work to come around. Don’t feel bad about it. You did your best and it’s not like you didn’t have enough to deal with. I hope the load of manure that you have been dealing with has been shovelled away. or at least mostly gone.

Comment by Valerie in San Diego

November 8, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

In my view, everything you’re doing is amazing, especially in a time of crisis for you. To be taking on more responsibility is really a sign of what special people you and Gryphon are.

Those rats have a chance because of you. Maybe it’s just not the right time for them to learn to trust. Maybe what they need right now is just to run on their wheels and eat their food and get through their days. (Like for those of us humans, like me, who maybe can’t take on a new diet, new medications and new exercise all at the same time… I’m working on giving myself permission to do one thing at a time…) In any case, you’ve given them what they need to survive and thrive, as well as caring for all your permanent rats, and that’s — as I said — amazing, the more so given all else you are dealing with.

So hang in there. And I hope that the good feelings about all you are doing become the dominant ones, because you deserve to feel good.

hugs from afar. V

Comment by Jonathan Hunt

November 9, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

Hi Jen, just discovered your wonderful blog

It sounds like you do an amazing job with all of your rats – You should be proud of the fantasti work you are doing.

Good luck, and you never know…they might just come around!


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.