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A Friendly Rat

Most of our animals, also many creeping things, such as our "wilde
wormes in woods," common toads, natter-jacks, newts, and lizards, and
stranger still, many insects, have been tamed and kept as pets.

Badgers, otters, foxes, hares, and voles are easily dealt with; but that
any person should desire to fondle so prickly a creature as a hedgehog,
or so diabolical a mammalian as the bloodthirsty flat-headed little
weasel, seems very odd. Spiders, too, are uncomfortable pets; you can't
caress them as you could a dormouse; the most you can do is to provide
your spider with a clear glass bottle to live in, and teach him to come
out in response to a musical sound, drawn from a banjo or fiddle, to
take a fly from your fingers and go back again to its bottle.

An acquaintance of the writer is partial to adders as pets, and he
handles them as freely as the schoolboy does his innocuous ring-snake;
Mr. Benjamin Kidd once gave us a delightful account of his pet
humble-bees, who used to fly about his room, and come at call to be fed,
and who manifested an almost painful interest in his coat buttons,
examining them every day as if anxious to find out their true
significance. Then there was my old friend, Miss Hopely, the writer on
reptiles, who died recently, aged 99 years, who tamed newts, but whose
favourite pet was a slow-worm. She was never tired of expatiating on
its lovable qualities. One finds Viscount Grey's pet squirrels more
engaging, for these are wild squirrels in a wood in Northumberland, who
quickly find out when he is at home and make their way to the house,
scale the walls, and invade the library; then, jumping upon his
writing-table, are rewarded with nuts, which they take from his hand.
Another Northumbrian friend of the writer keeps, or kept, a pet
cormorant, and finds him no less greedy in the domestic than in the wild
state. After catching and swallowing fish all the morning in a
neighbouring river, he wings his way home at meal-times, screaming to be
fed, and ready to devour all the meat and pudding he can get.

The list of strange creatures might be extended indefinitely, even
fishes included; but who has ever heard of a tame pet rat? Not the small
white, pink-eyed variety, artificially bred, which one may buy at any
dealer's, but a common brown rat, Mus decumanus, one of the commonest
wild animals in England and certainly the most disliked. Yet this wonder
has been witnessed recently in the village of Lelant, in West Cornwall.
Here is the strange story, which is rather sad and at the same time a
little funny.

This was not a case of "wild nature won by kindness"; the rat simply
thrust itself and its friendship on the woman of the cottage: and she,
being childless and much alone in her kitchen and living-room, was not
displeased at its visits: on the contrary, she fed it; in return the rat
grew more and more friendly and familiar towards her, and the more
familiar it grew, the more she liked the rat. The trouble was, she
possessed a cat, a nice gentle animal not often at home, but it was
dreadful to think of what might happen at any moment should pussy walk
in when her visitor was with her. Then, one day, pussy did walk in when
the rat was present, purring loudly, her tail held stiffly up, showing
that she was in her usual sweet temper. On catching sight of the rat,
she appeared to know intuitively that it was there as a privileged
guest, while the rat on its part seemed to know, also by intuition, that
it had nothing to fear. At all events these two quickly became friends
and were evidently pleased to be together, as they now spent most of the
time in the room, and would drink milk from the same saucer, and sleep
bunched up together, and were extremely intimate.

By and by the rat began to busy herself making a nest in a corner of the
kitchen under a cupboard, and it became evident that there would soon be
an increase in the rat population. She now spent her time running about
and gathering little straws, feathers, string, and anything of the kind
she could pick up, also stealing or begging for strips of cotton, or
bits of wool and thread from the work-basket. Now it happened that her
friend was one of those cats with huge tufts of soft hair on the two
sides of her face; a cat of that type, which is not uncommon, has a
quaint resemblance to a Mid-Victorian gentleman with a pair of
magnificent side-whiskers of a silky softness covering both cheeks and
flowing down like a double beard. The rat suddenly discovered that this
hair was just what she wanted to add a cushion-like lining to her nest,
so that her naked pink little ratlings should be born into the softest
of all possible worlds. At once she started plucking out the hairs, and
the cat, taking it for a new kind of game, but a little too rough to
please her, tried for a while to keep her head out of reach and to throw
the rat off. But she wouldn't be thrown off, and as she persisted in
flying back and jumping at the cat's face and plucking the hairs, the
cat quite lost her temper and administered a blow with her claws

The rat fled to her refuge to lick her wounds, and was no doubt as much
astonished at the sudden change in her friend's disposition as the cat
had been at the rat's new way of showing her playfulness. The result was
that when, after attending her scratches, she started upon her task of
gathering soft materials, she left the cat severely alone. They were no
longer friends; they simply ignored one another's presence in the room.
The little ones, numbering about a dozen, presently came to light and
were quietly removed by the woman's husband, who didn't mind his missis
keeping a rat, but drew the line at one.

The rat quickly recovered from her loss and was the same nice
affectionate little thing she had always been to her mistress; then a
fresh wonder came to light--cat and rat were fast friends once more!
This happy state of things lasted a few weeks; but, as we know, the rat
was married, though her lord and master never appeared on the scene,
indeed, he was not wanted; and very soon it became plain to see that
more little rats were coming. The rat is an exceedingly prolific
creature; she can give a month's start to a rabbit and beat her at the
end by about 40 points.

Then came the building of the nest in the same old corner, and when it
got to the last stage and the rat was busily running about in search of
soft materials for the lining, she once more made the discovery that
those beautiful tufts of hair on her friend's face were just what she
wanted, and once more she set vigorously to work pulling the hairs out.
Again, as on the former occasion, the cat tried to keep her friend off,
hitting her right and left with her soft pads, and spitting a little,
just to show that she didn't like it. But the rat was determined to have
the hairs, and the more she was thrown off the more bent was she on
getting them, until the breaking-point was reached and puss, in a sudden
rage, let fly, dealing blow after blow with lightning rapidity and with
all the claws out. The rat, shrieking with pain and terror, rushed out
of the room and was never seen again, to the lasting grief of her
mistress. But its memory will long remain like a fragrance in the
cottage--perhaps the only cottage in all this land where kindly feelings
for the rat are cherished.


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