DISGUST, terror, repulsion might be the kind of feelings the average person associates with rats.
Often thought of as vermin, the rodent’s notoriety for spreading the plague and living in sewers seem to have ingrained them into society’s subconscious as a thing of disease and dirt. But for Rhiannon Eustace the unpopular critters are “really intelligent, loving” and even “cuddly”.
Although the sewer reputation precedes them, Rhiannon believes rats are clean animals.
In her wildlife sanctuary of a home in Bishop’s Waltham, discussing their filthy status, she remarks “They like bathing!”
Yes, the rats groom each other affectionately, but Rhiannon is talking about an actual, human bath.
“They'll swim laps in the bath, so they’re exercising while washing!” she says, adding that rats spend more time cleaning than cats.
The 19-year-old had her first pet rat, Smudger, at the age of six.
Her enthusiasm for the animal led her to begin breeding rats, first as pets, then to sell to pet shops.
But she soon realised she no longer wanted to sell them in this way. “You don’t know where they’re going. There is also a bit of a bad reputation for pet shop rats as some breeders breed their rats back to back – getting a rat pregnant the day it has given birth – which is not good for them and a female rat can only survive that about three times,” she explains.
So she started selling online. That way Rhiannon can choose who she sells to, and she has turned down a lot of prospective owners who she has deemed unsuitable.
Rhiannon is now a member of NFRS (National Fancy Rat Society) and is a registered breeder.
She has a registered rattery name of ‘Little Rat’ which prefixes the name of every rat she breeds. “like a kennel club, I’m an affiliated breeder, easily tracked. I keep in contact with everybody that’s got my babies.”
While the business is popular, Rhiannon is not in it for a profit.
“Babies sell for £30 each and I have recently sold 22. But all the money I make goes back to the rats. As soon as I got it I refurbished the rat shed and all of their cages.”
The NFRS is a group of rat enthusiasts intent on establishing the animal as not only a legitimate but “superior” pet. According to Rhiannon, if you are looking for a small pet you should look no further than a rat.
“As a pet for a child most go for a hamster – but they’re nocturnal and tend to bite. Rats are much more friendly and intelligent,” she says.
Indeed, upon entering the ‘shed’, as Rhiannon calls it (although it’s more of a plush rat pad) it is striking how the rats (11 adults in total, separated into male and female camps) scurry towards the bars in welcome.
For their play time, she lets them roam around the room and the inquisitive creatures climb onto your hand if you reach for them. The rats know their own names and come when called!
Rhiannon adds that people are actually less likely to be allergic to a rat than a rabbit. She also used to have mice but, despite their greater popularity, advises against them as a pet. “They die too easily!” she exclaims.
“There is no fight in them or survival instincts.”
Seeing the animals interact with one another, it is difficult not to fall for them. Three generations of male rats snuggle together in a suspended basket in their cage while their companions trot around and clamber up the arrangement of hammocks Rhiannon has set up for their amusement.
One rat which some may take a little longer to become accustomed to without having to stifle a scream, is the hairless rat. Named after none other than the psychopath from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Renfield is a funny looking fellow, more vulnerable to scratches due to his lack of hair.
But even he is a sweet and pleasant character, despite the fact you may not feel inclined to stroke his weird bald skin.
Besides rats, Rhiannon also has a colourful bunch of rescued fauna including ten terrapins, seven snakes, ten geckos, two tortoises, a newt, three Giant African Land Snails, an axolotl – which is “basically the evolutionary form before a salamander”– and two cats.
But how is her menagerie going to fit into her future plans?
“I’m going to Portsmouth University in September to study social work. My mum’s looking after the animals in terms of feeding and watering, and I am paying a friend to give them attention while I’m away.”
Speaking of her mum, how do her family feel about her unconventional hobby?
“Mum doesn’t have a choice! If I wasn’t here she probably wouldn’t have most of these animals but she doesn’t really mind.”
When she ‘retires’ from breeding Rhiannon would still like to have her own pet rats, a “colony” of twelve males. “I always want to have a hairless rat”, she says, “Because they’re different. I also want a brown Burmese and a black Rex. Oh and a black hairless because they’re prettier.”
It seems she is addicted to the animals, and it is not difficult to see why. Despite their reputation, it seems they are cute and cuddly creatures after all.
Visit littleratrattery.wordpress.com for more information about the rattery.
For more information about the N.F.R.S. visit NFRS.org