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Reepicheep from Prince Caspian

I’d like rats, if it weren’t for those ghastly tails.

Ugh, those tails–they make me shudder just thinking about them, all scaly and hairless like that!

Why don’t they make rats without tails? Rats without tails would be fine…

And, my personal favorite, from a substitute vet at my excellent clinic: Ok, I admit it. Will Shakespeare (the rat, not the playwright) is just as sweet as a peach and even sort of pretty–I didn’t know rats could have Siamese markings–but I’ve never actually treated a rat. If you can maybe just sort of shield his tail from view, I’ll be able to do a better job here.

Poor unsuspecting, bravely honest (or overtly visceral) speakers. Little do you know that a fundamentalist upbringing has left a residue of evangelistic verve. You are mine, oh sinners in the hands of a rat-loving educator.

Cue the Spiel:

“I know exactly what you mean,” say I, hand gently placed on speakers forearm in sympathetic solidarity, “I used to feel exactly the same way!” (Shift in tone to Lecture Hall setting) “Actually,” pontificates moi, “the rat’s tail is a marvel of engineering.” (Dare I say intelligent design? Nope, don’t go there, my Darwinist friend, or you’ll regret it) “It allows the rat, an animal that can neither sweat nor pant, to thermoregulate in a variety of temperatures, such as those experienced in the wild–you know, the Times Square subway station in July, Taco Bells where the manager has forgotten to turn the heat down for the night, your attic….” (Whoops, how in hell did you wander off into THIS territory, Dovey? Back away from the involuntary shudder response and keep your blasted big mouth where I can see it.)

“Rats also use their tails to balance, much like a wire-walker uses a pole,” I say, back on message at last, “They use it as a counter balance to shift their gravity and, in some instances, for stability–like you’d reach your arm out to make contact with a banister while descending steep stairs with something in your hands. It’s not prehensile, but it almost seems that way sometimes.” (Good job, Dove, you DIDN’T say “like a possum’s tail.” People react even worse to possums than they do to rats!)

“There are actually tailless rats available as pets, but I wouldn’t want one, personally. They have a hard time keeping a steady body temperature, which means they’re much more susceptible to heat exhaustion, and they are not nearly as much fun to watch climbing and playing on ropes and ladders and such. Also, they lack a certain je ne sais quoi, don’t you think? A certain native brio? Remember that scene in Prince Caspian where Reepicheep ( who is clearly a rat and not a mouse, as any 4 year old could tell from his size relative to the other animals in the movie) gets his tail severed in battle, and his warriors are prepared to cut off their own tails rather than bear an honor denied to their leader? A rodent without his tail is a diminished creature.”

I move on to the money shot: “But have you actually ever felt a rat’s tail? Here, give it a go. Feel how warm it is, how supple and velvety? It’s not actually scaly or hairless at all, is it? Yes, it’s really quite nice, when you think about it.” (smiles encouragingly and hands rat over to previous non-fan, now entranced by sweet face, curious snuffling nose, and endearingly twitchy whiskers) “And look how clean rats are! They constantly groom their tails to keep them at their velvety best. Aren’t they just lovely?”

At this point, it’s all over but the crying. A fan is born. Like so many other biases, the loathing of the rat tail is conceived in ignorance, gestated through segregation and distance, and nurtured by a perceived otherness of the being in question, in a word, bigotry. Haters are so often in reality, though, merely never-met-ers. Isn’t it interesting, for example, that the first serious rat fanciers were Victorian rat catchers? Familiarity breeds admiration, where the noble rat is concerned. To know a rat is to love a rat. Really. Give it a go.

Here’s a really excellent web page that examines many aspects of our amazing little friend,  Rattus norvegicus: http://www.ratbehavior.org/rats.html