The Red-Eyed Rat Who Stole My Heart

In 2003, when I was 15, I screen-printed a t-shirt with a photo of my albino rat, Hammy, and paraded it around school. The other kids laughed, but I wasn’t fazed. I’d made a best friend–one who was a whole lot more loyal, and maybe even a little smarter, than my classmates.

It was February 8, 2003, when my mom and I entered a small family-run pet shop and began perusing the aisles. A shy little being with a wide-eyed red gaze soon caught my eye. I glanced down into the tank–a “feeder rat” tank–and that was it. This albino rat absolutely wouldn’t be left for snake food. We left with this rat, trembling in a little brown box, with its naked pink tail wrapped around its small white body. The young rat was endowed with the name Hamilton–soon shortened to Hammy when I discovered she was not a little boy, but a little girl.

My mom and I noticed pretty quickly that Hammy wasn’t healthy. She had sniffles and diarrhea and struggled to breathe. But we worked hard to nurse her to health, and in a few days’ time, she traded her fearful warning nips for loving nibbles. And by March, she’d transformed into a bouncing mischief-maker who had a knack for investigating, well, everything. There was the time I found her hunched over a box of clay red-handed, literally: She’d been snacking on the crimson earth, leaving her tiny nose and fingers stained. And then there was the day she finally surmounted my wall of shelves, like Everest, triumphing over board games and puzzles as she summited Monopoly, way up near the ceiling.

Hammy became my best friend, in those few months. And I may have been hers, too, were it not for her partner in crime, Hallie, who joined our rat pack that spring and followed Hammy wherever she went. Hallie was her sidekick, always up for adventures–and trouble.

When I came in my office–“the rat room”–each evening to study, all I had to do was call. If I called for Hallie, Hallie came running–but Hammy couldn’t be distracted from the task at hand. Only once I said her name would she come racing down from between the slinkies and Rubix cubes. Then she’d leap across the floor and scale my leg to my lap in record time. There, she’d push her nose into my hand, demanding some serious petting time. She knew when the time was right.

The world, that room, was Hammy’s to conquer. And at the end of the day, the world would know it belonged to her, as she left her mark where it mattered, as a tiny trail of pee droplets.

But the days of Hammy streaking across the floor with 8″ by 10″ sheets of paper (usually old homework assignments and quizzes) in tow came to a harrowing end in mid-June that year. One night, she was suddenly lethargic and had lost her appetite for food and water, an appetite that had once driven her to stand on her hind legs or spin in circles for tasty morsels.

At the vet’s office, we learned that Hammy was most likely suffering from Mycoplasma pulmonis, a common ratty respiratory disease. Then I remembered that illness back in February, when we’d first brought her home. She’d had it all along, lying dormant, waiting for the perfect moment to erupt back into her life–our lives.

So, Hammy had Myco, a disease for which there is no cure, a disease that stays in a rat’s body forever. A disease that I never would have predicted would come back to haunt her… to haunt me. Maybe she’d gotten it from dirty bedding in the pet store. Maybe it was even earlier, at the breeder, where rats are churned out like an assembly line of plastic dolls. Apparently, most rats carry it in the pet trade. But not all succumb to it. It seemed a cruel twist of fate.

The vet injected fluid under Hammy’s skin, much to her displeasure, and we took her home with Baytril, a pink medicine we were to give her orally twice a day.

But the following day, she had not improved in condition. As I was picking her up, petting her, trying to force a little food into her mouth and into that withering body, I noticed a little red bug on her fur: a louse. Hammy had lice. That was easy to understand: With a suppressed immune system, she was an easy target.

And I, just a teenager who’d spent countless hours with this tiny soul by my side, agonizing over history essays as she scampered over my back and burrowed up my sleeves–I was in a panic. The Myco was consuming her. I felt powerless.

Back to the vet, where Hammy weighed in at 270 grams. The same as the previous day. But she still seemed so thin, so weak. They told us they’d work their hardest to make her better, but she’d have to stay with them overnight in an oxygen tank. That way, she could breathe more easily, and they could try to get her to eat.

It was a big decision to make. I knew that if she died, she’d be alone, without me. I wanted her to be with me if–when she died. But I knew that they could do a much better job than I was equipped to do. I walked out of the vet’s office that day with tears running down my face, hoping to the powers-that-be that she would live to see more days, to explore more fields of paper and plastic wrappers.

On the drive home, I thought to myself, Never again will I buy a rat from a pet store. I had bought Hammy to save her from becoming snake bait, to prevent her suffering, to give her a new life. And she had become a happy rat, in those few cherished months we’d spent together.

But what of her replacement in that pet store tank?

I slept lightly, uneasily. On the morning of June 19, I woke up to my dad knocking on my bedroom door.

“The vet called this morning,” he said softly. “It looks like the rat… the little Hammy rat… she didn’t make it through the night.”

Today, half my life later, that little pet shop is long gone. I don’t know what became of it, or where all the animals went. It’s been many years since I’ve felt the pitter-patter of Hammy’s little hands and feet on my skin, and many animal companions have come and gone. But I still feel her little footprints on my heart, and every so often, I hear her dragging an old math assignment across the floor.

2 Replies to “The Red-Eyed Rat Who Stole My Heart”

  1. Aaawww I am so sorry honey…
    It’s so sad that she didn’t make it through the night…. Remember that you gave Hammy the best life ever and that you will forever be in her heart too!

    I know what it’s like to have that one special one who steals your heart and forever holds a place in it. We had 6 ratties and one of the girls died a few weeks back. She, her name is Mini, was a very sweet girl who loved cuddles and kisses. And she was also from the pet store… Lots of love.

    1. Thanks so much, Kim! I am so very sorry for your loss, as well. Thanks for giving Mini a wonderful home.

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