Roquefort was a fancy rat. White, with a little splotch of grey on her nose and a brown dot on her rear end. Her eyes were little rubies, gleaming with mischief. Her face was surrounded by an explosion of whiskers, tickling my cheeks when she licked me like a dog would. Her pink front paws, delicate little hands, were always busy with a treat or toy. She never weighed more than 360 grams, but from the moment I picked her up to the moment I saw her sigh her last breath, she took up a weighty residence in my heart.
It was a new year, 2014. The previous fall, I had failed my third attempt to return to school, giving in to the dark wave of clinical depression that had pulled me under yet again. While I struggled, my younger sister moved out of the house and in with her long-term boyfriend. She took her ferret, Sasha, and left a gaping hole in our shared childhood room.
I missed her. I missed Sasha. And I missed my old self, who could juggle a 4.0 GPA, a budding interest in student journalism, and frequent and harrowing bouts of suicidal ideation while maintaining a gleaming façade of success.
I had gotten a part-time job that fall at my local public library in November 2013, shelving books. I figured that if I couldn’t commit to staying in school, I could at least save some money while I lived with my parents. I did little outside of work. I would come home, collect my paycheck, and go to bed. I posted cryptic statuses on social media.
My long-time therapist had left my low-cost clinic for a nicer one I’d have to take out a loan to join. With the help of antidepressants and a mild antipsychotic, I had stopped drowning, but was left in a vast ocean with no idea in which direction I should swim. I had a tidy sum of money saved by the time the new year rolled around.
One day, I looked at the large space where Sasha’s cage once stood, which I hadn’t bothered to fill.
I pictured another cage, another creature, another chance. What the hell, I thought. Why not?
My family has always had a veritable zoo of animals that are and were well-loved. We owned parakeets that climbed on our fingers and landed on our heads; we owned carnival prize goldfish that lasted years and years; a ferret that found her way into our lives as a sick stray, covered in fleas and cat scratches; and our cat, Greasy, the grey long-haired tabby who wandered into the auto shop my dad worked in and came home with him one day in 2006, grease smudging her fur.
As a seventh grader I was enamored with our class rats, and so my adult self, drunk with a vet fund and desperate for companionship, figured adding another two small pets to our menagerie would give me something to do.
On Feb. 17 2014, after a month-long period of what I deemed sufficient research, I shot out a few emails on Craigslist inquiring about a few “beige and hooded rats” for sale. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
Rats are not cheap pets. Well, they are inexpensive to buy, sure. However, a basic cage setup, bare minimum, can set you back less than $100. They live roughly two years, are whip-smart and sociable, and, if you can get past their wormy little tails, they’re quite cute. But they are not cheap to keep. They get sick often, and require exotic vet care.
During my research period, I learned that rats are incredibly social animals and should only be kept in pairs. They should not be kept in tanks. They love to climb and play, and their diet should be a staple of nutritionally-balanced blocks developed in a lab and lots of good stuff off my plate. I read that breeder rats would be tame and healthier than chain pet store rats, which are often bred or kept in awful conditions. I figured someone on Craigslist counted as a breeder. This was mistake number one.
I picked up my pair of female rats from one county over, and brought them home to a small cage setup and a bag of the best lab blocks money could buy. I cooed over them, but at the same time I felt an alarming sense that I had gone in over my head.
These rats, staring out the cage at me with their weird red eyes, were two little strangers. Their behaviors were a mystery to me. I gave them three weeks before I even attempted to clean their cage, because they were so frightened of me. My growing skepticism of this Craigslist breeder grew as I texted him. How old were these rats? They were born mid-January 2014. How often had they been handled? No response. I wrote him off and began to worry about their health.
I posted frequently in the /r/RATS subreddit, got assistance from a helpful poster there named Kittie, and got to work.
First, I learned, backyard breeders are as notorious in the rat community (yes, there is a rat community) as backyard puppy mills. I had gotten two rats of questionable quality at best. I read that spaying reduced their chances of growing mammary tumors, so I poured my entire vet fund into the surgery. I learned that the cage I kept them in was too small, and its wood components would absorb urine and not last, so I poured more money into a secondhand Single Critter Nation cage, which was massive. I learned that my girls needed lots of toys to keep their crafty brains busy, so I poured my money and energy into creating hides and chews for them. They blossomed. After almost two months of pet ownership, I began to see my girls’ personalities develop.
Gouda, sweet little Gou, my Goupa Poopa, was the shy one. She was demure and sweet and hardly nibbled, let alone bit anybody. She let herself be handled and kissed and ate Cheerios like nobody’s business. She figured out the wheel first, and was the first to learn to jump onto my hand for treats. She would brux and boggle, a behavior wherein a contented rat grinds their teeth so much that their eyes literally bug in and out of their skull. It is delightfully creepy.
Roquefort, or Roquie, which turned into “Rocky,” was the wild child. The first time her first vet held her she screamed, launched herself off the exam table, and plopped onto the floor. If she sensed your nails were dirty (or had food under them), she’d trim them for you. I thought I’d never tame her, but she came around, kissing me when I woke her and bruxing as she tore up her cage.
Little by little, I felt myself come alive. When Roquie gave Gouda a bad scratch, I gave Gouda antibiotics. When upper-respiratory infections, common in rats, cropped up, I bought a cool-mist humidifier and treated them early and well, using a kitchen scale and guidance from Kittie and her rat rescue and rehab friend Shelagh to dose them correctly.
I felt needed. I felt wanted. I felt loved; I felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I never got from school or work.
The more I spent, the more I felt like a good pet guardian. I went to work, came home to two excited faces, and updated anyone and everyone on their continued growth and progress. Even though I was still out of school, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile. I emailed back and forth with Kittie, and even played with the idea of doing rat rescue and rehabilitation someday.
Then Roquie, wild child Roquie, Roquie-brat, Roquie of a Thousand Kisses, got sick.
It started with a goofy eye. Roquie’s right eye was always watery, and two vets couldn’t see anything wrong with the actual eye. When I posted on social media I always made sure to get Roquie’s good side, lest I betray any imperfection in my rat mommy-ship. More medication followed the watery eye. A persistent URI wouldn’t go away. I got a new, more expensive, vet. I bought new, more elaborate cage accessories. My girls and I were happy.
Until one day, the side of Roquie’s face with her bad eye got a little puffy.
An abscess, I thought. Common enough in rats. Kittie and Shelagh confirmed the likelihood and we got together a treatment plan. The vet gave us antibiotics as a precaution. I sent the vet pictures. The puffiness turned into a lump. It pushed Roquie’s eyeball back into her skull. I was careful not to show it in pictures except for the vet to see. Pain management was started. I still thought it was an abscess, but Shelagh told me to prepare for the worst. I ignored her.
I dropped off my brat for an exploratory procedure, laden with toys and treats and even her cuddle cup, and went to lunch with my parents. The vet called on the way home. It was a tumor, and there was very little I could do.
Roquie was 21 months old; the average life expectancy of a rat is 24 months. Weeping in the passenger’s seat, I asked the vet to give us pain medicine and a steroid to take home, and that I would be there to pick up my little girl soon.
Steroids failed to slow the tumor’s growth, but Roquie showed no signs of slowing down. As the cancer ate up all the calories she inhaled with glee, she began to lose weight. I celebrated when she gained a few grams from one day to the next. We played and cuddled on the couch with her sister. I took many pictures during this time, and she looked fine to me, until one day she didn’t. The tumor was ulcerating and becoming necrotic. Though she wasn’t showing signs of pain or discomfort, her eye was becoming buried in the mass.
I messaged Kittie. It was going to be soon, she told me. I knew that, I said. Not a week, she said; days. I broke down on the couch. I steeled myself to make the calls, and with the diligence I gave to her whole life, I set Roquefort’s Last Day: Oct. 10, 2015. My sister came over and arranged for a Final Feast, and Roquie had a blast with us. There were sunflower seeds and banana chips, dark chocolate and granola. Roquie had a bite of everything. She bruxed. She would have boggled, but I suspected the muscles that allowed her to do that were compromised. I breathed in the smell behind her ears and wept tears into her soft, white fur. She pushed my face away with brat hands, but not before licking my chin.
It was time.
All lives end. I had thought about it constantly since before puberty. I had obsessed with the idea of stopping, just stopping, and ending my own life prematurely since my early teenage years. A bad depressive episode in 2009 followed my acceptance as a transfer student from Mt. SAC, my community college, to UCLA, UC Berkeley, and NYU. I never transferred.
Again, the thoughts surfaced. I wrangled them to submission and tried, again, and again, and again to start anew. Though there was nothing happening on the outside of my life, I fought every day to get out of bed the next day. I fought for some semblance of a life with purpose, and years later, I had found it in two little balls of white fur and skinny bald tails. I had grown dependent on them as much as they depended on me.
All lives end, and here I made the decision to end the life of my Roquie-brat, instead of my own. It was twisting the logic in my brain. How was this fair?
I was lost. I talked to Kittie and Shelagh, and I talked to my close friends, who had stayed with me through the worst of my depression. I talked to my sister Nicole, with whom I had bonded stronger than ever. I leaned hard on them, and called my sister and my childhood friend Sara and asked them to be with me on that final day. They said yes.
The day we went in, the doctor let me hold Roquie while she injected her with a powerful sedative. Roquie being Roquie, she fought through the sedative and refused to fall asleep. She crawled all over me, and I questioned whether it was time, and whether I was doing right by her.
We went to the back where the vet expressed surprise that the sedative didn’t work, and opted to have her gassed down. As I held her, Roquie pushed the tiny mask away from her face with her little hands, and I questioned everything again. Then I looked at the vicious tumor, blackened and huge. She was so full of life; I was not ready. She was not ready. But the tumor was.
I held her still while she fell asleep, and when the vet was certain she was deeply under, she let me touch Roquie while she stuck a needle into her tiny heart to stop it. The vet was wonderful and precise. Roquie didn’t feel anything: She slept, twitched a bit, and sighed. She was gone. I gave her a kiss goodbye, right on her little head. No brat hands pushed me away. No lick on the chin.
Gouda was in a carrier on the table, and we brought her out to where her sister’s body was. Gouda sniffed her sister’s face, paused, and suddenly burrowed under the towel Roquie was under, instead of retreating to the carrier like we all expected. A tech ducked away, trying to hide the emotion in her face. I was blind with tears.
After taking as much time as I needed, I took Gouda and left Roquie to be aquamated. In the parking lot of the vet’s office it hit me again, and Sara, my sister and I leaned on each other while I sobbed, holding Gouda’s carrier close to my body. My sister cried and wrapped her arms around me. Sara did the same. We stood there, leaning on each other while I quietly lost my shit, and when I was done, we got into the car and immediately began to reminisce.
My sister, always the spiritual one, had brought materials for a shrine for Roquie. All her favorite foods, incense, burning sage for cleansing. We set it up by the front door and sat outside quietly as the incense burned to smoke and carried with it my Roquie’s spirit.
I commented with sudden clarity that, for once, I had no regrets at all.
Despite being 26 months old and full of her own host of health problems, Gouda is still with me. I am on my fourth attempt at finishing my education, dipping my toes into working and attending school at the same time. I still obsess over Gouda’s health and well-being, but I do my best not to make her my only reason to get up in the morning; I have incredible human relationships that emerged because of my rats, and I suspect those will last.
Gouda makes bad days better, and good days great. She is still here, old and sweet and beautiful. I will make every day I have with her the best they can be. And with the relationships I have forged or strengthened in the time it took for Roquie to be born to the time she died in my hands, I hope that someday I can treat myself with the same respect, and love, and care.