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Tuesday, 11 May 2010

W. H. Hudson: A Friendly Rat


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Katze im Grünen: photo by maimartpc, 2004

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.

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Brown rat and grey squirrel: photo by Peter Pearson, 2007

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.

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Rattus norveticus (Brown Rat), Dasiünai, Kaunas district, Lithuania: photo by Tocekas, 2010

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 unsheathed.

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.

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Rattus norvegicus (Brown Rat): photographer unknown, 2006, U.S. National Park Service

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.


Wild rat: photo by Reg McKenna, 2007

W.H. Hudson: A Friendly Rat, from The Book of a Naturalist, 1919

(note: Hudson refers in his tale to the common Brown Rat by its former species name Mus decumanus; since his time, the species has been reassigned from genus Mus to genus Rattus, as Rattus norveticus)


Curtis Roberts said...

Wow. For me, these, my first encounters with Hudson, were quite a discovery. Thank you. I never knew.

I read these pieces at the end of a long day of driving, meeting, talking, hassling and driving some more. I tried to frame my own thoughts, but then came across the Conrad quotation you published last year, which expressed most of what I was thinking better than I could ever do:

"One cannot tell how this fellow gets his effects; he writes as the grass grows. It is as if some very fine and gentle spirit were whispering to him the sentences he puts down on the paper. A privileged being."

Reading these Hudson excerpts (today’s three and your adaptation) reminds me why I love to read and what great writers give their readers.

And I actually think I’ll sleep better tonight for having read them.

Curtis Faville said...

Important to remember that on the species tree, scientists believe that all mammals derive ultimately from a kind of rodent not unlike the rat. Our common ancestor still lives among us--rather as the birds, which are the descendants of dinosaurs, do--perhaps as a reminder of how humble our beginnings are.

Actually, rats aren't the horrible creatures they're commonly thought to be. They apparently make decent pets. Soft-bodied, with little claws that are rather prehensile.

TC said...

I dearly love Hudson. Brilliant naturalist, great writer. To do and write the things he did, one could die knowing one had lived.

And I like rats, too. Sort of. Depending on the circumstances. Not sure I would want their help with shaving.

Zephirine said...

That cat was a great deal more patient than any of mine would have been!

I love the description of Hudson writing as the grass grows. Perfectly apt.

TC said...


Or ours!

Were it not for the absolute faith and trust I place in the veracity of Hudson's observations of things natural, I'd have been tempted to think he made this up... but no, I will not think that.

Must confess, by the way, that my recent sightings of rats have been somewhat affected by lingering considerations of your earlier comment about being a bit disturbed by the tails. I fear I shall never again be able to look at a rat front-end-first, after that.

Zephirine said...

No, I think I believe the story, animals do form odd alliances. I had a neighbour once whose little dog used to play with the young foxes in the park every evening. I just think this was a cat of abnormal patience.

Zephirine said...

The tails are not nice. Though I suppose they're no nastier than the average human elbow, or that bit at the back of one's heel.

TC said...

Yes, Z, patient almost to the point of sedate (if not sedated).

Now you have me looking a rat tails, these past days, I see what you mean.

Perhaps it's the lack of fur. Imagine how one might draw back for at least a moment even from our dearest felines, were they to appear one morning with tails clean shorn.