Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Rat Girl of Passaic County

Rachael Peters and child.

Meet Rachael Peters, when most people are running from the room at the sight of a rat, she is running straight for 'em hoping to add them to her huge rat family.  

Rachael, born and raised in Passaic County, New Jersey, fell in love with rats a few years ago on a dare, and what she found was a way of life that has inspired her a direction in life. 

How does one go from being a “mother of rats” to actually hoping to perform brain surgery?

We caught up to this “Doctor Doolittle” in the making and asked how a love of neurobiology, animals and the like start with these little cheese eating whiskered friends.

QUESTION: First I have to ask, what drew you to rats?

Most women (and many handsome writers asking questions who will remain nameless) run away from them, but you run to them. What drew you to them?

RACHAEL PETERS: To be honest, it was sort of a joke on my mom to begin with. Because of my schedule being a student, and with my mom working all day, dogs were out of the question as pets. 

But, as an animal lover, I was determined to find a little companion to care for.

On my 18th birthday, I went to the pet store searching for a pet I could keep in my room. I had friends with hamsters, which didn't seem very playful to me, and guinea pigs were quite expensive. 

Suddenly, I saw a beautiful female rat all alone in an aquarium. She was a big girl, much older than the others in the tank underneath her. Then, the snake owners appeared. I realized, she was not intended to be a pet- she was a Thanksgiving Dinner!

In that moment, I said, "I'm taking her!" We brought her home and I started to sneak her into my house when my mom caught me.

"What's in the box?" she asked.

When I showed her, she was initially terrified. "We named her Bubonic!" I told her excitedly.

" already named her. We have to keep her," she responded.

In the weeks that followed, Bubonic learned to drink out of a cup, went for tons of shoulder rides, and was an absolute cuddle-buddy. When she passed (I had learned after rescuing her that rats typically only live one to three years and she was quite old when I got her), I went back and rescued two baby rat boys, Mortimer and Voltaire.

It was watching them grow up that really changed my mom's opinion on rats. She originally, like most, was afraid of their tails. When their tails are no longer than your pinky, they're much less intimidating. Soon though, they were huge- and had giant tails to match! But I still found her in my room whenever I had been out, sitting on my floor, cuddling the boys.

QUESTIONS: What have your friends thought?

RACHAEL PETERS: My friends are super supportive!

And my boyfriend, Mickey, doesn't think I'm crazy for getting a rat portrait tattooed on my back,
which is really  saying something! 
Rachael Peters's rat tattoo.

After owning rats for a while, we came across Noodles. We rescued him at over a year old and he had been mistreated all his life. He was terrified of everything having to do with other rats. After a very unsuccessful introduction, we knew he couldn't be in the same cage as my current boys.

We could never  return him to the store, and we didn't want to stress him out even more by keeping him near my boys, so I asked my friend, Courtney if she would take care of him. She gladly accepted, and took care of him for over a year until he passed. I visited often, and he always got lots of playtime from her and her family. After his passing, she rescued 3 brother rats.

Then, shortly after that, we rescued rats from a teaching lab that were experimented on their whole lives, then were going to be fed to birds of prey. I took two, Romulus and Remus, and she took the third brother, Pudding. Because of the damage from the experiments, they have always been in poor health, and Pudding sadly passed away recently.

We all mourn our losses as a group. But, the advantage is we all celebrate our successes as a group, and have used our knowledge to help the rats we care for live the lives they deserve.

QUESTION: Now you always seemed like you had an arty bend, but these animals inspired you, to go into a challenging field, can you explain to readers "what you want to be when you grow up?"

RACHAEL PETERS: Starting college, I was in a panic. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life at all. There were tons of fields that appealed to me, but none that I saw as something I could do every day until retirement. I started with Liberal Arts degree, but after a year with rats, I changed it to Professional Studies of Science.

I had always been interested in science, but they sparked a new light in me. I also had always been interested in the brain, human and otherwise, and how it makes us do what we do. But it wasn't until I read the book, THE LAB RATCHRONICLES, that I knew what I wanted to do. The book was written by a neuroscientist that considered rats to be the world's most successful mammals. In it she explained how her field led her to discover how rats are really just little people, emotionally and physically.

I thought, a field that studies the brain and you get to work with rats all day exists? That was when I decided to get my degree in Behavioral Neuroscience. I'm aiming for a doctorate in the future.
Another child of Rachael Peters.

QUESTION: You did something amazing with one of your pets, you performed an autopsy on it, how challenging was this for you?

RACHAEL PETERS: One of the uglier parts of loving rats is their short lifespan. Because they were raised to experiment on, they have virtually no immune systems. Even the ones that are sold as pets all descended from these laboratory species and suffer the same consequences.

While this may be great for researching a new prescription drug, it's most certainly not pleasant for the rat owner. Hairless and "Pink-Eyed White's," two of my favorite types, are also the most susceptible to illness. It wasn't until I rescued a female rat from Hope, NJ that I ever had to deal with the dreaded mammary tumors.

I had always kept boys because we didn't want an unintentional litter on our hands. They also are more cuddly as opposed to energetic. But when presented with a rat that needed help, gender didn't matter to me. I took her in, and for months she was great. Suddenly, we witnessed her stomach getting slightly larger. We took her to the vet thinking she was pregnant, and after an ultrasound they said, "There is something there, but it's not a baby. We're not sure right now. Just keep an eye on it."

After some research, we knew what we were dealing with- my little girl had breast cancer. The options for a rat her age were few- we could either risk surgery, which would be terribly hard on her system, possibly killing her, and the tumor would grow back. Or, we could let it go until it affected her life, and then humanely put her to sleep. We decided on the latter.

After the euthanasia, and the whole process you have to go through with the other rats (they can actually get depressed from the death of a cagemate and actually die of a broken heart), I started my Anatomy and Physiology class. The first thing we had to do was a rat dissection. Debbie Ducommun, "the Rat Lady of Chico", and the leader in rat information, always suggests to do an autopsy after a rat passes.

Because there is so little information in the pet rat field, doing an autopsy and submitting the information found saves many other rats in the future and can help develop treatments for them. I knew, hard as it was, it was something I should do. Also, perhaps distantly I would save another rat from being thrown into formaldehyde somewhere.

I asked my professor if it would be okay to "bring my own" and, to my surprise, she wasn't taken aback by it.

Then, even more shocking- the students weren't taken aback by it either! Because of the degradation of body in typical dissection models, nobody could even tell what parts were which on their own rat. Everyone ended up looking at my girl instead.

During her autopsy, I removed the tumor (which was definitely cancerous upon inspection) and ended up finding a giant pituitary tumor in her brain (which likely caused the other tumor).

I submitted all my information, and hopefully helped another rat down the line. I also was relieved to see I did the right thing by putting her to sleep, because the brain tumor would have caused horrible neurological problems down the road. It's definitely not something for everyone- but I look at it like a person. If someone you loved died, and you didn't know entirely why, you would ask for an autopsy. 

In this case, I went a step further and figured, no one could do it better than me.


QUESTION: For people interested in getting adopting rats, what are some tips you can offer?

RACHAEL PETERS: First off, don't buy a pregnant rat! Nothing is worse for a new rat owner than unexpectedly becoming an owner of 12 rats.

This is most often a problem when rats are stored in one big aquarium (like in the snake food situations). Your best bet for a first rat would be to get a boy, so there are no worries until you've gained the experience to tell.

Also, while older rats need homes too, they rarely can be aggressive because of being mistreated in the pet store. I can't even count how many times I've asked to see a rat and had to play games with all the workers about, "Who will touch this thing?" It's those situations where rats are not socialized, and not socialized pets are much more difficult to care for. If you get a young rat, you are the socializer, and can stop the problems before they start.

Also, always get a buddy! No matter how much you play with your rats, they long for some same species companionship. Getting two same-gender rats from the same litter is an even better idea, as they've already grown up together..

They definitely need space! What once was a little ratty that fit into your hand can easily soon become a 2 to 3 pound man the size of a kitten. I typically buy multi-level ferret cages for my ratties. It seems like a bit much to have a five-foot setup, but it's worth it to keep them happy.

QUESTION: How have your rats changed other parts of your life?

RACHAEL PETERS: Rats have changed my entire life in just about every way. Nothing feels the same as waking up, looking over to the cages, and seeing 15 rats all jump up to greet you.

I've always felt a kind of bond with the underdog of a situation, and rats are truly the underdogs of life. They survive because of humans, love humans, and yet we hate them and try to kill them. It doesn't make any sense to me. When someone says they don't want a rat because of what it looks like, I feel like they're saying that appearance is the only thing that matters.

If you still don't love them after they snuggle in your arms and lick you like a puppy, then maybe they really aren't the pet for you. But for me, they made me into an activist.

For years, I was just as blind as everyone else as to the love these animals have to offer. I never judge anything that way anymore- you can really miss out on some great things in life that way. I've also challenged pet stores to change the way these animals are treated. After witnessing some very sick mice in a pet store, I stopped at nothing to get them help- and it worked.

I ended up talking with the corporate head of their entire company about how these animals should be cared for, and because of me they put new regulations into place and took all the sick ones for treatment at the vet. It felt great to know that in at least one store, no rodent will ever have to suffer like that again.

And in the same sense, they changed me a lot spiritually. In my teenage years, I wasn't very spiritual, and didn't really put much thought to any aspects of religion. After raising and loving so many rats that have crossed "The Rainbow Bridge" it changed how I feel towards life, death, and everything afterwards. I truly believe now, that when I make it to Heaven, I will have all my rats waiting for me like a little army- ready to carry me through the gates.

Ignore how horror movies portray them, and really go look at a rat. They aren't scary. Now pick it up!

QUESTION: Thanks so much, Rachael!

RACHAEL PETERS: What can I say? You got me on a topic I love and thank you so much!  

All images courtesy of Rachael Peters.

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