IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Got A Pet Rat to Help Me Get Over My Deathly Fear of Rodents

My recovery from rodent-induced meningitis was haunted by thoughts of rats and mice. Every night, I dreamed of mice running all over me.
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Publish date:
November 9, 2015
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healthy, pets, rats, rodents, meningitis, phobias

I’ve killed one mammal in my entire life. It was a mouse in my kitchen, in my Montreal apartment in the winter of 2010.

As a lifelong New Yorker, I have always been repulsed by rodents in the backs of restaurants or in subway sewers, but facing the reality of actually taking one’s life was a bit too real for me.

But it was struggling in a trap and I had to put it out of its misery. A few friends made fun of how much this experience affected me -- I cried after it happened.

In a bizarre twist, I was hospitalized with meningitis a few weeks later. What I had assumed to be a particularly strong migraine turned out to be a potentially deadly infection of my brain and spinal fluid. After a spinal tap and several terrifying weeks in the hospital, the doctors concluded that my illness came, most likely, from a rodent.

My recovery was haunted by thoughts of rats and mice. A scratch in the walls (unavoidable in old Montreal apartments) put me on the verge of tears. I couldn’t sleep.

Every night, I dreamed of mice running all over me. In my dream, I’d pick them up and throw them down the long hallway leading out of my bedroom, but they’d always come back.

I couldn’t live like this. My near-death experience was traumatic enough, I didn’t need fear-insomnia on top of it.

On one of my short daily walks (being outdoors was intimidating after such a long stint in the hospital, and I was pretty frail), I stepped into the pet store. There was a glass cage full of baby rats, and to my surprise, they were sort of cute.

Innocent. Not deadly. Destined to be snake food, as the clerk informed me.

Looking at these cute little baby rats, there was only one way of going forward that my post-traumatic logic could muster: I’d take one of them home.

Saving the life of the thing that (symbolically) tried to kill me, I figured, would somehow break the cycle. So I bought a cage, some bedding and brought the little shaking creature home. I named her Amos, after my favorite book in kindergarten.

Here are some facts about rats you might not be aware of: They’re extremely affectionate: They laugh when they’re having fun, and they’ll be excited to see you when you get home. I fell in love with Amos immediately — when she fell asleep in my pocket minutes after we got home. For months after, she greeted me every day, hanging on her cage waiting to get out, run up my sleeve and sit on the nape of my neck.

They’re empathetic, kind animals: They’ll even save their friends from drowning. Amos showed the sort of affection and sensitivity I expect from dogs, not rodents. We’d play together, or hang out while I read. I’d let her explore around my apartment, and she came when I called her.

They’re geniuses: With a little work, they’re easy to train. My boyfriend taught Amos to fetch. Some are saving the world by using their strong sense of smell to detect mines and diagnose diseases.

I know my story about getting sick terrifies some people, and makes them even more repulsed by rats and mice. To be clear, I’m not suggesting you attempt to domesticate the rat in your stairwell.

But my experience with Amos has given so much more dimension to my understanding of rats, and rodents in general. They’re complex, intelligent animals. Their adaptability, and ability to thrive in unfriendly urban environments like New York City is worthy of respect. Read Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants to have your mind blown.

Pop culture is slowly moving towards a rehabilitation of rats’ bad rep — they’re getting a sort of pit bull treatment, showing up in music videos and fashion shoots as “edgy” pets. It’s my hope that they’ll become increasingly mainstream and appreciated for the great animals they are.

As my contribution, here’s a cute rat dispelling myths.