One day in the summer of 1992, Linda Casey stepped outside the Moncton SPCA and discovered a small cage on the steps. She called out to the other volunteers. When they saw what was in the cage, they backed away.
“All the volunteers were terrified to pick up the cage because rats have such a bad reputation,” said Casey, who is now a professor of gerontology at St. Thomas. “I picked up the cage and I was designated the volunteer to take care of this rodent that no one wanted to touch.”
She named her Alice.
“I fell in love with her personality so I brought her home and that’s how it all began,” said Casey.
Since that day, Casey has been a lover of rats, at one point owning 20 “free range” rats. They had their own bedroom, the walls were covered with Plexiglas so they couldn’t chew through them and escape, and toys, agility obstacles, and hammocks were littering the floor. It was a rat paradise, but Casey couldn’t continue providing a home for unwanted ratties forever.
With a life span of just three years, their deaths became too hard to cope with.
“I’m a gerontologist now, and I see the old age they go through and it’s difficult,” she said. “You go through the same care-giving, some of them can only eat soft foods, some of them have trouble walking, and you try to provide the best life possible.”
But Casey never stopped educating people about just how misunderstood rats are.
“I don’t think the Black Death did them any good PR,” she said. “I have a lot of people saying that to me… ‘oh they carry the plague,’ uh, that’s the wild sewer rats.”
Buckwheat’s Rat Resort and Rescue is located on top of a large hill in Douglas, a rural community that overlooks the St. John River. As I stepped inside the old farmhouse, the stench of cats, rabbits, hamsters, and rats hit me – this was the home of an animal lover.
The rats were on the third floor of the house, separate from the other critters, with their own rooms just like the one that Casey described. Nine females shared one room, and the males occupied the other across the hall. Pex Pipe tubing, a common choice of tube used amongst plumbers, scattered across the floors for the rats to run around in and hand-made wooden homes were everywhere. The second I walked into the female’s room, they all scurried over to me – just as any curious dog would do.
“They actually make great pets,” said Sarah Patterson. “We always tell people that they’re kind of like an apartment-sized dog and a combination between a dog and a cat because they’re very independent.”
But unlike dogs, Patterson says that they’re very flexible animals, especially for students whose classes change from semester to semester, and haven’t settled down in a home. She adopted her first rat, Buckwheat, during her first year of University at UPEI.
“I got Buckwheat when he was two and a half to three weeks old because he was the only one from his litter that hadn’t been sold for snake food yet,” she said. “I fed him every two hours by syringe and nursed him until he was old enough to eat on his own.”
She took him everywhere she went, even to all of her classes since he had to be hand fed every two hours. It was because of her experience and bond with Buckwheat that she created the non-profit safe haven, Buckwheat’s Rat Resort and Rescue.
“We run the rescue, but ultimately we’re more of a safe haven for them,” said Patterson. “If they don’t get adopted out they just stay here.”
But what makes Buckwheat’s unique from other places like Maritime Rat Rescue, located in Moncton, is that it’s not just a place for unwanted rats that need a home, it’s also a resort where people who are going on vacation can bring their furry friends to stay.
“A lot of people have boarding and residence and things like that for dogs and cats but a lot of those big places don’t take smaller animals so we step in and help out people.”
Recently, a young girl got into a bad living situation with her roommates and had to move back to her parent’s place where the rats weren’t welcome. Buckwheat’s took them in for a few months until she got situated again.
“I think it’s very unfortunate that people associate them with sewers and uncleanliness and being vicious biters,” said Patterson. “These rats are very different from wild rats. These are bred rats originally from Europe hundreds of years ago, just like a dog or cat has been bred, like a dog from a wolf, or a cat from a wild cat, they’re extremely different. They’re called fancy rats.”
Casey may no longer be a part of rat rescue, but her passion for the little creatures is still as strong as it ever was.
“There’s no question that each rat has their own distinct personality,” she said. “I would compare some of my rats that I had to pet dogs. They followed me around the room, I could teach them little tricks, they knew their names, some of them were super affectionate, and because of that you really bonded with them.”
But she also remembers when she would get a call to go pick up rats from someone’s home and find them in horrible conditions, emotionally damaged.
“I really saw how cruel some people could be, so that turned me off from rat rescue because after a while I just thought, I don’t have the heart to do this anymore.”
She’s thankful for places such as Buckwheat’s Rat Resort and Rescue.
“Now the word is slowly getting out that they make wonderful pets,” she said. “I had some that would curl up on my lap just like a cat or dog while I watch TV and you really create a bond.”