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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"

Clyde the Rat

By Dan Mulhollen

Nowadays, owning a pet snake is much easier than it used to be. Freeze-dried mice are clearly an improvement on the old days when there were only "feeder" mice, cheap rodents specifically bred to feed larger reptiles (evolution turned upside down, as I saw it -- mammals not that far from humans on the evolutionary tree being fed to reptiles). Buying an already deceased but freezer-fresh mouse is a great convenience (especially as tossing a live mouse in for the snake to devour does give one a bit of a guilty conscience).

My mother was particularly opposed to having a snake in the house, but my mind was made up. Between my brother and myself (and my father, to a lesser degree), we had a wide variety of pets. From the usual dogs and cats, to hamsters, parakeet (technically, a budgie), a quite noisy myna bird, turtles, tropical fish, a small chameleon (technically, an anole). The dogs, cats, and hamsters were always named; naming guppies and angelfish would be rather pointless. Drawing from mythology and Shakespeare, I named the snake Ariel, which many people, not knowing Shakespeare, thought I named the long, slender reptile after a radio antenna.

One day, I went to the local pet store (one of many types of stores now limited to national chains and sequestered in suburban strip malls), only to find they were out of mice, and wouldn't have any inventory for several weeks The owner offered a very young rat as a substitute. Now snakes can be finicky eaters, particularly when shedding their skin. This, of course, makes sense. Just imagine if a slightly larger you was about to break out of your old skin -- you might be rather touchy overall, and perhaps more than a little self-conscious about eating for a while.

The snake was uninterested in the rat, allowing it to grow larger than the snake could handle, unhinged jaws and all. This became a problem as the rat seemed more interested in trying (judging by the tiny bite marks on the snake's yet-to-be-shed skin) to eat the snake than the snake was in eating it. A meal eating the diner is a fate most restaurant-goers need not fear. With snakes and their food, it is another matter.

My father took a liking to the rat and began calling it Clyde. My dad's birthday was coming up and gift-buying was much more difficult in the pre-Internet days. So as the snake was not interested, I gave my dad Clyde as a birthday gift. A gift he was thrilled to receive. He cleaned out an old birdcage, complete with food and water dishes, set down a layer of wood shavings, and gave Clyde his new home.

Pet rats have a capacity for affection to humans, unlike their wild, verminous brethren. This is particularly true regarding the human who feeds them. My dad worked second shift at this time (3pm-11pm) and would arrive home about 11:45. The moment he walked in the door, Clyde would be up on his hind legs, eagerly awaiting him (I have had dogs who do far less). And my dad would often treat Clyde with pieces of carrots or a stalk of celery.

Clyde grew to a good rat length, about five inches long, with another six inches for the tail. Unfortunately, rodents are particularly susceptible to tumors, despite the fact that I have never seen one smoking a cigarette. (Squirrels, on the other hand, often seem to be doing something mind-altering -- mating in the middle of the street, for one). And after over two years, Clyde went to that great birdcage in the sky, the snake outliving him by about a year.

Reptiles are not ideal pets, but some species do tolerate us, even to a point of being handled. The Ebony Snake was a great pet, seeming to show affection to its owner. But these are rare -- the Ebony Snake was over-petted to a point of near-extinction and is now illegal to own in most states. Many species, while not venomous, are as affectionate as a mean-spirited cat (the "mean-spirited" may be redundant).

One thing I learned years later and alluded to earlier, is that rodents (like Clyde) and primates (like us), are closer together on the evolutionary ladder than we are to cats or dogs -- even if recent research shows dogs and humans share some genetic material. This closeness suggests why rodents make agreeable pets. From the smallest mouse to the 120 pound South American Capybara, rodents seem to have some deference to humans as an elder sibling -- well, except for squirrels who seem to amuse themselves by dropping acorns on our heads. Although, to be fair, a sense of humor may be a sign of intelligence.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-03-30
Image(s) are public domain.
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