If rats could count

by sarah hair Email

Tokyo died trying to make me happy. His final breaths were taken as he heaved his suddenly swollen and unreasonably large tumor gimpishly under his emaciated flesh which had only days before fallen from his bones all in an effort to come to me. He may have wanted my comfort, but I am convinced that he thought he was making me happy by giving his all to come to me when I opened the cage in response to his convulsions. Tokyo suffered horribly. His tumor had grown so large and so fast that he starved to death as the nutrients from his meals went solely to nourish the abhorrent protrusion growing from his abdomen. We wanted to take him to a doctor, but he fell ill so quickly, we had not even yet sailed out of the Bahamian island we had been visiting.

I thought about Tokyo as we sailed from Chub Cay, again in Bahamas, and I determined that whatever happened, I would not watch her suffer as Tokyo had. The sail was a bit cold, not wet, fortunately, but really exhausting as we pushed hard through the day and another night to get to Florida before Tika deteriorated any further.

After Tokyo died six months ago, it took a few weeks to find Sendai new cage-mates. Sendai punished us relentlessly during this time of solitude and refused to play, not just with us, but at all. He abandoned his games and our offers for shoulder rides or pocket rides. He even refused to read with us. Every moment he spent with us, his humans, he was trying to escape. He would sneak away and continue his fruitless search for his brother. Sendai was Tokyo's brother, his littermate, and his life-long friend. When Tokyo was sick, Sendai brought him food, helped him eat, helped him cool off by peeing on him or warm up by bringing him bedding. Sendai was there when Tokyo died. He witnessed the suffering, the heart failure, the final moments. Sendai was even present for the wrapping John sewed around Tokyo's limp body before we buried him under some rocks near the yacht club. After Tokyo died, we decided to get two more rats, so we would never have to have one rat alone, in case something happened to one, we would have a "spare."

Tika and I had never been particularly close. Certainly not as Tokyo and I had been. Tokyo spent his spare time in my pocket, peeking at the world around him and looking for my hand to comfort him. When he greeted me, he bounded to me and climbed up my leg with the enthusiasm one might expect from a golden retriever who had been locked in a kennel all day and really, really, needed to use the fire hydrant. Tokyo read with me, ate my meals with me, and went for walks and even bicycle rides with me. I thought when we got new rats, 'replacement' rats, that I would never love another rat the way I loved Tokyo. I was correct, and I never felt close to Tika in the same way I did with Tokyo, but I would eat my own head before she would suffer and die the same way he did. For one thing, I hadn't the stomach. For another thing, I think I had something to prove, at least to myself. And then, of course, was the absolute fact that I did indeed love her.

We arrived in Fort Lauderdale in record time, averaging 7 knots under sail, a full 100% faster than our typical average. It was 8:00 am and we were setting our anchor right off the bookstore dock where we could row to shore to make phone calls and check emails. The girls and I set about the morning tasks, cutting lettuce and carrots into exactly the desired shape and size that our magnificent pets deserved to be accustomed to. The carrots need to be sliced down the middle, the lettuce just big enough to impress them but small enough they can carry it through the tunnel in their cage. We had in the past mistakenly offered carrots which were improperly cut and to our dismay, they were promptly rejected. Offering a carrot cut into a disk would require the rat to have to actually touch the edge where the outer peel resides, which I know now, is very objectionable and disgraceful to a rat. Our rats had their priorities and expected their foods, as well as everything else in their lives, to arrive in a certain manner, and we were loathe to disappoint these little furry fuhrers.

We got all of their foods ready for display and set about the task of feeding Tika separately. This proved no small task for the previous weeks, as we ventured to give Tika a very high-fat and high-protein diet based on nuts while allowing her brother and sister to maintain their girlish figures by feasting on a much healthier and balanced diet of mostly vegetables. We would have one person distract the other two rats with hand-fulls of correctly-sized lettuce and perfectly chopped carrots while I hand fed Tika the very small pre-crushed pieces of nuts she could still eat even with the giant tumor now covering her cheeks as well as her neck, shoulders, and chest. Eating had become very uncomfortable for her but she was hungry. I could feel she had lost weight in her back and belly as her neck and shoulders bulked up beyond the point I imagined possible for stretching her skin. Looking straight at her, she resembled a baboon, with that large leathery bulk around her dainty face, and removing her ability to use her front legs as the tumor encased all the tissue and muscles around her tiny limbs poking out of that offending mass.

It helped that our rats would become competitive about their food and try to stuff their mouths with as many pieces as they could. I used this to my advantage with Tika, who despite being starved, would tire quickly of chewing, having to move that giant mass up and down to just take a small piece of pecan. She would for a few minutes get caught in the chaos and excitement of the feeding frenzy and it would help me to get several pre-smashed nut pieces in her before the flurry settled.

The whole feeding chaos began when we introduced Tika and her sister to the cage. Up until that point, the most we had ever lived with was two rats. Three rats turned out to be a lot more. With the two rats, I could present two perfectly cut carrot pieces in an open palm and each rat would take a casual turn approaching the hand and lifting one piece of carrot, leaving the other piece intact and unmolested on the palm until the other rat decided to retrieve it. We never thought it was terribly significant until we had three rats. With three rats, an open palm containing three carrot pieces brings three insistent rats who each behave as if they are starving to death lunging at the open hand, each calculating how to shove all three pieces into their one mouth while staving off their siblings by blocking their passage with a well-calculated body maneuver.

A piece of improperly cut carrot would go ignored and rejected in the open palm of a two-rat family. Now with three rats, the same offending piece would be ravenously shoved into any of the three mouths to be rejected later at their leisure once the threat of competition had abated. I have developed my own hypothesis for this behavior which is a little thing I call "rat-counting." The gist of it is that rats can count. They are very good at counting. There are only three numbers in rat-counting: 1,2,many. They seem to be able to count to one, that is, they know when there is only one of a thing and they want it for themselves. They can count to two, so they know when there is one for me and one for my brother. The next number they have in "rat-counting" however, is "many" which is, in a rat mind, a really large number. It is anything more than 2. They know there are many rats in their house and many pieces of food. To be sure they get enough, they need to smash as many as possible into their mouths, else they could go hungry with all those many rats around. Of course I have no scientific basis for my rat-counting hypothesis, which is why it is not a theory. Just my random guess that my mind came up with to justify the unfortunate and undignified behavior my beloved pets sink to when we give them food now that they are three. I pondered the idea of having only two again, and began to cry for not the last time nor the first time of the day.

Still trying to distract the other two rats with fists full of fresh veggies, I was able to get only one pecan half into Tika before she tired for good this morning. I can usually get her to eat at least three, then I try to get her to also take a pellet of pre-made rat food. Today she was having none of it. She was exhausted. Our opportunity to help her was coming to a close.

We launched the dinghy, ignoring the call to sleep which had been nagging since around 8:00 pm the previous day, and proceeded to call the veterinarian who we had sent photographs and constant updates of Tika's condition for the past two weeks as we sailed to Florida. I brought my laptop computer and sat outside the cafe well before they were to open. I composed a desperate email to Tika's vet. John tried the cell phone, but got only the answering machine. We returned to the boat, exhausted, and decided to nap while we waited for a response.

Our response came, but not until the following day. Unfortunately for Tika, the doctor had recently had a baby and was on maternity leave. She would not be able to meet with us until Monday, but offered another phone number we could try. After some research, I had an appointment for 2:00 that very day, but would have to drive for over an hour, which meant renting a car. I realize it may sound ridiculously obvious, but our family does not have a car, since it would not fit on our sailboat. This meant we would have to motor the boat for several miles and at least an hour to get to a dock to leave the boat while we rented a car and drove Tika to the vet. It was a lot of complexity in a very short period of time, since the appointment was only a few hours away. We frantically put the dinghy back on the boat and weighed anchor. I drove to the dock as quickly as I could, and John called all the bridges to request a lift open to allow us through. We again, made the trip in record time, and we began our drive to the veterinarian office just out of town.

As we drove to the vet's office holding one very miserable Tika on our laps, I thought about how much she would be missed if she did not make it home. Our hearts would forever have a giant hole named Tika, but what of her sister and brother? They would not even see what happened. Would they continue to search for her? Would they mourn her? Would they just let her go and forget her or lean on each other for support? They did know she was ill and they had been bringing her offerings of food for the past several days once the feeding frenzies died down. Maybe they would just know that she had moved on and would never be back. Maybe they expected it. Maybe I would never know.

When we arrived at the veterinary office over a half-hour early (another record), we were rushed in and shown to a young doctor who would remind us casually that she does not normally work anywhere but behind a desk on Fridays. This case was special, the office staff had pushed us through to her, not just based on our personal dire circumstances, but also just because they love rats. We had taken Tika to a doctor in Nassau hoping for the best and learning only two things: Tika's growth was indeed a tumor, and this Nassau vet, never having seen a pet rat before, was terrified of rats. He did not even want to touch her. I held her, and as he examined her, he very slightly, but perceptibly, would jump and cringe. What a relief it was to find a whole office of rat lovers, most of which kept pet rats as well. I knew it would be alright. Whatever happened, it would be the best we could do.

The doctor looked at her and told us she had to get into surgery that very minute if there was any chance to help her. We agreed, the doctor abandoned her plans to finish paperwork, and Tika was prepped for surgery as we exited the building. The doctor gave her a 10-15% chance of making it through surgery, so though we were thrilled to finally have her receiving some care, we were not what one might consider happy.

We walked out of the building and found a place to eat lunch, realizing that none of us had eaten since the previous day. We tried to find happiness in a buffet of various salads, pastas, muffins, breads, and glasses of strawberry lemonade. We came pretty close with the brownies smothered in ice cream, caramel sauce, chocolate sauce, granola, and peanuts, but upon leaving the building were faced with the sign announcing exotic pet care and remembered our darling baby just yards away probably losing her life. We cautiously walked past the vet's door hoping that if perhaps we avoid the news it might not have happened yet, and our friend could remain simultaneously alive in our hearts even if dead on the operating table.

My phone rang and I jumped at the distraction. It was, ironically, the assistant of our regular vet who was on maternity leave. She was anxious to know if we had gotten help for Tika. Simultaneously to her asking, the clinic door swung open and the lovely lady with her own precious pet rats burst through showing thumbs up. I reported the news to the woman on the line and hung up to have a closer bond with the good news. It was nearing the close of the day, and they wanted Tika to get to see us, or for us to get to see Tika, as she was waking up and getting in touch with her new, yet familiar, slender body.

We entered the operating room, a large room with many things going on. There were recovering patients in kennels and incubators. There were foreign and mysterious machines, sterile tools, blankets, cages, medications, syringes, and several people. Tika was on a table, her slim body wrapped tightly in hot pink bandages while two people hovered around her. It was a good color on her. She had a catheter attached to one of her back legs. She was sandwiched under and over towels as a giant blowing heater kept her warm. She looked so pathetic and incapacitated yet so majestic having just survived an event that would forever mark her life as her crowning achievement. She either smelled or heard us, since I am pretty sure her eyesight is not good enough to actually spot us from that far across the room, and she abandoned her injuries and attempted to run to us. Having only one leg with which to run, since two were bandaged to her chest and a third was stuck straight out with a catheter, she did not make it far, but it was the thought that counted. She wanted us. She wanted us now. She was willing to abandon all physical comfort and restrictions for the emotional comfort she could only feel when she was held by her people. She ran to us. Again and again, despite the doctor putting her back on the towel each time.

We went to her and stroked her. We told her she could just lay there, that we were here, we were with her, and we would stay with her as long as she needed. She did not have to move a muscle. The doctor set up an incubator for her and showed us how to operate it. She said that Tika could go home right away as long as we kept her in the incubator for warmth and gave her the requisite medications. We agreed that Tika would probably recover more quickly around her family than in an operating room, so we gleefully prepared for our return trip as the doctor took her leave to return to her paperwork.

We spent maybe twenty minutes total in that hospital room, every precious second holding and stroking our baby girl, so thrilled to see her alive and as herself without any obstructions. No sooner had we arranged to take her than Tika began making an odd face. Her mouth was open and she seemed to have some kind of tick or hiccups. The assistant, still with us, looked at her then went for the doctor. We waited, holding Tika's little head, and petting it with one finger, as we always had. The doctor arrived seconds later, sprinting across the room, and began administering oxygen. She thought Tika was having trouble breathing. She thought we should wait outside. I thought it was best to be agreeable and we all exited the operating room with the assistance of another assistant.

Several minutes later the doctor was out in the waiting area to inform us she was sorry. Tika did not make it after all. She was sorry, so sorry, that our baby made it through surgery, but not all the way into recovery. She was sorry she could not have done more. She was sorry for our loss.

Our hearts sank and the tears poured. We can spend some time with her body alone in the doctor's office. We agreed. It was not so necessary, really. We had all been willing to forego our good-byes just for those twenty minutes of hellos with her. Twenty minutes where she wanted us and nothing but us. Twenty minutes where we could be with her and only her. Tika without her offensive tumor weighing her down. Just us and our baby Tika, alive, without obstruction. They may not have been the best twenty minutes of her life, but they were the best twenty minutes of my life with her.

Tika was presented to us later, her body wrapped and ready for burial. We took her directly to the place where we would always think of her and she was laid in the ground. I thought about the ceremonial way we bury our dead. How insignificant it is really, except to those who are alive and want to remember it. I wondered again about her brother and sister and what they might have thought of it had they seen. How odd it must seem to her sister had she witnessed a cloth sack that smelled like Tika placed in the ground as her family cried. I wondered again if they would look for her or if they would just know.

The next morning I woke up at around 5:00 am and could not get back to sleep. It is not yet summer in Florida and even when it is, I am pretty confident that 5:00 am is almost always left unlit by the sun. I got dressed and prepared a breakfast for my two remaining rats. I chopped up some carrots, tomatoes, and some lettuce. The carrots and tomatoes simply two pieces of each delicacy rather than my previous need for three. I had no need to chop any nuts, since rats don't need that much protein and fat under normal circumstances. I thought about their counting from one to two and then skipping to "many" and I wished it were that simple in my mind. My mind was filled with lists of all the things that would now count from many to only two. All the treats, games, pocket rides, toys, shiny devices, and coins, only needing to count to two from now on. I looked at the two pieces of tomatoes in my open palm and I walked to the cage. Ruby and Sendai were still sleeping, but Ruby heard me coming and made her way to the lower level where she could greet me. I opened the door and presented my open palm with the two morsels laying upon it. She approached my hand, examined the two for several moments in what I imagined was an attempt to form a strategy to best fit both in her mouth at once. She bent down and selected one juicy red piece in her mouth, then retreated to the corner to eat it while Sendai lazily approached my palm to calmly retrieve the second piece.


Comment from: Answering Devices Wholesale [Visitor] Email
Answering Devices WholesaleSome famous Rats Whether literary, artistic, actors or politicians, there are plenty of Rats who have reached the top of their chosen field.
05/16/10 @ 20:20
Comment from: John Gentile [Visitor]
John GentileThank you, Sarah for writing this. We've been ashore for five days and it all seems a wreck. I wanted to write this, but couldn't. I seem to hurt from every part, except at least now for this part where Tika is, which can rest a bit. Thank you.
05/17/10 @ 08:42

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