It came to pass that I acquired a young gopher snake, brought by my friend who lives in a tent in a local urban canyon.  Sooner or later, these urban reptiles will wind up encountering people, a certain percentage of whom will try to destroy them. They’re either ignorant, or want to impress their wimmenfolk, so get the stick, it’s Whacking Day!

I kept the little guy with the idea that, someday, I would take him out to a nature preserve and let him go. That was over a year ago, but I’ll do it next Spring, I swear. He’s a bright-eyed, alert little fellow. I don’t want some idiot killing him so he can strut around like some Big Hero. Feh.

Sadly, you have to feed snakes live or freshly killed animals. Gopher snake. You might think from the name it might have earned that name by devouring rodents, and you’d be right. Due to a lack of cheap pet store gophers, rats and mice will have to do.

Last October, the snake was slowing down. Central heat meant that he didn’t get cold, but he responded to the shorter daylight hours by shedding and going into a stupor for the winter. Lucky for Scurvy Bill.

See, the pet store was out of feeder mice, but they had baby rats about the same size as a young adult mouse. I bought one. His little eyes were just open, and he still tottered around on unsteady baby legs.

The snake took one whiff of him and poured over behind a rock, where he puddled. No interest in the sacrifice at all. The little ratling would die if left overnight in the snake cage, all cold and alone, so I took him out and put him in a little animal carrier with food, water and a nice, warm fluffy rag. He ate parrot nuggets for a week and seemed to thrive on their tasty, fruit flavored goodness.

By the time spring arrived and the snake came out of its torpor, Scurvy Bill was far too big for his menu. Plus, I liked him. He is smart, responsive and affectionate. He likes to bounce around on the floor, and chases his own tail. And best of all, he’s hairless!

I didn’t really look too closely at the ratling I purchased as snake food. I just assumed he was a pinky who hadn’t grown its fur in yet.

Nope. He’s almost a year old, and bald as a butt. Now, the down side of rat pet ownership is this. They dribble pee wherever they go, and the boys have huge balls that they drag around all over your stuff.  It’s funny if it’s somebody else’s stuff. But usually, it’s just yours, because people really don’t want you letting rats loose in their homes.

In other words, don’t wear your Sunday best when rat wrangling. They play like kitties who leak pee. They will pounce on your finger and nip. They will bounce around like crazy, then furiously groom away their excitement.  They will freeze, grind their teeth and bug their eyes out. That is disturbing, because they can bug their eyes way, way out until you half expect one to pop out and shoot across the room.

I caught a horned toad lizard once that shot blood out of its eyes. This is nothing like that.

So, Scurvy Bill moved into a more spacious plastic tank, which he quickly outgrew.  On Craigslist, I found a three story cage for $30. That is a deal, similar cages a quarter the size sell new for $60 at Petco. So, the shoebox condo full of snuggly rags is on the top floor; level 2 is dining and plastic ball rolling, potty in the basement. This is cool, because he goes down there to piddle on the newspaper instead of raining it down into his food from the top floor. Like I said, rats are pretty smart.

Another thing I’ve noticed; they really use their tails. He will brace it like a kangaroo when up on his hind legs, or wrap it around my neck when he’s riding on my urine-soaked shoulder. (I know, eww, but whatcha gonna do? Ever see the back of a parrot owner?)

There used to be an animal training class at USC. You were issued a rat. By the end of the class, the rat had to perform 10 tricks. Rats are way smarter than hamsters and guinea pigs. Those guys definitely outshine the rat in cute. Rats, sometimes they’re cute, other times when they’re sniffing the air with their little mouths hanging open to display those nasty long teeth…they just look ratty.

Happily, according to Tea Bagger candidate Christine O’Connell, “they” have managed to combine human and animal DNA in labs, producing mice with fully functional human brains. So it’s only a matter of time before rats are given the same advantage.  I will be first in line for my hairless rat with a human brain. The first thing I will say to it is, “Okay, rule number one. Do not pee on me. And if you ever see that guy who tried to steal my motorcycle leather, bite him repeatedly.”

Another down side to rats is their two year lifespan. That’s kind of short, but when you get to the age where a new kitten might outlive you, it becomes a benefit.

There is an amazing array of rat designs available. There are Satins, with sleek, glossy coats. Siamese rats have the same markings as the cats, while Rex rats also share hairlessness and curly hair attributes with Rex cats. Rats share a lot in common with cats; feral animals are very successful, rats are also effective predators.

Oh, you didn’t know? Neither did I. And so, when the snake refused a small mouse, I put it in with Scurvy Bill to keep warm. There was a whole lotta squeakin’ for a second. Then, when I cleaned Bill’s cage the next day, I found a little scrap of mouse skin. That was it. Bill eated the Whole Thing!

Rats eat mice. Who knew? And check out the crazy squirrel aggression!

Both cats and rats survive in the wild and flourish. Have you seen how they pile up garbage bags on the curbs of New York City? When I went there last year, I saw lots of huge rats, bigger than some cats I know! But now that I know rats, I kind of like them. Except I don’t really like their little flappy mouths and buggy eyes. Personality makes up for that, though. It’s not unlike having an ugly, rich boyfriend.

Oh, and another thing. Hairless rats sort of feel like a penis. I have felt both, and there are distinct similarities. Warmth, softness, the way the skin moves over the…never mind. You get my drift. Pet a hairless rat and try not to think of penis. You can’t do it, unless you’re a female virgin. I know what those male virgins touch. Girls, if you want to know and you’re too timid to try or too ugly to get the opportunity, pet a hairless rat. It’s just like that, trust me. Except for the claws and teeth, that is.