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Oct. 5, 2022

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Ridgefield woman says her pet rodents are easy to love, social media followers agree

By , Columbian staff writer
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Richelle Kelly of Ridgefield holds all seven of her pet rats. Behind her are many of the rat-themed items that she's received from her thousands of Instagram and TikTok followers.
Richelle Kelly of Ridgefield holds all seven of her pet rats. Behind her are many of the rat-themed items that she's received from her thousands of Instagram and TikTok followers. (Elayna Yussen/ for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Soft fur, a sensitive nose, a wagging tail and a propensity for snuggling. Curious, loyal and always up for snacks and head-scratches, they’ll sometimes lick your hand in greeting. That’s a dog, right? For Richelle Kelly of Ridgefield, that describes her seven rats: Larry, Curly, Shemp, Basil, Wally, Bill and Ted.

These fascinating rodents get a bad rap, but their behavior is more closely related to human psychology than dogs, Kelly said, and that’s why many scientists use them as study subjects. They’re easy to love because they’re so easy to relate to, Kelly said. That may be why, even though she loves all her rats, she’s especially fond of Larry, her “heart rat.”

“A ‘heart rat’ is a rat that you bond with,” Kelly said. “I’m not really a spiritual person but it’s almost on a spiritual level. I just really connect with him. He and I understand each other.”

You might think that Kelly is an outlier when it comes to her ratty relationships, but she’s part of a global community of online rat enthusiasts. There’s a whole world of whiskered social media darlings with handles like Ice Cube the Rescue Rat, Sesame the Rat, the Ratso Boyz, Philly Ratty Mischief and Spoiled Rat. Hashtags like #ratsarepetstoo, #ratsofinstagram and #ratcommunity pop up everywhere. Kelly’s rats — which can be found online @theratstooges — have 11,000 followers on Instagram and 229,000 on TikTok. One wall in Kelly’s home office is given over to displaying the multitude of rat-themed items given to her by devoted fans, everything from original art to figurines to handsewn stuffed rats.

Kelly got her first rat, Shadow, when she was 5 years old. It was a gift from her grandmother, who intended to get her a hamster but was persuaded by the pet shop owner that a rat would make a better pet. Kelly has owned rats off and on ever since but arrived at the internet’s rat party relatively recently, in 2020, when she sought a pet to keep her company during the early months of the pandemic.

“I really wanted to get a dog but I didn’t know how long quarantine would be. Rats are a short commitment, which is unfortunately the worst part of owning rats, but for people who don’t know where they’ll be in a few years, the short life span is perfect,” said Kelly, who recently lost two rats, Eddie and Moe. Their Instagram pictures are marked with tiny rainbows, shorthand among rat owners for having “crossed the rainbow bridge.”

Unlike hamsters, which are nocturnal and often keep their owners up by running on the exercise wheel all night, Kelly said that rats are crepuscular, meaning that they’re most active at dawn and dusk.

“They’re up in the evening and they’re up in the morning so it’s perfect for those with day jobs,” said Kelly, a digital strategy manager for the point-of-sale software company NCR. “They’re up when I get up in the morning, they sleep during the day, then they’re ready to play when I’m done working.”

Kelly believes she developed such a strong connection with her original “rat stooges” (Larry, Curly and the late Moe) because she was working remotely. She placed their cages in her home office and spent most of her days within a few feet of them. Kelly and her boyfriend even took the rats to the beach or on outings to the store, tucked into a pocket.

All seven of her current rats reside in her home office, though their rat habitat (ratitat?) has grown to encompass half the room, with several huge cages, cat trees and cardboard boxes. Kelly has outfitted former bird cages with rat-specific accoutrements: hammocks, hidey-holes, ladders, ropes, food dishes, water dispensers and litter boxes lined with shredded paper. (Rats are rather fastidious about hygiene and can easily be litter box trained, Kelly said, but they have delicate respiratory systems and need paper rather than cat litter because the clay dust can make them sick.)

Larry and Curly are “feeder rats,” Kelly said, meaning they were bred as food for pet snakes. It’s not uncommon for rat owners to purchase feeder rats because they’re inexpensive, although they usually die after a couple years. Larry, at 21/2, is quite old for a feeder rat and will live on through his son, Shemp, whose mother is a “fancy rat.” Fancy rats come from ratteries where breeders select for traits like hardiness (fancy rats can live up to three years), temperament and fur color or texture. Basil, Wally, Bill and Ted are fancy rats. Specialty rat breeding might seem like a modern trend, but it’s a venerable profession stretching back two centuries, Kelly said, noting that Queen Victoria had pet rats.

Even so, Kelly is aware of a deep cultural bias against rats, beginning with the Black Death (although fleas transmitted the plague to humans, not rats) and continuing through to villainous characterizations in stories like Frank Herbert’s 1974 horror novel “The Rats” and the evil Professor Ratigan in Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective.” She also thinks people are disturbed by their snakelike tails, though they actually “feel like velvet,” she said.

They’re relatively easy to care for, Kelly said. She noted they do have specific requirements: plenty of clean bedding (Kelly hangs a roll of toilet paper on a cord and lets the rats unwind it), places to hide, things to chew on, water, high-quality pellets and some fresh fruit and vegetables. Kelly is scrupulous about cage-cleaning; her rats’ home has absolutely no unpleasant smell. Most crucially, rats need stimulation and interaction, Kelly said, because a bored, lonely rat is likely to be destructive.

“Rats are superintelligent,” Kelly said. “They’re more humanlike in reactions than other pets. They’ll respond if you yell at them. They’ll pout. When they lose a cagemate, they’re sulky and depressed.

“Maybe you had a hamster or rat before but you probably only spent a few minutes a day with them and never bonded. Well, if you hung out with a person only a few minutes a day you wouldn’t bond, either. They’re not like dogs who will bond with anyone who gives them attention. You have to earn their respect and their love.”

Kelly spends about an hour a day interacting with the rats, she said. She also takes pictures and videos of human-rat interactions: playing, tickling, lots of petting and behind-the-ear scratching. Her rats can do tricks, like spinning in a circle to get a treat. They love to fish for peas in a shallow, water-filled dish or solve puzzles to get food. They gently nibble and lick Kelly’s hands and grab objects with tiny, dexterous paws. They don’t have thumbs, said Kelly, but they do have a little nubbin that can be used for grasping. Rats have complex social hierarchies and need company as much as humans do, Kelly said, and should always have one or more rat companions.

Kelly also spends time drawing them. She’s a skilled artist and has captured her rats’ Three Stooges-style antics in 30 black-and-white drawings, available as a coloring book on Amazon for $10.99. The book, which also contains plethora of interesting rat facts, is called “Serotonin Potatoes.”

“Rats in general just look like little floppy potatoes,” Kelly said. “I would go on TikTok and people would come into the live feed and say ‘This brings me so much serotonin,’ instead of ‘This makes me happy.’ So the rats are serotonin potatoes.”

Kelly is considering creating a second coloring book, “Pocket Puppies,” with pictures of her youngest rats, Wally, Bill and Ted. After that, who knows? Kelly said she’s become a rat advocate (a ratvocate?) and loves spreading the word about Rattus norvegicus, so named because fancy rats are all descended from the Norwegian brown rat.

“Almost every month, I learn something new because somebody will ask something and so I’ll research it,” Kelly said. “I know a ridiculous amount of rat facts and rat information because of that.”

Where to find The Rat Stooges:

Instagram: instagram.com/theratstooges/

TikTok: tiktok.com/@theratstooges/

“Serotonin Potatoes” coloring book: amazon.com/Serotonin-Potatoes-Rat-Stooges/dp/B09KN45SWM

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