Ratatouille is the big cheese at the box office, and I could not be more delighted. Disney’s hit movie about a plucky rat named Remy, who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef, is showing audiences what I’ve known for some time: Rats are friendly and affectionate animals who can charm almost anyone if given the chance.
I met Houdini and his brother, Snowflake, after PETA got a call from a teacher asking if we could take them. The rats had been classroom pets. It was the end of the school year, and they needed a new home. I don’t remember quite how they ended up sharing my office, but our friendship forever changed the way I think about these misunderstood animals.
PETA’s resident handyman, Victor, built the rats a large three-story cage. In the classroom, they’d been confined to a small aquarium, and their new house was definitely an improvement. But even so, every morning when I arrived at work, the rats would be pushing on the top of the cage demanding to be let out. They loved freedom, especially Houdini—that’s probably how he got his name. Once out of their cage, Houdini and Snowflake would stand on their back legs and mock-wrestle until they wore themselves out. Then they’d take a long nap.
Victor put a screen door on my office so Houdini and Snowflake could explore without wandering off. When the rats first came to PETA, colleagues who stopped by my office were sometimes taken aback. Just like most people, they’d learned negative things about rats, so their initial reaction was to recoil. But they were also curious—most had never seen a rat “in person.” Houdini was a wonderful ambassador for his species. He loved visitors and surprised my coworkers with his friendliness.
After a couple of months, Snowflake fell ill and had to be euthanized. Houdini continued to stay in my office. He loved to nap in the plastic filing trays on my desk or climb onto my shoulder and snuggle. Or he would grab pieces of paper from my recycling bin and make a bed out of them. He’d teeter on the edge of the bin with those 8-inch-by-10-inch sheets in his mouth, leap to the bookshelf and just pile up paper between the books and the wall and settle in.
I couldn’t resist giving him treats and would save bits of my lunch for him. Houdini was a big fan of the Tofutti cream cheese that I spread on my bagels. He drank by daintily scooping up water with his hand from his bowl.
A few months after Snowflake died, Houdini’s breathing became labored. I began taking him home with me at night. The carrier I put him in was solid plastic with air holes cut out all around it. Houdini and I would play a game where I would hold the box and turn it. He’d run to a different air hole each time and I’d kiss his nose. At home, he slept on my bookcase or in my bed. I still have a photo of him asleep in bed, partially tucked under the covers.
Houdini and I were friends for almost a year before his respiratory condition became too much for him. I miss him dearly: He was the most loving, friendly and outgoing animal I’ve ever known. He was filled with personality, loved people and being held and very much had his own purpose each day.
Most people who see Ratatouille will never have a chance to meet a Remy or a Houdini, but I hope the movie will inspire them to think of rats a little more kindly. Rats are as unique and wonderful as the other four-legged animals who more commonly share our homes once you get to know them.
Robyn Wesley is a writer for the international animal protection organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), based in Norfolk, Virginia; www.HelpingWildlife.com.