Rats also discovered that many of the warm, dry habitats built by humans offered a significant amount of protection against predators, harsh weather and other dangers. Though humans initially saw rats as a pest, it was eventually discovered that rats were extremely intelligent, social and affectionate animals. The role of rats throughout history has had a noticeable influence on how our culture has evolved into today’s complex society.
When people discovered that rats had made a habit of stealing from human food stores, they had to make significant changes to protect their food supply. This involved finding alternate storage methods, such as storing grains in clay, glass or metal containers. Humans also developed more secure dwellings, in order to reduce the chances that their home would become a suitable residence for rats.
Ancient Romans had a unique way of referring to rats. Oddly enough, they didn’t bother to differentiate much between rats and mice. Mice were known as “Mus Minimus” (little mouse), while rats were known as “Mus Maximus” (big mouse).
In the Victorian age in England, a macabre sport was introduced for entertainment – Rat Pits. This sport involved a terrier, who was placed in a pit with a designated number of rats. Bets were placed on each terrier, and the terrier who could kill the most rats in the shortest time won the sport.
To help to control the rat population, England began hiring “rat catchers”. One of the most famous of these was Jack Black, who was the royal rat catcher for Queen Victoria during the mid 19thcentury. Many of these rats were used in rat pits for sport. It is said that Jack Black is the founder of the fancy rat breed. This is because he would regularly keep rats that he found with unique color traits, or special characteristics. A short time later, he began selling these specially colored rats which he bred to be pets. According to documentation, most of Jack Black’s rats were sold “to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages”. One of his customers, the famous Beatrix Potter, dedicated a book to her pet rat, which was titled “Samuel Whiskers”.
The NMRC and NFRS
In the 1800′s, specially colored mice began becoming popular pets, which prompted the founding of the “National Mouse Club”. In 1901, a lady named Miss Mary Douglas wrote a letter to this organization, making a case for rats to also be included. They agreed, and the “National Mouse and Rat Club” was born in 1912. Though interest in pet rats declined after the death of Mary Douglas, in 1976 a new club was formed, the “National Fancy Rat Society”. Being the first organization that was entirely dedicated to rats, it began rapidly increasing the popularity of keeping fancy rats as pets. Another society, called the “American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association” (AFRMA) was started in 1983. Today, there are many organizations dedicated to providing information about pet rats.
It is said that many of the pet rats in the United States can trace their origins back to the laboratory rats kept in the early 20th century. Being easy to breed, rats were favored for all types of scientific research. In fact, a pet book from the 1920′s suggests to its readers to contact their local laboratory to ask about adopting a pet rat.