Tails from Campus: The Illegal Rat

Jane L. Johnson

During my undergraduate years at an elite east coast women's college from 1960-64, I sorely missed a furry companion to keep me company in my monastic single room. At my parents' home for summer vacation before my senior year in college, I mentioned this to my parents, who at the time had two small dogs that were treated as members of the family. My father, a professor at the local land-grant university, suggested that he could obtain a white rat that I could take to college.

While in retrospect I suspect he meant the offer in jest, I took it seriously, and the very next day he came home with a white rat from a small animal lab on the university campus. We named this critter Oscar.

White rats are not to be confused with their brown Norwegian rat cousins that we see in even the nicest neighborhoods in town. The white ones are bred to be docile, easily handled, and passive, happy to live their entire lives in small cages awaiting their fate in the name of science. They are albino, with pink noses and red eyes. They are described as smart, affectionate, social and many claim that they make good family pets.

I was delighted at Oscar and made plans to take him back to college in the fall. I knew that my college strictly forbade pets anywhere on campus but was certain that I could sneak Oscar into the dorm and discreetly keep him in my room.

Parenthetically, I recently discovered that Oscar would today be legal at my college, with the student handbook currently stating that:

[W]ith the exception of very small animals kept at all times within cages, aquariums, or terrariums … students are not allowed to bring pets into any college building .... Students are strictly prohibited from having any venomous or dangerous pets. Other than service animals trained to provide assistance for the benefit of a student with a disability, dogs and cats are strictly prohibited.

But back in 1963, looking ahead to the next year with a pet in my dorm room, I decided that I didn't like Oscar's long snake-like tail, so my father and I humanely anesthetized him briefly and, to put it bluntly (no pun intended), amputated his tail. I never regretted doing this because he then looked more like a cute guinea pig, less rat-like, and the cut tail healed quickly.

I took the train back to college, a 3,000-mile trip from west coast to east—as a poor scholarship student, train fare was considerably less than airfare in those days. My father designed and built a compact carrying case complete with a hidden screen front, a carrying handle on top, a water bottle that Oscar could drink from, and a screen bottom to handle any droppings. Oscar and I made the three-day train trip in fine shape.

Once back on campus, I easily smuggled him into my dorm room. His regular diet was dry cat food, which he munched while holding pieces in his little delicate paws and sitting on his hind legs—an entertaining feature that cats and dogs don't offer. He briskly washed his face and whiskers after eating, more thoroughly than any dog or cat I've ever seen. Another treat that Oscar enjoyed was the occasional apple core that I tossed into the wastebasket in my room. He was able to jump up on the rim of the container, balance walking around the edge, then jump down into it to pick up the apple core and eat it.

This was all very entertaining to watch, a nice break from hitting the books.

So, things went swimmingly for Oscar and me that school year. We did have one incident when he escaped out my open door and began slowly wandering down the corridor. I heard some girlish shrieks from down the hall and quickly rushed to rescue him—he barely escaped harm when one girl attempted to throw a book at him. Fortunately, she threw the book as poorly as most girls can throw a ball, so he survived the attempt. I feared being exposed as an illegal pet-owner, but she tactfully did not pursue the matter with me. I'm sure the episode only confirmed the prevailing opinion that I was a very unconventional oddball for keeping a white rat as a pet.

Toward the middle of the school year, I noticed an odd-looking lump on Oscar's right paw. It seemed to bother him, and I noticed him chewing it. Should I consider taking him to a veterinarian? I had no way to contact or visit a vet, but then wondered if I might locate someone on campus who was familiar with small lab animals. I located a physiology department professor who agreed to examine Oscar. It was cold winter weather by then, and I bundled Oscar up in the pocket of my warmest winter coat for the trip across campus to this professor's office. After a brief inspection he administered anesthesia under a bell jar, cut off the cyst on Oscar's paw, and put a couple of stitches on the incision. Oscar was his usual self within a few minutes. As I left the professor's office, he warned me not to tell anyone that he had done this because it was outside his normal professorial duties. In the same vein, I commented that I appreciated his not reporting me either because I wasn't supposed to have any pets in my room. Nothing further was made of the matter.

My parents attended my graduation at the end of the school year and I sent Oscar home with them as I headed off to a summer job in New York City before moving on to graduate school in the fall. When I later visited my parents, we decided that a suitable dwelling for Oscar would be a return to his original home, the small animal lab at the state university. The lab was happy to take him back, and later studied him to observe how he had fared during his life on the lam out in the real world. We were told later that he had other tumors throughout his body, and that veterinary students were able to learn a great deal from dissecting his body. We were, however, not given an autopsy report.

White rats have given their lives for many scientific purposes over the years. Oscar undoubtedly had a longer—and indeed probably richer—life than any of his brethren, and had adventures they could only have dreamt of. He met his end in an unconventional fashion—at least for a white rat—just as I was preparing to enter the real world of employment, graduate school, and my adult future. RIP, Oscar.


Photo by Kalyan Sak on Unsplash

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