It's been a ratty couple of weeks in New Orleans (well, rattier than usual).
Sparked by a viral clip of chubby brown rats taking the air at a Decatur Street restaurant, suddenly rats were everywhere — the evening news, the front page of The New Orleans Advocate, all over Twitter, where reactions ranged from "Rats in the Quarter, what's new?" to "I'm never leaving the house again."
But there's one Louisiana woman who's a staunch defender of rats' right to ... rat. As founder and director of For the Love of Rats Rescue in Walker, Darleen Watts says rats aren't something to be feared. Since 2012, she estimates she's rescued more than 4,000 rats — both wild and domestic — including hoarding cases that bring in more than 100 rats at a time.
She's also kept pet rats, who sometimes take their own star turn on her Facebook feed.
"Of course you get those comments — "'Ew, how disgusting,'" she says. "And then you get those comments of 'Oh, how cute.'"
[jump] Watts wasn't always a rat evangelist. While she's a lifelong animal lover who spent her childhood looking after orphaned possums, chickenhawks and puppies, her affection for rats began in a pet store, where she was looking for an animal for her 10-year-old son.
"I was like, 'Oh, hell no. I am not getting no nasty, evil, disease-ridden rat' — because I was like everyone else. I did not understand," Watts says.
But when her son picked out a black-and-white rat, Watts felt sorry for its cagemate — an intuitive connection confirmed when it ran up her arm and sat on her shoulder. She'd name her new pet Delilah, and brought her home to start learning about rats, who she says are both cleaner and smarter than most people give them credit for.
Rats will groom themselves as much or more than a cat does, licking themselves from nose to tail after being touched by a person. And they're surprisingly intelligent — Watts knew a rat who would fetch a Kleenex when her owner sneezed, and another who would pull a dollar out of her owner's wallet when you told her — the rat — it was time to go shopping.
Delilah herself became a fixture of the community, riding in Watts' purse as she went to the bank and to Walmart. She was a great favorite with the Walmart cashiers, who would ask to see her when Watts was in the store.
Though Delilah eventually passed away ("Not only was I heartbroken, but the community I lived in was heartbroken," Watts says) one rat begets another. Watts began unofficially rescuing rats people brought her, and started her formal rescue six years ago. Most of the rats she sees are pets, but she also rescues the occasional litter of orphaned wild rats.
Pet rats are Norway rats, one of the two kinds of rats that occupies the French Quarter (the others are roof rats, who favor attics and trees). In most respects, they aren't that different from their wild cousins. Pet rats tend to have more colorful fur — rats living outdoors with distinctive markings are likely to be pet rats someone released — while wild rats are more sensitive to movement, sound and smells.
"If you've ever seen how fast a wild rat is, and then you watch a pet rat, you're like 'Are y'all really related?'" she says.
At the rescue, Watts currently is caring for more than 100 animals, which includes rats and degus (a portly rodent that's somewhere between a chinchilla and gerbil), and sometimes other animals such as rabbits. The rescue is run as a nonprofit, which she supports by running online auctions of rat- and rodent-themed merch.
If recent rat news has inspired you to get your own personal rat, Watts says good rat care requires an experienced vet. Rats are prone to respiratory infections and cancer, and it's important to feed them nutritious food, even though they'll want to share your junk food, chips and cookies. Typically, they live for just a few years — though they can live longer with appropriate care — and are fine for kids with supervision.
While they're social animals who do better in groups (called a "mischief"), don't worry, they also crave human attention and affection.
"They're unconditional, pure love," Watts says. "I mean, yes, all pets love you. But rats have a lot of human emotion and a lot of human personality that a lot of animals don't."