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From ghosties and ghoulies
Long legitty beasties
And things that go bump [squawk shriek crash rattle-rattle-rattle snuffle-snuffle twang] in the night
Good Lord deliver us
Ship rats originated in Asia, where they are still very common. They were the original European rat at least from the Classical period: though the Romans did not view rats as a separate group, referring only to mus major and mus minor, the big and little mouse. This was entirely reasonable, since in both appearance and behaviour ship rats are closer to mice than to Norway rats.
Mouse-like, they do not tolerate cold very well. They remained the dominant rat in Europe during the warm period of the Middle Ages; but they may well have been weakened by the cold weather of the 17th C, as from the 18th C onwards they were superceded by the faster-breeding, cold-adapted Brown or Norway Rat, Rattus norvegicus. Other possible factors might have been changes in building-practices, resulting in a decrease in the number of lofts and barns (favoured by ship rats) and an increase in the number of cellars and sewers (favoured by Norway rats); and, in Britain, the Great Plague of 1666. [Bubonic plague, a disease transmitted by ship rat fleas, is as lethal to the rats - and fleas! - as it is to humans; and ship rats are comparatively slow breeders and don't make up their numbers as fast as Norway rats do.] Whatever the reason for their decline in Europe, however, they had established themselves very thoroughly elsewhere.
The name "Ship Rat" is a little misleading, since Rattus norvegicus also frequently travel by ship: but Rattus rattus are better suited to it, especially in the days of wooden ships, sparse provisions and long voyages, as they require very little food and water. As stowaways on human ships, they colonized every major place that humans reached except Antarctica (see suggested reading-list for The Journal of Watkin Stench by Meredith Hooper, a novel about ship rats travelling to Australia on the first convict ships, and The Pole-Seekers, by the same author, in which ship rats join an exploratory expedition to the Antarctic). In the days when sailors slept in open hammocks, ship rats were notorious for creeping up on them in the night and attempting to unscrew their toenails (the smell of human feet sends their grooming behaviour into overdrive). Their mating rituals - which involve large numbers of competing bucks chasing an on-heat doe at breakneck speed up and over anything and anyone which happens to be in the way - must also have provided a lot of nocturnal alarm and despondency.
As the Roof Rat or Alexandrine Rat they are quite common in the wild in North America (especially California - see footnote), having supposedly arrived with the Pilgrim Fathers. They have likewise colonized Australia, and in tropical and sub-tropical countries they are one of the commonest mammals on earth: but they are now rare in Europe. In Britain there are only two substantial breeding colonies, both on offshore islands (one on Lundy, where they scamper along the sea-shore catching crabs, and one on the Shiant Islands, a small, privately-owned group in the Hebrides); though there are reports that they are beginning to make a comeback on the mainland.
The ship rat is highly intelligent and can make a fascinating companion animal, but it must be stressed that this is not a domestic pet species. A companion ship rat is friendly - not tame as such. These are wild animals: albeit highly sociable and adaptable wild animals, many of whom are quite prepared to pal up with humans and live in a cage if it means unlimited free food and no predators.
Despite their generally excitable temperament ship rats were actually shown by the embryonic British Rat Fancy before the First World War, and in a wider variety of colours than are presently available - including green! However, the strain was lost during the war.
There was a domestication project in Britain during the 1980s and '90s, run by a couple called the Brantons, but it enjoyed only moderate success. Owing to severe restrictions on the number of ship rats they were permitted to take from the wild, the Brantons bulked up their initial breeding group with animals from a very inbred black strain originating in Liverpool Docks and maintained by the pest-control firm Rentokil: these inbred animals introduced behavioural and fertility problems which led to the demise of the project. There is an agouti strain of African origin being kept in laboratories in Sweden, but basically ship rats are still wild animals: despite the domestication project, the only (nearly) reliable method of getting a ship rat to accept being handled is still to take it off the mother a few days before weaning and hand-feed it. If you don't want to do that, then you end up with an animal which will come to you for titbits etc., but which you probably won't be able to pick up except in a live-trap - somewhat like a supersonic chipmunk.
Their personalities vary enormously, and even some fully wild specimens captured as adults are naturally gentle and friendly. Most hand-reared ship rats are loving and demonstratively affectionate, and they are nearly all tremendous fun and remain kitten-playful much longer than most species.
But they can also be fearlessly aggressive: even hand-reared animals sometimes grow up to see either humans or other pets as rivals to be seen off. They seem to have no species-prejudice: they don't divide the world into "My kind" and "Other things" but only into "People I like" and "People I don't like". This means that e.g. a stroppy buck may regard a male dog or cat as just as much of a rival as another male ship rat, and attempt (usually fairly successfully) to beat it up. In both appearance and behaviour they are more like giant mice than Norway rats, and this swaggering, tackle anything, "Hey you Jimmy, you think you're bigger than me?" attitude is typical of male mice.
They resemble parrots in that they may be passionately devoted to one human being (or to one dog, or whatever) and hate - even actively attack - everybody else. This is not a serious as it sounds, because unlike the Norway rat the ship rat has quite a weak bite - but they are as agile as monkeys and fly at you from all angles. It's like being savaged by a vampire squash-ball.
They are also unbelievably fast, and naturally bloody-minded. Bearing in mind that these were the dominant rat in Europe right up to the late 18th C, most of the traditional European idea of the ferocious rat is based on Rattus rattus, not on poor little fubsy inoffensive Rattus norvegicus. Ship rats really do do a lot of the things legend says rats do - though if a shrieking buck ship rat leaps, arms spread wide, towards your face he isn't trying to tear your throat out as legend would have it: he just wants to widdle on your head and then trample up and down rubbing it well in with his feet.
They are absolutely not a suitable replacement for the kids' hamster. For the experienced rodent-freak, however, they are a fascinating and enjoyable species. This site is intended for just such rodent-freaks: and for anyone who ends up caring for a wild ship rat brought in by the cat (though it would have to be a pretty brave cat).
N.B. If you are offered a ship rat or rats by someone who has a litter, bear in mind that their relationships are all with individual humans; not with humans as a species. The fact that a ship rat is tame to someone else doesn't necessarily mean it will be tame to you, so don't just take the breeder's word as to which kitten will make the best pet. Ask to see several, and pick the one or ones who are most responsive to you personally.
Obvious physical and behavioural differences between the ship and Norway rat; ship rat coat-colours, with a brief consideration of the genetics of the principal shades.
The Rat-Temple of Deshnok.
Description of Indian temple where ship rats are revered.
Pros & Cons.
The advantages and disadvantages of ship rats as companion-animals.
Bucks & Does.
The behavioural differences between male and female ship rats.
Interactions within groups of ship rats: how to introduce new animals to an existing group etc..
Types of cage, nest-box etc. suitable for ship rats.
How much and what to feed.
Cage-cleaning, handling etc..
Lifespan; some common medical problems and what to do about them; things your vet may not know about rats.
What ship rats actually aren't all that good at... Includes advice on hand-rearing.
Things to bear in mind if introducing ship rats to other animals.
A Note of Caution.
How to cope with an aggressive ship rat; things not to do if you don't want to be nipped by even a friendly one.
"The palm trees that grace the streets of Los Angeles, all planted by man's beautifying hand, none native, are home to thousands of rats' nests. At times a rat, or two, will fall from the top of a bushy-headed palm into a passing convertible car, altering the consciousness of the driver."
David Homel, Rat Palms, Epigraph
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