So it was Sunday, and our new girl Misty needed shoulder rat training. The plan was to take my daughter and Misty to the safe site for a little fresh air fun. Naturally my daughter insisted we go to the local waterfront park instead, where she might find kids to play with. She also wanted to take Cloud along and I suppose that made sense too, to a degree. Cloud is a trained true shoulder rat, and she's getting old and pudgy, she normally stays right by me so she shouldn't be a problem... Working with two untrained rats outdoors is an absolute recipe for disaster, but with the two of us there and one rat being trained it shouldn't have been a problem. And despite the site not being safe, we've had Misty at the safe site and she was really very manageable.
So when we got there, my daughter found another little girl to play with and they took off with Cloud, while I talked to the girls dad and worked with Misty. The girls and Cloud disappeared into the distance down the scenic path that overlooks the marsh, but I wasn't concerned... My daughter is 9 years old and has been handling rats since she was 5.
Then I see my daughter running towards me.... ratless. "Dad! Dad! Dad!... Cloud's gone!" Now for all of you who really love your best furry friends, this is about the last thing you ever want to hear. It's one of those things that really knots up your stomach. So as best as I could get the story, Cloud had stepped off the fence rail onto a branch and had fallen into the dense edge of the marsh below the path... I looked where she had fallen and she was in fact gone somewhere in a few acres of low tide salt marsh and dense reeds and tall weeds. Now for folks that don't shoulder rat and have never lost a rat or gotten one killed... this is the precise point your whole day turns to absolute sh**.
Now Cloud is a true shoulder rat, but she's no Max... Max would have headed straight for the car. And she's no Fuzzy Rat. Fuzzy Rat always disappeared and came back... but Fuzzy Rat went off to explore and Cloud fell into a marsh. Worse yet, Cloud is one of those rats that sticks to us like glue she never actually went off to explore on her own before... In fact Cloud barely passed her final true shoulder rat test by hiding under my t-shirt.
The other little girl ran up and told me she saw Cloud heading along the edge of the marsh through the rushes and reeds towards where I was before, but naturally I wasn't there anymore. So I ran back to where she would have been looking for me, but she didn't turn up. By this point the park was filling up with kids and barking dogs and some woman shouting at someone on her cell phone... and Cloud doesn't like wide open spaces, she wasn't likely to break cover... So I started calling her, but Cloud is a dumbo, and I don't even know if dumbos can locate someone by sound. I mean their ears don't really pivot properly. So with Misty under my shirt I started battling my way through the low tide marsh, but I soon realized there was no way to find a rat in the dense growth and years of dead grass mats under my feet... That wasn't going to happen. I even sent my daughter back to the car in case Cloud turned up there, but she wasn't there. She was now gone for over an hour.
Time to stop and think... Cloud did pass her true shoulder rat test... she shouldn't be panicking. And rats never get lost. Theoretically, we can't lose her. She went to look for me and she didn't find me... what would she do next? If she were Fuzzy Rat, she would go back to the place she last saw us and we would normally just wait there for her. This is what really good true shoulder rats do. But this is the very first time Cloud's been on her own, and if she panicked she could be anywhere hunkered down in the marsh... and we would never get her back. It's so easy to say you trust your rat will do the right thing, but it's actually a lot harder to do it when everything is going wrong.
So I went back to the place she fell into the brush and I pushed away some of the branches and leaves and there she was all hunkered down in the very spot she disappeared from. She had found her way back and was waiting to be recovered... All be it, she was in a clump of poison ivy and recovering her took a bit of finesse, she hadn't panicked and she had performed as well as our best true shoulder rat. She kept her cool and went looking for me, when she couldn't find me, she went back to the spot where she was most likely to be found. She performed brilliantly! I think I was proud beyond words and happier than I can express. By cheating her way through the final exam, and being reluctant to go into open spaces, I really never gave her the credit she deserved. But she proved herself to be more than worthy of her title Sunday. You can't really lose a true shoulder rat, they always come back... Maybe I feel sorry for doubting poor old Cloud. Maybe, I've been unfair to her, but she's never really inspired confidence before. Thankfully, Misty pretty much stayed under my shirt and hung on to me while I was searching the marsh for Cloud... she did pretty well too. I really didn't pay her much attention while I was traipsing though the reeds and rushes with her on me... talk about tempting fate. Losing two rats in a single outing is about as bad a day as you can possibly imagine. But Misty cling on tight and didn't panic either, our little girl has some potential... now tested under fire too.
After we got Cloud back, we continued to play with the rats at the park for a while... and Cloud actually took off for the car on her own along the guard rail and across wide open space... it's the first time she ever did that. And I let her go, while watching at a distance. Her confidence level was through the roof. She even stopped to pose for photos taken by park patrons who didn't even realize she was someone's pet, she was so far away from us. Misty had fun, and we did get some pics and video. It turned out to be a great outing, my daughter made a new friend and Cloud evolved to the next level and Misty was a very good girl.
Cloud safely back and sidetracked on her route to the car.
(Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to have to leave this face behind in a salt marsh.)
Cloud & Misty chilling while the humans say goodbye.
So when we got home both rats got a bath, mostly to wash the poison ivy and swamp muck off Cloud, but Misty got a bath too... Naturally Cloud went off to explore the house for a while and get some fresh dirt on her, but then she passed out in a little ball in her cage with that familiar smug Fuzzy Rat or Max look on her face... "Yeah, I'm cool... I can handle myself... I'm just that good" and you know, she earned it.
When you read this little post, you might spot our mistakes. My daughter should have gone into the marsh after Cloud instead of coming to tell me she lost Cloud. She shouldn't have taken Cloud so close to the marsh and more than likely she was busy playing with her new friend and wasn't paying attention when Cloud decided to look for me. But that can happen to anyone, it's easy to get distracted, especially if your a 9 year old girl with a new friend. But when you screw up, you have to rely on your rat to compensate for your mistakes. Cloud was experienced and trained and tested, she had the composure and skills to survive and do the right thing, even if I wasn't very confident in her.
This nightmare had a happy ending because Cloud turned out to be a great true shoulder rat. Because we took the time to work with her and train her and help build her confidence. A lesser rat would have been lost forever.
I'm posting this, not only because I'm so proud of our big girl, but to make a point of how easy it is for even an experienced shoulder rat handler and trainer to screw up. It only takes a second and your rat is gone. Shoulder ratting is dangerous. With a well trained rat your rat will compensate for your mistakes. But when everything goes wrong, that's all you have to rely on. Your rat will come back or it won't... and there's nothing you can do about it when it happens. Now with fingers crossed that Cloud didn't find herself a boyfriend while she was on her own... I'll put this tale to bed...
Always keep in mind that shoulder ratting is dangerous... shoulder rats need to be trained and tested and as a handler you need to be constantly vigilant or you will get your rats lost or killed. Fuzzy Rat was a superstar, Max was brilliant, despite lacking an outgoing personality and Cloud proved herself to be more than competent. Only three rats have ever attained my true shoulder rat designation, and each one earned it under fireworks and now I know for sure it was well deserved by all three.... If you can imagine how nervous I was knowing that Cloud barely passed her tests, imagine how frightened I would have been if Cloud hadn't, if she panicked she would have been a write off the second she hit the ground... But Sunday turned out to be a very good day after all...
Stay alert, only work with the right rats and train and test... and your outings will end well too.