Adventures in Rodent Breeding
Maintaining a rodent colony is a necessary evil for many herp keepers. Some do it to reduce costs of feeders, some need live prey on a regular basis, and some just like the convenience of having any size rodent they need fresh on hand all the time.
I raise mice and rats for all these reasons, but despite all the benefits of having a large rodent colony, there are times when I am tempted to just kill all of them, burn the racks, and convert the rat barn into a meth lab. Well, I wouldn't set up a meth lab, but I am tempted to kill them all from time to time. Let me relate a couple of my recent adventures in raising rodents.
I usually feed my snakes live or fresh killed prey. At feeding time I take a large tub to the rat barn and bring in the rats. The small ones can't get out, and even though they can if they try hard enough, the large ones usually don't offer to, so I had gotten out of the habit of using the lid for the tub. When you have 20 rats in the tub however, you may not notice when you have one less in there than when you left the room 2 minutes prior. This happened to me. Actually it was two less, and this became more important later on.
The day after feeding day I caught a glimpse of a rat loose in the snake room. I keep a couple of big rat traps on hand for just such occasions so I set one. Sure enough, I caught him the next day. At this point, I'm thinking problem solved, right? Remember I mentioned there were two rats missing from the tub, a fact I had yet to realize.
A couple of days went by with no indication that there was another rat setting up house in the snake room. Then I went in one morning to get a few roaches for the crested geckos when I found the evidence. The lobster roach colony was completely decimated. Let me pause and mention that it's a little known fact that rats apparently love roaches. I am formulating an opinion that roaches contain some sort of substance that has a narcotic effect on rats, nothing else could explain the way one rat can absolutely gorge himself on a roach colony.
Anyway, what was only a day or two before an adequately sized, thriving lobster roach colony containing about 300 adults plus their offspring, was now reduced to 10 or 20 adults and a bunch of tiny nymphs. That and all the wings from the missing adults. Apparently roach wings taste like rotten fish smells or something, because rats don't eat those.
Needless to say, I'm pissed. It will take months for the colony to recover from that destruction. I begin searching the snake room trying to find the rat. Snake rooms being what they are however, an almost infinite number of hiding places, I couldn't find him. So I set the trap again. Two days go by and I've caught nothing. The third day I determined the tasty goodness of roaches apparently exceeds the tastiness of peanut butter, when I went in to find the hissing roach colony had now been decimated. No adults left alive at all, only the smallest nymphs had avoided the massacre.
My anger level blasted right past pissed and went straight to murderous rage as I once again began the search for the loose rat, entertaining thoughts of the extreme violence I would relish when he was finally caught. After a half hour or so I caught sight of his tail, slipping behind a stack of cages just past the large pile of hissing roach remains heaped between that stack and the wall.
I had him sort of cornered, but he had the advantage location wise. I had the advantage of sheer malice however, and that proved to be the greater of the two. He was killed, much quicker than my anger level would have preferred, and was summarily converted to boa poop over the course of the next few days. The mass genocide suffered by the roach colonies had been avenged, but they'll still be months recovering from the near extermination they suffered.
A week or two after the snake room episode, and just after I had more or less gotten past my irritation over the whole incident, I discovered I had a rat that had escaped in the rat barn.
Let me interject for a moment, for those who have never experienced it, you do NOT want a rat loose in the rodent building. Mice are not a concern when they get out, despite their ability to navigate mazes in laboratories, domestic mice are fairly stupid when on their own outside the tub. They generally die of dehydration before you even realize they are out. Rats however are nothing like this, they are very resourceful when it comes to survival, and quite intelligent in getting what they need. They are destructive, getting into feed and bedding bags, but this is minor when compared to what they are capable of when real thirst sets in.
The rats are smart enough to realize that there is water in the tubing going to the water valves and will proceed to chew the tubing to get to it. This allows the bucket to drain freely until it empties. However, they are not smart enough to realize that if there is no water coming from one hole in the tubing that there won't be any from another hole two inches away, and based on this flawed assumption, they will proceed to completely destroy the water lines on a rack. On more than one occasion I have had to do extensive replumbing for just this reason.
Anyway, back to the story. I went in the rat barn one morning and noticed an empty feed bag had been partially shredded. Evidence a rat was gathering nest material in response to his or her newfound freedom. I looked through the racks and saw him sitting on the back of a food bin next to the wall. It's next to impossible to catch a rat in such a circumstance, his ability to navigate the rack from one level to the next is far superior to mine, but I made the effort anyway. I gave up after a few fruitless minutes and went to get the trap.
With few exceptions, any rat that manages to escape becomes snake food even if caught alive. I respect their intelligence and figure if they escaped once they will remember and be more likely to repeat the attempt at the first opportunity in the future. One will learn from another and before you know it you will have a colony of rebellious free thinkers bent on liberation. But I digress.
I set the trap, baited with the old faithful peanut butter, in a prime location. Peanut butter being a rats second favorite treat, right behind roaches apparently, and with the latter not being available, the rat was caught that night. Pleased with myself that a potential disaster had been averted, I considered the problem solved. Until the following morning anyway.
I saw the fresh damage first thing when I went in in building. A bag of bedding had a hole in it, and a feed bag had been chewed into. I proceeded to check through every rack and couldn't find any loose rats hiding anywhere. I decided that since the damage was minor I must have overlooked it the day before and it had been done by the rat that had already been caught. This proved to be a critical mistake on my part.
The next morning, the mistake was realized when I found the entire side of the bedding bag torn open and shavings piled all over the floor. The empty feed bag that was previously chewed on now had a quarter of it gone completely. I immediately began the search in earnest. I pulled the racks away from the walls and searched trough them entirely only to find absolutely nothing. There was simply no loose rat in the building. The building is secure as far as getting outside, but during my search I had the door open. Then I made my next critical error, I said next, not last, for there was one more to come. I decided the rat must have slipped out the open door while I was busy searching the racks.
Just in case, I checked each tub in the racks to make sure there were no holes, since I couldn't explain how this second rat had escaped in the first place, let alone where it had went. I found no holes anywhere. I looked, but not well enough it would turn out, and this was the final critical error. I left the building for the day still perplexed as to how the rat got out and where it was presently. All would be explained the following day however.
To say the destruction I was confronted with the following morning was unexpected would be an understatement. The bag of bedding that was torn open the day before was once again strewn all over the floor and there was now a tunnel burrowed into it. A bag of feed was not just chewed into, it was completely shredded and the food was spilled all over the floor intermingled with the tiny bits of paper that was formerly the bag that held it. There were shavings all over the screens of two racks. The room was a complete mess.
Amazingly all the water systems were intact. After several days of this game of hide and seek, I couldnt believe the water lines had escaped unharmed. I realized why shortly thereafter. Determined to solve this mystery before leaving the building again I set about a thourough inspection of the entire rat barn. I searched all the racks, again finding no rat loose anywhere. Next I started inspecting the tubs, making sure I looked REALLY well. Finally I found the source of the mischief. One of the tubs did indeed have a hole in it, situated in just the right spot to be all but impossible to detect without nearly completely removing it, but plenty large enough to serve as an open door to a family of rats. And that's exactly how they were using it.
They were coming and going through the hole, leaving at night to pilfer and generally wreak havoc, while gathering nesting material and additional food stores, then getting safely back in the tub before I got in the following morning and avoiding capture, all except for their comrade who fell victim to the lure of the peanut butter anyway.
When I pulled the tub out this time, I knew it was the source of the problem even before I saw the hole. The nest was a huge pile of shavings, pieces of feed bag, and pretty much an entire shredded 40 gallon black trash bag. I have to admit, despite being practically at my wits end trying to figure out what was going on, when I finally knew I had to admire the rats' ingenuity and resourcefulness. No need to choose between the security of the tub with it's warmth and water, and the freedom of life outside the rack when they can have them both.
I replaced the tub, and decided to spare the clan of marauders, mainly becuase I hated to lose and entire group at once, especially with a couple of them pregnant. The month since has been refreshingly uneventful in the rodent department, although I am keeping a closer eye on the rat tubs and no longer do I neglect to use the lid when I bring the feeders in.