All rats are special. But some rats are more special than others. Nelly was special.
She was the only rat ever to come into the Humane Society on a “safekeeping hold.”
When someone was arrested and had a pet with them, the Humane Society waived the regular impound and holding fees. Their reasoning was that if you had to spend the night in jail, it meant you didn’t even have money to bail yourself out, let alone your pet, so it would end up being euthanized anyway. Except for this little ratty girl, they were all dogs . . . and they were all redeemed.
I don’t know why her original owner didn’t come back for her— but their loss was my gain. I named her Eleanor, and made up an age of three months, because she grew a little bit more after I took her home, though she didn’t seem to have been malnourished. She may have been a few months older. But she was always a petite rat, barely grazing half a pound through most of her adult life.
Nelly came home the day after Miranda had her first tumor surgery. Miranda, the grande dame, the first of all my rats, was none too happy about this, but things settled down. Nelly in turn was very irate when I adopted Cinnamon the next year. There was even some bloodshed—so unusual for female rats—but they soon talked me into opening up Cinnamon’s cage again, and the next thing I knew, the two were sleeping together.
The mischief, September 2004: Zuzu, Booboo, Xena and Nelly, with Cinnamon barely visible at mid-pile.
A few months later, there was another collision of adoption and surgery. Nelly had a big blobby tumor that I didn't notice for a long time because of its texture and position; when I found it, I had to pop her into the time slot intended for newly-adopted Malcolm’s neutering. The surgery didn’t slow her down for an instant:
The suspicious sniff . . .
the offended glare . . .
. . .and the irate grab.
In time, Nelly accepted Malcolm—
—though she never took any guff from anyone.
Nelly even chose to die differently from the others. She had an inoperable tumor in her facial bone, complicated by an abscess next to the eye. Every morning for a week I woke up expecting to find her gone—I even took her to bed with me for several nights—but she finally got me to understand that she would die when she was good and ready, and not before. She stayed in the hammock-bed with the others, except when I took her out for feeding or cleaning. Mostly the other girls kept her clean and warm, licking her chin more thoroughly than any washcloth. She tried to protest but was too weak to do much about it; that was my best clue that she wasn’t hurting.
This picture was taken on the afternoon of April 26, 2005. It's hard to tell who was more comfortable: Nelly enjoying a big squashy Rex blanket (officially known as Beatrice), or Booboo enjoying a soft, warm pillow.
Later in the evening I found Nelly buried under a pile of rats, still warm though she had been gone for hours. She was barely two years old.
About a week after she died, the morning radio DJ was talking with a man from a local barbershop quartet. For their last number they did what they call an “Aha!” song:
The audience listens politely to the unfamiliar verse—“Katie Casey was baseball-mad” or the like—but the moment the singers launch into the chorus, everyone says “Aha!“
They were about halfway through the verse—which I’d never heard before—when I figured out what the song was . . . and began to bawl.