Cynthia Stuart was a professor of psychology, medical law and ethics, and has written many articles on the interaction of rats as therapy animals. She writes, “Human – animal bonds can be utilized in a therapeutic context in work that is geared towards developing positive relationships with fellow humans.” Her love of rats began in 2003 as an environmental educator for a mini-zoo that featured a family of rats abandoned on its doorstep. She’s the co-author of The Improbable Adventures of My Mischief. I appreciate her taking time to talk with me!
ALLISON: Did you come from a big or small family? A household of pets or none?
CYNTHIA: My family was small. Just mom, dad and me–and a variety of pets, of course. During the course of my childhood and adolescence, I shared my life with a cat, hamster, goldfish, and turtles. I’m sure I’m forgetting other pets! When I grew up, I indulged my special passion for rodents and have lived with rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, a degu, a variety of fish, and lizards. I’ll be surrounded by rodents for as long as I’m able to provide for their optimal care.
ALLISON: If you were to write a book about your childhood, how would you summarize it?
CYNTHIA: I was very much-loved and protected by my parents, but because of a combination of shyness and being overweight at the time, I was bullied, which had an enormous negative impact on my life. My respite from that was a pack of close friends, my animals, and my escape via continuous reading.
ALLISON: Most people seem to have experienced a wonderful or terrible adolescence? How would you categorize yours? Why?
CYNTHIA:I’d say my adolescence was less than ideal, given the aforementioned shyness, weight issue and bullying. I wouldn’t want to go back–I feel I’m at the best point in my life than I’ve ever been right now. I’m retired from full-time work and the bit of work I do to keep stimulated is from home as an online English teacher. The bulk of my days are spent doing pretty much as I please…. writing, reading, and spending quality time with my current mischief of rodents and my significant other.
ALLISON: What period of your life most changed you?
CYNTHIA: Starting college at the ripe old age of 30. My experiences led to the practically overnight shedding of my shyness and developing the ability to stand up and assert myself when necessary. I also developed a hunger for knowledge and became somewhat addicted to higher education, to the point that I wound up with a PhD in my late 50’s.
ALLISON: Who most influenced you growing up?
CYNTHIA: Definitely my parents. They set the tone for how to live a virtuous life and encouraged me to keep up my addiction to reading – which has led to my writing later in life. Both my parents were ardent animal lovers as well, who were all for my adoption of non-human family members.
ALLISON: What is involved with being an environmental educator?
CYNTHIA:The job primarily entailed giving talks to visiting school and camp groups about wildlife and caring for the environment. I also taught the Environmental Center’s pre-school classes, as well as hosted environmentally themed birthday parties. All of these activities involved integrating the animals that we had living on the premises in a mini-zoo into our talks. Nature walks were also included in the roster of activities and, if we were lucky, we’d spot wild birds and animals who were seemingly unafraid to make an appearance in the midst of usually loud, boisterous groups of children.
ALLISON: Tell me more about the family of rats that were abandoned at the mini-zoo where you worked.
CYNTHIA:Unfortunately, the environmental center at which I worked had been often used as a dumping ground for people with exotic pets who didn’t want them anymore. Staff would arrive in the morning to find a box or glass aquarium with some poor rejected pet(s). Presumably the former owners figured we’d give them a home in the mini-zoo.
One of these “drop offs” was a family of rats – mom, dad, and a litter. The center never had rats before, so they were given a place in the zoo. However, they were still kept in tanks and not separated. Being a rodent lover, I fell in love with them and took them out of their tank whenever I could to work with them with visiting groups, as well as try to socialize them individually. I tried to advocate for vastly improved conditions for them, but my pleas fell on deaf ears.
Not surprisingly, mom and dad started to reproduce again. Then, the population started to disappear. At first, I thought maybe they were being adopted out to visitors (which sometimes happened). Not so lucky… I found out they were being fed to the resident snakes. By the time I found out, there was just one little rat left, and I adopted her and named her Nibbles.
She was wonderful and I loved her so much. It was Nibbles that started me on the path to Rat Chickdom back in 2003, and I haven’t looked back since. By the way, shortly after adoption, I quit the environmental center because of the snake incidents, and the way the rest of the animals were being maintained with little regard to their welfare.
ALLISON: Why do rats make great pets?
CYNTHIA: Rats have a bottomless capacity to demonstrate total love and affection to their human parents. Unconditional love is their calling card. It is very rare for rats to bite their people. If they do, there is a valid reason (past abuse, for example). It is typical for rats to react very excitedly when their people come into their room–begging to come out and play or, in the case of senior rats like my boys, to spend quality cuddle time with their humans. Their desire for socializing is definitely not limited to their own kind. They take you into their hearts forever and they make it quite obvious how special you are to them.
ALLISON: Describe a special bonding moment between you and a rat.
CYNTHIA: I’d have to say this occurred with my present rats, Simon and Niblet (brothers who are a year and a half old). They were part of a huge ooooooops litter and they were the last two left after their siblings were adopted.
I’ve never encountered such fearless, bold babies in my entire rat-life. In order to bring them home, they rode with me on two commuter trains that were an hour’s ride each, had a long transit time in New York City’s frantic Grand Central Terminal, followed by a long subway ride, and then a cab. When I finally got them home and opened the carrier door into their new cage –they didn’t want to go in. What they wanted to do was climb on and play with me! So, that first night, the three of us sat in the living room play wrestling, cuddling, exploring, and watching the Academy Awards together.
I couldn’t believe that after a horrendous commute and being with a total stranger, they would do this. They actually took the initiative to bond with me–I was prepared to leave them alone for a couple of days to settle in and become more comfortable. They remain clingy Mama’s boys to this day.
ALLISON: How can rats be therapy animals?
CYNTHIA: I’ve written articles about this topic for the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction group as well as “It’s a Rat’s World” magazine. To me, it’s extremely obvious how they can provide emotional support–especially to those persons challenged with depression and anxiety. To have animals who so forcefully display their adoration of an individual–regardless of how upset that person is–is not only comforting but healing.
Because rats are so forceful in their demands for love and attention, they help to integrate people with mood disorders into life outside of themselves. It’s very hard to ignore a rat or rats standing on their hind legs, nose and arms reaching through the cage bars, clamoring for love and a bit of play and cuddles! Like with all pets, they have needs that must be met on a regular schedule, thus providing a reason and obligation to get up out of bed and start one’s day in the morning.
Of course, there is the scientific evidence of the benefits of simply petting animals, and rats tend to be addicted to petting. While I go into greater detail in my articles, suffice it to summarize that since rats are so positively pushy about showing love, pet parents who may need some type of emotional support, unconditional acceptance, and love get that in abundance from their rats. I’ve definitely relied on their support during my own challenging moments!