I met Benny at the pet store when I stuck my hand into a cage full of baby rats. These rats, sold mainly as food for snakes by the store owner, were cute little critters with mixed white and brown fur. They had bulging eyes and twitching noses, and one came up and licked my hand. He didn’t protest when I picked him up. “I’ll take this one,” I told the owner.
“So this little guy is going to be an astronaut?” the owner asked as he rang up the purchase.
“Yup,” I said, handing over $1.49. “The rocket is all ready for him.”
The store owner laughed. “Well, I wish him good luck.” He put Benny in a cardboard box, and I took him home on my bicycle.
I put Benny into the payload compartment of the rocket, testing the fit. I could see him staring out from the clear plastic tube, his nose twitching. He had no idea what was going on. I took him out and put him into an old terrarium, his temporary home, and then put the rocket away. The launch date was set for the upcoming weekend.
The rat did not please my mother. She was used to lizards and snakes by now, but not rats. I told her it was just temporary, because I was firing it up in a rocket. When she heard that her attitude changed. “That poor thing! You’re not really going to do that, are you?”
“Well, yeah.” I shrugged. “That’s what I got him for.”
Benny’s temporary cage moved into my room, and I ended up spending a lot of time with him. I had owned a hamster before, which was as dumb as a rock, so I didn’t expect much more from this rat. I was wrong. Benny was amazing. Affectionate, curious, and personable, this rat was more like a dog than a hamster.
Bad weather scrubbed my launch date, being far too windy to send rockets up; we’d have to chase them for miles. We would try for the next weekend. In the meantime, I gave him a name: Benjamin Franklin Rat. It was better than calling him, “The rat.” It only took him a few days to start responding to it. He would even come when I called him.
Taffy, our long-haired Chihuahua, didn’t know what to make of Benny. They didn’t fight, and they didn’t run away from each other. Both were curious and became good friends. My mom couldn’t believe it, and this is what probably first endeared her to Benny. Like me, she couldn’t believe how affectionate and intelligent the little guy was. My dad took a liking to him too, and so the rat had the run of the house.
Another launch date came and went. Then another. By the time we had good weather, Benny had grown too big to fit into the payload compartment. By then I wouldn’t have launched him anyway, as I’d become too attached.
Benny gave Taffy a second childhood, as she started running around the house like a puppy. They had lots of fun together. Sometimes Benny would actually jump on Taffy’s back and ride her around. It was hilarious and their antics kept us constantly entertained.
My dad told his friends about Benny’s happy behavior, especially about Benny running around and playing with Taffy. After that, dad’s friends started coming over to visit the rat. Not us, mind you. They came over and asked about Benny.
Benny graduated to bigger digs, as my parents bought him a deluxe rat cage with spinning wheels and other toys. When they’d go out on the boat and leave me at home, the dog and the rat went with them. Benny had the run of the ship, and they would feed the little guy right at the dinner table with them. Sometimes I wondered if I’d been replaced.
My most vivid memory of Benny is when he’d squeal with delight after you gave him a treat. Like a dog, Benny would run around me and beg. When I sat on the couch with something like cheese puffs, he would jump up and sit on my knee, both front paws up, sniffing like crazy. I’d break off a bit of the treat and give it to him, and he’d take it with a squeal, and then jump around with joy, and run off to eat it. A minute later he’d be back and begging for another piece.
Sometimes I’d forget to shut his cage at night, and wake at 3:00 AM with Benny licking my face. If I ignored him, he’d run around on top of me, playing. “Go to sleep Benny,” I’d say. “Go on, back to the cage.” If I said it a few times he’d leap obediently up, crawling over various shelves until he reached his cage, and then go inside. He’d sit right inside the door and wait for me to shut it. If I didn’t shut it, he’d come back out and start running around again. So I’d get up, shut the door, then go back to sleep. In the morning he’d wake me up again, because the first thing my mom would do in the morning was let him out of his cage.
Benny lasted about three years and then developed a big lump in his side. It was cancer. Domesticated rats seem to be predisposed to it. The lump got bigger and bigger, and he got slower, and he started squeaking a lot for no apparent reason. Benny was in pain.
One day I steeled myself for the hard job of putting the poor little guy out of his misery. He was in a lot of pain and was hardly eating. So I chloroformed him and got it over with quickly, then cried myself to sleep that night, and probably the night after.
Months later we got another rat, and while it was a sweet little guy as well, it wasn’t the same. Benny definitely had a personality that was unique, and he fit right in with us. A silly little $1.49 rat had been a major part of the family. While his life was short, it was a good one.
At the very least I saved him from becoming snake food.