How To End Up with Pet Kangaroo Rats

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The Pair In The Pit

Having a kangaroo rat as a pet, let alone two of them, was not a goal. Truthfully, I was only interested in how to dig a small pit in which to bury a 55 gallon drum . When properly installed with plenty of surrounding gravel, lots of quarter inch drain holes, and a small pipeline from the camp trailer, the drum would handle our gray water perfectly while we’re building our full sized, permanent home nearby.

My wife and I live in Cochise County, Arizona, off grid and just a mile or so from the Mexican border. Economic difficulties came down on us in early summer, and the pit was all I got done. You don’t go buying loads of gravel or 55 gallon drums for gray water disposal when you don’t have enough money left to eat properly. Thus the mini-pit sat “open” through most of the summer, with one accidental result being a short term swimming pool for a diving lizard. We have the money now to begin building…but the pit has provided an education.

Judging by the characteristic openings to burrows dug under various mesquite trees and other local flora, our acreage has lots and lots and lots of kangaroo rats in residence. Since they’re nocturnal and we’re mostly diurnal, however, we’ve seldom seen them. An exception has been late at night when I leave the camper (after shutting off the computer) to finally head for bed–I sleep in a separate storage shed to give Pam “her own bedroom”, and my line of travel takes me directly past the little pit. Several times I’d seen kangaroo rats under the trailer, and for a little while, one adolescent seemed quite content to dive under the “sleeping shed” as a quick and easy alternative to digging all those burrows.

Pam and I both see the kangaroo rat as the cutest of all rodents, surpassing even the cottontail rabbit. Their long, black-tufted tails are much prettier than the bald pointy thing trailing around behind a Norway rat, for instance, and their humongous feet (in proportion to their little bodies) are…well…darling.

When I head for bed, it’s my habit to shine my flashlight down into the mini-pit. Critters fall in there every so often. They never seem to suffer injury from the fall down the steep (but not quite vertical) sides, but neither do they seem to be able to get back out by themselves. Our desert grassland whiptail lizards do; they run up the sides like they were on level ground. But frogs and field mice and even young jackrabbits are just stuck there until I help them back out in one way or another. Last night, there was a baby kangaroo rat huddled down there, plus a little green frog. Pam and I decided to wait for daylight to get them out, and I called it a night.

Shortly after daylight, Pam looked out of her bathroom window to see a roadrunner eyeing the contents of the pit, obviously thinking it was nice of us to have provided it with a Breakfast Bowl. She snapped at the roadrunner, telling it not to even think about it, and the killer bird took off in a hurry.

Killer bird? Oh, yeah. This is not the roadrunner you see outwitting Wile E. Coyote. These birds are true and deadly predators to the max.

When I got up a bit later, I discovered we now had not one baby kangaroo rat in residence in the pit but two–two–two for the price of one.

The Babies In The Pit

The Babies In The Pit

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We Become Parents Once Again

It didn’t take long to realize the babies in the pit were truly just that–they were much smaller than adult kangaroo rats, their fur was still shiny, and they simply acted like…babies. The scenario seemed obvious: Mommy Kanga had become some predator’s midnight snack, the predator had missed the deep-burrow nest, and hunger had in turn driven these unwilling little adventurers into the open to seek food. They had no chance of surviving on their own.

Okay. What to use for a safety cage? One of our storage trailers yielded a five gallon platic bucket. Since this species burrows, I grabbed a shovel and filled the bottom of the bucket to a depth of several inches with good red Arizona clay. Then, after donning a pair of cowhide gloves “just in case”, I eased down into the pit and eased the two into their new home.

One went right in. The other wasn’t sure that was a good idea. But soon enough the orphans were running around inside the container, now and then digging next to the plastic “prison wall”, clearly wondering what this whole Alcatraz thing was all about.

Ah man! We're in Rat Prison, Dude!

Ah man! We’re in Rat Prison, Dude!

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Settling Right In

Before heading to town on a number of errands, I picked a few mesquite (and other) leaves. The little guys (or gals) started munching right away. While in town, a visit to the local pet store yielded two small plastic containers and a bag of parakeet seed–the smallest seed available in the store. Kangaroo rats have such effficient kidneys that they do not normally need to drink any water at all, but they do depend on fairly high humidity in their deep burrows in the wild. Since we’re not sure just how humid we can keep their “bucket burrow”, one container now holds a little water “just in case”.

The parakeet seed was an immediate hit, at least with one of the pair–he/she climbed right into the feeding dish and sat there happily munching away. The other seems to think a bit differently, preferring a piece of lettuce from Pam’s salad and munching dirt more often than not. Admittedly, it might not be actually eating the dirt. My eyes aren’t that good. At any rate, it noses into the dirt like it’s eating, so….

A couple of notes about the bucket cage: The screen we found to cover the top would be more than enough to keep the little folks from leaving…but maybe not enough to keep Kitten Precious from getting in. So I quick-like-a-bunny made a custom fitted “topper” from scrap 2 x 4 lumber that allows the babies to have a bit of air and light and also allows our extremely curious cat to perch on top…but not to reach our tiny Protected Species living in the bottom of the bucket. She seems to think she’s their Mommy in a way, but we’re not sure she’s taken the proper parenting classes for mothering itsy bitsy rodents.

As to the little kangaroo rats themselves, they’ve already figured out Pam and I are not their enemies. I can stroke them lightly with a finger while they’re eating, and they don’t even bother to stop chewing. The first time I did this, their bodies felt cool to the touch, but after they’d had time to feed on the seeds for a while, they felt warmer. Very good indeed.

We really enjoy our new “children”, but a few questions do seem rather obvious: They’re becoming rather “tame” already; as adults, will they lack the terror of predators required to survive in the wild? Have we just become the Rat House of the West? What if one is a boy and one is a girl? Are we going to end up with a home full of ten thousand cute little ratlets?

The answers will come in time. For now, Cute Rules.

The screen top. Our babies can't really be seen clearly in this shot, but they're sleeping side by side, just to the upper left of the yellow dish.

The screen top. Our babies can’t really be seen clearly in this shot, but they’re sleeping side by side, just to the upper left of the yellow dish.

The screen top. Our babies can't really be seen clearly in this shot, but they're sleeping side by side, just to the upper left of the yellow dish.

The screen top. Our babies can’t really be seen clearly in this shot, but they’re sleeping side by side, just to the upper left of the yellow dish.

Complete cage setup with catproof grate/perch in place. Kitten Precious seems to be listening to the kangaroo rats through the bucket wall at the moment, but she does spend a lot of time on the perch.

Complete cage setup with catproof grate/perch in place. Kitten Precious seems to be listening to the kangaroo rats through the bucket wall at the moment, but she does spend a lot of time on the perch.

Day Two: Moe Key Man

The bucket cage with 2 x 4 anti-cat guard proved highly effective…for about a day. By the end of that time, our big fat male Garfield type kitty, name of Moe Key Man, decided he was interested in our little Rodents In A Pail. Unlike Kitten Precious, who sees them as babies, Moe Key clearly sees them as…snacks. His “other” name, in addition to Moe Key, is Mo’ Food!

At first, it looked like the wooden barrier would be enough, but the gluttonous lust for food can be overpowering whether you’re a human contestant on The Biggest Loser or a furry feast lover of Specialty Rodent. Moe Key kept trying to figure it out, and he almost did. Pam saw him get under the outside corner of the square plastic screen housing and lift the whole thing up a bit. Left to his own devices, he could well have eventually boosted it high enough to slide completely off the bucket’s top….

Since we didn’t like that idea much, it was time to reinforce the Rat Protector. Note the concrete block in the photo below. An extra forty pounds should be enough to keep even Fat Boy’s oversized appetite at bay. But for a few days, we’ll be watching.

Moe Key Man studies the new security arrangement, figuring there has to be a way to break

Moe Key Man studies the new security arrangement, figuring there has to be a way to break

Handy Dandy

Day Three. When I brought our little troopers a fresh fistful of green leaves this morning, they began eating without hesitation. With an equal lack of hesitation and no apparent fear whatsoever, one of them sat on my hand for a good fifteen to twenty seconds, nibbling away at a mesquite leaf. The other one was willing to sniff at my fingers, but climb onto the hand? No thanks. Not today. Don’t call me; I’ll call you. Just leave the leaves.

And just like that, the rats named themselves: The hand-sitter is quite obviously Handy, the other one Dandy. So far, that’s the only way any of us can tell the siblings apart: If one climbs on your hand, the other one must be Dandy.

Moe Key Man cat, likewise sees them as Handy and Dandy…lunch. He’s even gone to resting atop the Rat Protective anti-cat concrete block as shown in the two photos below.

I don’t care how long it takes, he seems to be saying, I’ll be waiting right here when they come out!

You know I'm not leaving my post, right, Dad?

You know I’m not leaving my post, right, Dad?

Come out, Snackers, come on out....

Come out, Snackers, come on out….

Day 8: The New Cage

Since I had to go to Bisbee anyway, it seemed logical to spend a few minutes checking out the discount stores for cage possibilities. Handy and Dandy still aren’t large–in fact, kangaroo rats don’t get all that large no matter what–but pretty soon that bucket just wasn’t going to be large enough to do the job. Adults can jump up to nine feet in a single leap. While there’s no way we could manage to get them nine feet of jumping room prior to moving into the house that has yet to be built, maybe we could get them two feet.

And so it happened.

The Family Dollar store had just the ticket, an 88 quart plastic Sterilite tote, one of those you can “sort of” see through. Translucent but not transparent. For nine bucks. When I got the tote home, out came the power drill. After punching half a dozen holes through each end of the plastic for air and removing the heavy anti-cat covers from the bucket cage, it was time to transfer our babies to their new home:

1. Taking each little critter from the bucket and carrying it cupped in my two hands to the tote, I noticed with pleased amazement that neither one of them evinced the slightest alarm….until being released in the new quarters.

2. After riding in familiar human hands in perfect confidence, suddenly being in unfamiliar surroundings (the new cage) produced obvious distress. They immediately began running the perimeter of the cage, looking for cover, scurrying, worrying.

3. It didn’t take long for them to settle down, however. A matter of maybe ten minutes or so–which may be a couple of years in kangaroo rat time; who knows?

This did make us cautious, though. Our little critters do not like change. It will hopefully be a long time before we need to change cages on them again….

The cage in position.

The cage in position.

"Go! Go! Go! Gotta be a way outa here! Go! Go!"

“Go! Go! Go! Gotta be a way outa here! Go! Go!”

Why'd you stop so quick? I nearly rear ended you!"

Why’d you stop so quick? I nearly rear ended you!”

"All right, let's be scientific about this. You go that direction, I'll go this way."

“All right, let’s be scientific about this. You go that direction, I’ll go this way.”

"Well...I guess this place might not be so bad. You go ahead and eat; I'm just going to make sure things are okay up here...."

“Well…I guess this place might not be so bad. You go ahead and eat; I’m just going to make sure things are okay up here….”

Tunnel Booster

Our little critters kept trying and trying to dig burrows, but the soil inside the cage is just too loose to hold together well enough. As a result, they ended up sleeping huddled up in shallow foxhole type depressions, doing the best they could but clearly not exactly in their element. So I decided to experiment, see if I could give them a bit of help by introducing artificial tunnels.

The first attempt was one of those cardboard tubes you have left after the toilet paper is gone. Big hit! They were both in and out of the tiny, artificial tunnel constantly, although pretty soon it became obvious that one was taking over.

Try number two was a chunk of black two inch PVC pipe. We had several ten foot pieces, so a quick whack with a hacksaw, file off the edges, and bingo! Super Tunnel! The kangaroo rat not already hogging the toilet paper roll tube immediately appropriated the new, expanded condo. Happy rats! Separate bedrooms! Online articles had stated these rodents are solitary as adults, and they were clearly ready to grow up.

It’ll be best if I can locate another tote like the one they’re in, give them each their own entire cage. Unfortunately, the Family Dollar in Bisbee–where I bought that one–was out of that model today. Shucks. Well, in the meantime, no reason they couldn’t have two chunks of PVC pipe, especially since the cardboard tube soon disappeared entirely, buried completely under the dirt. These diggers are serious about what they do. So a second piece of PVC was added…

…and this morning provided yet another surprise. We haven’t seen them all day, because by the time we took off the lid to check on them this morning, they’d already gone to bed, being essentially nocturnal by nature. The surprise part was that they’d closed and locked their doors for the day! One end of each tube was completely buried and even the higher end was thoroughly blocked with dirt. Which explains how they’re able to sleep safely without being constantly swallowed by predators during their naptime: They literally bury themselves! Having never read about this aspect of their behavior in any other textbook or article, it makes one wonder if perhaps we’ve just made a scientific discovery?

Our reclusive little roomies are still very much alive even though we’re not likely to see them that often any more. How do we know they’re still alive? This evening, the lettuce had been moved–some of it no doubt eaten, and quite a bit of it buried.

So I poured out a fresh batch of parakeet seed for them to discover after it’s dark enough for them. Bet that’s buried by morning, too.

Tucked in for the day, lights out inside the pipes!

Tucked in for the day, lights out inside the pipes!

Not even the lettuce could tempt them this time....

Not even the lettuce could tempt them this time….

The Kangaroo Rats Come Of Age

How long have Handy and Dandy been living with us? Hm. They came to our attention on September third, and today is September twenty-fourth, so…yup. Three weeks to the day. And on this day, there is news about the two cuties, which comes in two parts.

Part One involves our decision to separate them. They’d settled in nicely, but the fact that they tended to occupy separate tube-tunnels as if they were members of the same apartment building but seldom spoke to their next door neighbors…that tended to make us think they were ready for a little “solo time”. Not to mention the fact that like all rodents, kangaroo rats are early and prolific breeders. What if we had one boy and one girl? The only way to avoid having to murder baby ratlets on a contiinuous basis was to get them separate cages, and lo and behold, it was done ten days or so ago. Hopefully, we thought, it had been done in time.

As the days passed, Handy (the friendlier rat of the two) became Pam’s special baby. While Dandy spent much more time denning in his PVC tube-tunnel, Handy would come out regularly. Every morning Pam would give her (we figured out she was a she as you will see) fresh lettuce, which she would promptly begin eating. The bonding was both powerful and beneficial.

At first, my wife decided Handy was female because Dandy’s cage developed a stronger odor. Boys and their body stinks, right? So by default, Handy had to be a not-bad-smelling girl rat. Which she proved last night by jumping endlessly in her cage, bumping her little head against the top. Apparently she’d been doing this for about three days–according to Pam, though I hand’t realized–but last night things came to a head.

“I think she’s in heat,” I told my lady. “We’re going to have to release her, let her fulfill her biological imperative.” Or words to that effect.

Neither of us dared release her during the night, however. That’s when the predators, including rat eating snakes of all sorts, are most active. No way. So after I went to bed in my shed, Pam cried for four or five hours until dawn arrived, heartbroken at the prospect of losing her favorite ratlet. Knowing it was the right, the only thing to do…didn’t help much.

After Pam called me at daybreak, we lugged the tote full of red hot amorous kangaroo rat and about 120 pounds of dirt out to the…uh..dirt. It didn’t take our girl long to say thanks, grab one last nibble of lettuce and scoot scoot scoot to her native habitat.

You go, girl.

Which leaves my Pammie with her slightly stinky boy rat. Story of her life, if I’m not mistaken.

This looks different. Think I'll stick my head out of the far end of the tube-tunnel and see what's up.

This looks different. Think I’ll stick my head out of the far end of the tube-tunnel and see what’s up.

I'll be there in a minute, Mom.

I’ll be there in a minute, Mom.

Or maybe not. I need to hide in the tube and think about this.

Or maybe not. I need to hide in the tube and think about this.

Hey, Dad put me out on the ground, right in my tube! I'm still hiding, but I think I'm impressed.

Hey, Dad put me out on the ground, right in my tube! I’m still hiding, but I think I’m impressed.

One last nibble of Mom's lettuce....

One last nibble of Mom’s lettuce….

...and I'm OFF!!

…and I’m OFF!!

(scoot) under the camp trailer ...(scoot) under the Subaru ...and finally (scoot) under the big mesquite tree in our front yard, perfect kangaroo rat turf. Happy times!

(scoot) under the camp trailer …(scoot) under the Subaru …and finally (scoot) under the big mesquite tree in our front yard, perfect kangaroo rat turf. Happy times!

Final Update: October 18, 2009

We returned our remaining little kangaroo rat to the wild today. Sorry, no photos of the release. The camera was full up at the time, we needed to get it done, and…. I will say, after reviewing the photos of the female’s release, that Dandy (the boy rat) had grown magnificently larger and was a stunningly beautiful, mature specimen as he hit the street. Er, land.

We took him out by the mesquite tree shown in the above photo, carrying him in his PVC “sleeping tube”. Since he didn’t know what was going on, he of course didn’t want to leave the safety of his plastic “burrow”. When I finally spilled him out, gently and tail first, he huddled close to our hands for a time and then took cover between my legs to figure out his next move. We’d decided it was time for him to go just minutes earlier after Pam reported he’d no longer let her touch him, and it turned out we were right.

His first big move was to take off away from the mesquite, out over the open terrain, vulnerable to a raptor that way–but of course we were both keeping a sharp watch. He moved in long, low, patented kangaroo rat leaps, some zippety-hops as long as six feet each. Couldn’t do that in his two foot cage! Then he reversed, came about halfway back toward us, and you could see him deciding,

“No, I can’t go back to Mom and Dad now; it’s time for me to strike out on my own.”

Which he did. Cutting off at a thirty degree angle, he headed for the tall timber. Well, tall timber to a little kanga: Plenty of mesquite and other bushes, but also a total ground cover of many, many square feet of bunchgrass. I could see his progress by the waving grass tops for a good thirty feet “inland”, and then we lost contact.

Pam cried a lot.