Rat Care Articles

Domestication of the Rat

Ann Storey

Like many species, the early history of the Brown rat Rattus norvegicus in captivity is somewhat sketchy. Attempts have been made to domesticate the Black rat, Rattus rattus from time to time and they can be tamed if you have the patience, however, they can hardly be said to be domesticated. As they say, that is a tale for another day.

Early Days

The earliest reports seem to be from the 17th Century. I have already mentioned in ‘The Arrival of the Rat’ Prorata 190 Jul/Aug 2012; Conrad Gesner's book 'Historiae Animalium'. This was originally written in Latin in 1553 but in 1669 a German translation was published. This seems to be less of a translation than a revision however, because it describes a spectacle in Paris involving tamed rats on a high wire and doing other circus type tricks, something that rats can indeed be trained to do fairly easily. The problem was this was in 1667, years after Gesner's death and also some 70 years before the Brown rat was supposed to have reached Europe. It’s not known what species was involved as Black rats, because although these are very agile, they are also extremely timid and wild. The writer also mentions that these displays were thus a source of income for the poor.

In the 1909 second edition of Walter Maxey's (He is attributed as the father of the mouse fancy) book 'How to breed and exhibit Fancy Mice and Rats', Mary Douglas, who was the earliest pioneer of rat showing; wrote 'The white rat is said to have been first brought to England in the 19thC by a travelling showman, who obtained a pair in France and bred successfully from them'. In the 1920 third edition however, the rat section was written by another leading mouse and rat fancier of the time, A. Selby-Thomas. He wrote; 'It is not known where this (pink eyed white) rat originated. The naturalist Frank Buckland, believed it to be brought into this country by a travelling showman, probably from France'. Frank Buckland was a Victorian naturalist and Surgeon. He seemed to be fairly obsessed with eating every species he described, so apart from writing about rats, he also ate them and kept one as a pet on his sideboard.

Wild colonies of albino brown rats were reported from several places however, including Ainsworth Colliery, Bury. They were known to be there in 1858. Another colony was identified in Bristol in 1822, so it was very possible that the albino mutation had been around as long as the Brown rat had been in Britain.

Outside the West, rats were domesticated in Japan from around 1654, during the Edo Period (1603-1868), when apart from the seaport of Nagasaki where international trade flourished; Japan was largely shut off from the outside world under the control of the Tokugawa Shogunate. However, during this time the study of the sciences and other cultural activites came on in leaps and bounds. In that case, it is perhaps not surprising that both rats and mice were kept as pets in urban areas. These appear to have been selectively bred for variations in colour and markings. This is described in a guidebook written by Jyo-En-Shi in 1789 entitled ‘Chingansodategusa on the breeding of fancy Daikoku – Nesumia’ (Japanese for white rats). In it he describes the selective breeding of rats for a range of variants including black headed, black eyed white, black with a white crescent among others.

It’s interesting that this document has previously been attributed to mice, but is now considered to be principally, if not all, about rats (Prof T. Serikawa 2002).

Rat Catchers and the Rat Pits

Probably of more relevance to modern fanciers were the mutant rats selected out from amongst the wild rats caught by the rat catchers. Nick Mays has written extensively about this in the past and it is summarised in his book ‘The Proper Care of Fancy Rats’.

Most of what we know involves a ratcatcher called Jack Black, (possible real name Samuel Bastick), largely because him and his acquaintance Jimmy (Jemmy) Shaw were interviewed by Henry Mayhew in Volume 3 of 'London Labour and the London Poor', published in 1861 and available online.

Jack Black was a rat catcher (among other things) who also bred terriers in his spare time. One of his rat catching contracts seems to have been for the Royal Parks and barracks, a job he held from 1825 until after 1854, according to the list of Officers and Servants in the Lord Chamberlain's department, where he is listed as Samuel Bastick.

Jack variously called himself the 'King's rat catcher, Queen's rat Catcher (depending who was on the throne) and even 'His Grace'. Jack Black was quite a showman by all accounts and made himself a uniform, which he describes as follows: 'I used to wear a costume of white leather breeches, and a green coat and scarlet waistkit, and had a gold band around my hat and a belt across my shoulder. I used to make a first rate appearance, such as was becoming the uniform of the Queen's rat ketcher.' The shoulder belt was decorated with metal rats, taken he said from a plaster mould of a dead rat.

Black made quite a lot of money out of selling live rats to the rat pits. These were a popular blood sport that should have been prohibited by the 'Cruelty to Animal Act 1835', which stated that; 'Any persons keeping, or using, any House, Room, Pit, Ground or other Place for Running, Baiting, or Fighting any Bull, Bear, Dog or other Animal shall be liable to a penalty of £5 for everyday he shall keep and so use the same.' However, it seems that the authorities largely turned a blind eye to dog fighting and the rat pits, in fact dog fighting was a popular past time for university undergraduates right up to the end of the 19thC. It’s likely that one of the major reasons for bringing in this Bill, was not animal cruelty as such but because Bull Baiting and Running in particular had a bad reputation for encouraging heavy drinking and 'riotous' behaviour in the 'lower classes', something that always seems to exercise the minds of politicians. Bear baiting had indeed died out some years before, probably due to cost. The rat pits didn't end until 1912, when the owner of a well known pit in Leicester was fined under the then new 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Unfortunately the Act wasn't successful as regards dog fighting!

Many rat pits were situated in the back rooms and cellars in pubs, and were incredibly popular. The sporting periodicals of the time are full of adverts for such matches all over the Country. It wasn't just a British pastime either. The emmigrants to New York took their hobby with them. Herbert Asbury in The Gangs of New York, describes one such pit that was used as a chapel on the Sunday, frequently without removing the bodies first! The average size of one of these pits was about 6 feet across by 3 feet high, sometimes with mesh across the top. The fights themselves were governed by very strict rules that varied from match to match but that had to be agreed beforehand. Sometimes the dog had to kill one rat for every pound of its weight in a set time, in others the dog had kill x number of rats (usually 100) as quickly as possible. There are reports of dogs killing 1000 rats. However, in these cases the dog would have killed this number of rats over several matches over a period of some weeks, the total number of rats and the total time being added up at the end.

At the end of the match, an official checked that the rats were dead, and counted them, because it was not uncommon for less than 100 rats to be tipped into the pit, as this extract from the Sporting Chronicle 15th May 1825 shows:

'the dead rats having been picked up and carried out of the Court, there was a loud call to have them counted, to which the Manager instantly asserted, stating that he was aware there were not a 100 rats killed, but this was owing to their having fought among themselves in the cages and killed each other; added to which the full complement had not been furnished by his Grace (Author’s note; possibly Jack Black). His Grace instantly stepped forward to defend himself, and asserted, that he had bought 240 rats the night before, but a great many of them had died.'

A rat catcher such as Jack may not have caught all of these rats himself, but would pay others so much per rat to catch them for him. He much preferred country rats over town rats for this as he averred that the town rats were less fit and had a more 'poisonous' bite.

Typical rat dogs were the prototypes of today's Bull terrier breeds (often called Bull and Terrier dogs because they were a cross between a Bulldog and a terrier), Fox terriers, Jack Russells and Manchester Terriers, along with all sorts of other small agile terrier type dogs. Breeders spent a lot of time and care over the breeding of these animals because they were valuable and successful breeders were famous. Examples of famous dogs include Billy, Jacko and Tiny. Both of the last two were owned by Jimmy Shaw. Jimmy Shaw was a retired boxer and keen terrier man. He ran a London pub. 'The Blue Anchor' Bunhill Road St Lukes before becoming Landlord of the Queen's Head Windmill St, Haymarket in 1853. Both of these had large rat pits included. Apart from his interest in the darker side of dog breeding, Shaw also ran breed shows in this pub in the 1850's. One such show is immortalised in a painting entitled 'A First Dog Show' which now hangs in the Kennel Club.

Jack Black told Mayhew that during the course of capturing live rats he came across a number of 'odd coloured uns' These he spared and bred on, selling them as pets or curiosties, mostly to young ladies. Jack must have had a knack for taming rats, because he seems to be able to handle even quite wild rats without them attempting to bite him. He told Mayhew 'I have 'em fawn and white, black and white, black white and red. People come from all parts of London to see them rats..They got very tame and you could do anythink with them.'

Jimmy Shaw was if anything more interested in the odd rats than Jack was. Mayhew writes ' the landlord showed me some very curious specimens of tame rats - some piebald, and others white with pink eyes, which he kept in cages in his sitting room. He took them out of their cages and handled them without the least fear, and even handled them quite rudely…yet the little tame creatures did not once attempt to bite him.' In his later years, Jimmy Shaw gave up his ratting activities and concentrated on the fledgling Dog fancy, whilst his sons took over the breeding the tame rats for sale as pets.

It’s not known for sure if the descendents of Shaw and Black's rats were the starting point for the original rat fancy, but if they didn't then they must have had very similar origins.

The Laboratory Rat.

It’s generally considered that the origins of both Laboratory and Pet rats are the same - that is from rats kept back from the rat pits.

Rats appear to have been used in research from around 1828, when they were used for a fasting study; studies looking into the importance of the adrenal glands in 1856 and the nutritional quality of proteins in 1863. The surgeon (Savory) who performed this last experiment recorded that he used a mix of coat colours for his experiments, including black, brown and white rats. The others seem to have been performed on albinos.

The first recorded breeding experiments to investigate coat colour inheritance in rats were carried out by Crampe in Germany. He published a number of papers between 1877 and 1885 detailing crosses between wild brown rats, domestic albinos, black and black hooded rats. Interestingly, this was some years before the rediscovery of Mendel's pea research, although it has to be remembered that Mendel's work was in print and had been presented at a lecture, so may have been more widely read than is sometimes given credit for. Certainly there were a number of reprints sent out to German universities by Mendel, a few of which are still in existence.

The first rats used in American research was in the 1890's, using rats from a breeding colony exported by the Swiss Neuropathologist Adolf Meyer, when he took up a post at the University of Chicago. It is not clear if this was the basis for all the early American lab strains or just some of them, as there is some discussion that other albino rats obtained from wild American stocks were also included. Whatever their origins, it took the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia and its first Scientific director Henry Davidson (1906-1938) to institute the selective breeding programmes and standardised care necessary to found the lines familiar to researchers now. The first purpose bred inbred rat strain ever to be developed ( in 1909) is the King Albino, named after their breeder Dr Helen King and now designated the PA strain. However the oldest rat strain must go to the PAR strain of black hoodeds. This originated as a feeder breeder colony kept at the 'Jardin des Plantes' in Paris from 1856 and has been maintained as a closed colony until 1988, when this colony was developed into an inbred laboratory strain.

The Wistar Institute also developed the dominant research strains known as the Wistar and the Sprague Dawley, descendents of which have founded most of the research strains. Many fancy rat varieties also spring directly from mutants arising in these two, including the Siamese and the Topaz. Both Wistars and SGs have also been shown in the PEW class from time to time, and have sometimes done quite well.