I once had a white rat for a pet, back in the 1980s when there was a short-lived fad for guinea pigs, white rats and white mice. It was about the same time when Korean bugs were also popular.
I never took on the Korean bug craze, though there are many I know who raised the beetles and regularly snacked on the insects, supposedly increased one’s virility. That the craze was short-lived is a statement on the bugs’ effectiveness.
Anyway, I took the white rat with me when I was on an adventure in the hinterlands in the boundary of Mountain Province and Kalinga. At the least, I was probably viewed as an oddity, maybe eccentric by the villagers who saw the white rat perched upon my shoulders. Some probably considered me entirely bonkers.
Rats, after all, were considered pests by the more grounded beings in our villages. Being pests, they were killed regularly by dogs and cats, and the people also trapped them to prevent their proliferation. Field rats, distinguished from those found in households, were caught and actually eaten. “Tastes just like chicken” is the general description of rat meat.
My pet therefore attained a certain celebrity status, and the kids in the village would follow the crazy guy with the white rat around. A few would ask to hold the animal, or to feed it with scraps of food.
Being a vermin and a scavenger by instinct, my pet did not choose what to eat, gobbling whatever the giggling kids would give it.
At night, when people were normally asleep, the rat would find a way around the makeshift cages I made to contain it. If it did not chew through the rattan or bamboo cage, it would dig through the soil under the cage. In the morning, one of the villagers would inform me that my pet was seen in another part of the village. Sometimes one of the kids would catch it and give it back to its negligent owner. Most of the time I had to spend an hour to locating and catching it.
At times I considered not looking for it at all. I would just allow nature to take its course – for the pest to be caught by its natural predators, or some villager who would find it gnawing on his store of camote. If a cat or dog caught it, I would not have complained. And if a villager slew it because it was indeed raiding camote stores, the villager would have been more than justified to do so.
But the rat lived to see more days with me.
Eventually, we had to leave the village to go to a camp some days away. The rat stayed on my shoulder during the march, and even though it wandered away at night when I was asleep, it somehow eluded capture by the forest’s nocturnal predators, despite my fear that the owls would have an easy time espying its white fur.
It became a conversation piece at camp, and the cooks would continually complain that the rat was always in the camp kitchen, though it was merely content at picking the food bits on the floor. Nevertheless, I was quite concerned that it would leave the camp, to give in to its wilder instincts. But it did not.
When we broke camp, there it was, again perched upon my shoulder as we started back home.
However, on the night of the first day of the march, I noticed that my pet was no longer on my shoulder. It was also not in the backpack pocket that it would curl up in when it wanted to sleep. Somehow, the rat must have fallen off, either accidentally or on purpose.
After the rat left its loony master, I wondered if it survived in the wild for a time. And if it did, could it somehow have affected the ecosystem it found itself in. What if it somehow carried a sickness that the wildlife were susceptible to? What if for this reason it radically altered some predator-prey relationship in the forest? Could I have caused an ecological nightmare?
If it survived for a time, could it have found a mate, and sired a colony of half-breed white rats? I know not what happened to it, but I still wonder if, somewhere in the forests of the Cordillera, woodsmen would be puzzled by oddly-colored rats.