Icarus is a mink hoodie dumbo.
Icarus was advertised on freead site 'Preloved' as free to a good home. The man advertising him had worded the advert quite strangely, causing a few people in the rat community to become concerned for the rat's welfare. The ad said something like 'rat free to good home, pic included is not of the actual rat, but a rats a rat! Grab yourself a bargain!' This, added to the fact that the man had a reptile in his profile picture, made a lot of people worried that this boy was going to be picked up as snake food.
Icarus was located about 65 miles from me, so I contacted the advertiser to ask about him, and find out his story. The man told me he had rescued the rat himself from someone who had thrown him out of a window, and he just needed to find a home for him as he wasn't able to keep Icarus himself.
Jon and I decided to go and pick him up, as after hearing how he was thrown out a window, we felt he may need an experienced home. And he certainly deserved a good life after what he'd been through.
On meeting the man at his house, I saw Icarus for the first time. He was a young rat, maybe 7 months, on the kitchen counter in a tiny cage no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, and about 12 inches high. It was barren, with nothing in it but a layer of shavings and one tiny plastic shelf that was too small to be of any use to a rat. Apparently, this was the cage he had lived in prior to being rescued, and was the same cage he'd been thrown out of the window in. The man said he'd had to bash it back into shape for it to be functional.
He said he didn't know much about the situation other than the fact that it had been a child that had thrown him from the window, and the child had autism. He'd only taken the rat on because he had previously rescued other animals off and on and had some spare cages. He admitted to me that he did used to breed rats for snake food, but he always treated them well and liked them as animals so didn't want to see any harm come to this one.
On the way home in the car, I got Icarus out onto my lap to get acquainted, and it quickly became apparent that he had an absolutely wonderful temperament. He began licking me right away, and was soon snuggled up in my coat sleeping. I bonded very quickly with him as he was so affectionate. Whatever cruelty he had gone through in his last day with his previous owner, he had obviously been well treated by people up to that point, otherwise he would never have been as trusting and friendly as he was.
But what was also very apparent was how desperate he was for company. He was extremely clingy with me, would throw himself at the bars whenever I walked in, and would run for me whenever I opened the cage so he could bury into me and lick me, groom me and just be with me. In his cage, I would see him demonstrate typical bouncy young rat behaviours, and it was sad to see him not have another rat to play with, as this was clearly what he was crying out for. So I decided to try to get him in a group as soon as possible.
As Icarus was so intensely human-orientated, and as we'd just lost Patrick from our small bedroom group, I decided this would be the right slot for Icarus to fill. The bedroom rats were much like him in temperament: friendly, gentle, and affectionate. I thought he'd fit right in. I even fell into the trap of believing that intros would be pretty straight forward, as Icarus was so friendly and sweet, and rats like this often ingratiate themselves quite easily, with the right group. Rats that have been housed alone most of their lives can sometimes take a while to re-learn rat behaviour, but in my experience it doesn't usually take long. Little did I know that Icarus would be one of my most challenging intros to date.
The first thing I did with Icarus was put him on the bed, and let him have a free range with the 3 bedroom boys (Brioche, Crouton and Crumb). I knew they would accept him as they are nice, tolerent, playful boys. But as soon as Icarus saw another rat, he went to pieces. He was absolutely terrified, even when the rat in question was not paying any attention to him. It was as if he actually didn't realise what these strange animals were, and he certainly didn't realise he was one, too. I may as well have put him on the bed with a bunch of rabbits, or chickens, or some other species he'd never seen before, he would have been just as freaked out. He would constantly run to me and scramble up onto my shoulder to get away from the other rats, and if one dared to come within 2 feet of him, he'd scream, bare his teeth, and act like he was about to be killed. My rats just wanted to be friends, they wanted to sniff him and groom him and say hello, but Icarus would not let them get close enough for any of that, and he didn't understand their intentions at all.
It became apparent that Icarus had no understanding of rat body language, which is how they primarily communicate. He completely missed all the signals my boys gave him to say they wanted to be friends; he thought every move they made was a potential threat to him. And he'd respond with extreme defensive behaviours. To get an idea of how he must have felt, imagine being placed in a room with 3 large beings that you have never seen before, and who speak a language you don't understand at all, and who have body languages you are utterly unable to comprehend; you would probably be terrified too. So it was understandable, and I decided to call it a day on that first intro and give Icarus time to de-stress. I was worried he might make himself ill with how wound up he was getting.
The next day, I decided to try again, just as before, letting Icarus run on the bed with the 3 boys. I figured that regular exposure to them would eventually let him realise that they were not out to harm him in any way, and he'd begin to relax around them.
But on this session, Icarus had done a u-turn; he'd gone from absolutely petrified of other rats and desperate to get away from them, to aggressive toward other rats and actively pursuing them to start a fight. He would posture, fluff his fur up, stomp around them, foof at them, hiss, and generally put on a display to say 'don't mess with me'.
It was clear what had happened in his mind: he'd had time to process his first experience with other rats, realised it had not been a nice one, and so had decided to go with the 'attack is the best defence' approach. In his head, if he showed them how big and strong he was, and threatened and intimidated them, they would leave him alone. It was fear based aggression, not hormones or dominance, it was an attempt to keep the others from messing with him.
It worked, because my 3 boys were utterly confused as to why he was being so nasty; they are not used to rats behaving that way as they've always lived in a nice, harmonious group with no aggression. To them, everyone was a friend, and they didn't understand why this rat was being so hostile. So they just left him alone, and tried to give him a wide berth.
This was obviously not any better than the first session! And Icarus could not carry on thinking that this was the way to behave around other rats, and that this was a method that would work for him. He needed to learn that this was not going to be tolerated. And the only one who could teach him this was another rat.
Eventually, after a lot of patience, the alpha boy Crumb had enough of being pushed about, and he pinned Icarus to the ground and held him there, the rat way of saying 'knock it off!' It was an entirely appropriate way to discipline a naughty rat.
However, as Icarus didn't understand rat behaviour at all, he didn't understand that being pinned by the boss was a pretty routine and normal way of being told off, so he totally over-reacted. He probably thought he was about to be killed! This did knock the confrontational, aggressive behaviour out of him instantly, but it also put him right back to where he was on session 1: terrified, and unable to be near another rat without getting hysterical.
It was becoming clear that Icarus's problems were a little more complicated than first assumed, and that his ability to ever live with other rats might take a lot longer. I even began to wonder if he ever would be able to live with others, as he clearly didn't enjoy their company at all. It might sound like an outlandish thing to say, but I do believe that he actually thought he was a person. He'd been raised with people, spent his whole life with them, never seen his own kind; why would he think he was a rat? He would run to me constantly throughout intros, as I was his safe place. He'd rush to me when scared and shower me with licks, and the only time he was at ease was when I was holding him. If another rat climbed onto my lap for cuddles too, he'd freak out and really lose the plot completely. I have to be honest, it was quite heartbreaking knowing that he saw me as his mum and a place of safety, and yet I had to keep putting him back on the bed and forcing him to interact. If I hadn't, he never would have done so by his own choice, and so never would have learned how to behave around rats.
On intro 3, with still very little improvement in Icarus's fear, I tried a method I've seldom had to use before, but figured it was worth a try. This was the carrier method, where all the rats are placed in a small hamster cage, or a carrier, and just left there together for a while. Some people leave them a few hours, some leave them a few days. But this often works as it gets rats used to being in close proximity to one another, and teaches them to accept the other rats being around. With Icarus, I felt that a lot of his problem was his avoidance behaviour; if he was at all able, he'd run from other rats and hide up, and totally avoid the issue of interacting. This meant he wasn't actually learning how to interact.
Putting him in a small hamster cage with the three of them and forcing him to get used to them being around might sound cruel, but with Icarus, there was no other way he was going to ever make progress.
In the hamster cage, my 3 boys settled down to sleep. They didn't care what was going on, and totally ignored Icarus, who stood frozen in the corner, looking traumatised.
But after an hour or so, we had a breakthrough, and Icarus began to eat. This was significant, as it showed he was relaxed enough to turn his attention from the other rats, and onto something else, while still being right near them. This was something he never would have done on free range; he would never have allowed himself to be this close to them at all.
Another hour passed, and for the first time, I saw Icarus be near another rat without screaming and going crazy. He allowed Brioche to sleep beside him. He was clearly still very uncomfortable with him being near, and very unhappy, but he was at least allowing another rat to make contact with him in some way. This was the first real step to him beginning to learn how to be a rat. The more another rat stayed near him without doing him any harm, the quicker he would learn that no-one intended to hurt him and that all his screaming was unnecessary.
I also discovered that Icarus generally seemed happier in small spaces, like a hamster cage or a carrier. I suspected he was actually a bit agoraphobic on top of his other problems, and this was probably due to spending his whole life in such a tiny cage.
I left him in the hamster cage with the others for about 6 hours. By the end of it, Icarus was curled up underneath the other rats in the pile. I thought we had cracked the problem, or at least, almost cracked it.
I was so pleased with how well he had done that I opted to put Icarus, and the other 3 boys, into the cage together finally. I reasoned that my boys were totally unconcerned with Icarus, and would not cause him any trouble at all, so there was no danger to him in being left in the cage overnight. He had already made a significant step in the right direction by allowing the others to come near him in the hamster cage, so I had to keep on with it and keep up his contact with other rats.
When I put Icarus into the cage with the other 3 boys, he didn't seem worried. In fact, he looked very happy. He began to trot about, making happy chatters, and exploring the hammock. And then I saw something that literally made me shed a tear: he bounced up to Crouton and tried to initiate play. This was incredible to see. Not only was he not terrified to be anywhere near another rat, but he felt comfortable enough to want to play with him. Given that this was a rat I almost thought was a lost cause, this was remarkable.
I left him overnight, and went to bed happy that we were now making progress.
I was woken up at about 3:00am by screaming. Loud, terrified screaming. I turned the light on and found Icarus being defensive and scared around Crumb. But he wasn't being harmed, and Crumb was not being aggressive. I left them to it, and went back to sleep.
I was woken up shortly after by another scream, and it was Icarus and Crumb again. I assumed that what had happened had been this: Icarus had discovered his newly found ability to actually play with other rats, and was very excited about this. But, like all his other interactions with rats, he didn't know how to do it properly. In all likelihood, he had been unaware of the rules about how you don't leap onto your alpha's head and force him to play, and Crumb had told him to stop being so rude. And Icarus, being Icarus, had taken this tiny reprimand as a huge deal and freaked out once again.
I decided to separate him for the rest of the night, only because I needed to sleep for work and didn't want to be woken up constantly.
Come morning, I put him back in the cage while I went to work, confident that the group would sort themselves out while I was gone.
When I came home, Icarus was much improved. He'd gotten some of his confidence back, and was now happy to be standing beside another rat on the shelf and not look worried about it.
He still had a lot of issues understanding rat body language, however, and constantly misunderstood the cues my boys gave him. On one occasion, I witnessed Crouton approach Icarus extremely gently, and just lay down beside him, then slide his head under Icarus, while shutting his eyes. He was asking to be groomed, a way rats cement bonds and make friends. His approach couldn't have been more appropriate: he was slow, gentle, completely non-threatening, and it was endearing to see how he was blatantly trying to make Icarus feel welcome.
But Icarus didn't understand what Crouton was doing at all; he didn't know it was a friendly gesture, so he would freeze up and show fear again.
And when he did, Crouton would simply move away a little, and turn his back on Icarus, as if trying to make him feel as secure as he could, 'Relax! Im not even looking at you!'
He would then return for another request to be groomed, and move away again when Icarus screamed and froze. Crouton was being wonderful with Icarus, obviously wanting him to feel at ease, and doing the only thing he could think of to achieve that; try to instigate some grooming. It was heartbreaking to see how much Icarus just didn't understand. And a part of me felt bad for Crouton, too, who was being so respectful and nice, but being told to essentially go away every time.
That was Icarus's first full night in the cage with the others. I was not woken up by any screaming, and when I got up in the morning, he was looking quite relaxed, chilling on the shelf. Since then, Icarus has continued to make progress, and is nothing like the terrified boy he was. He is happily settled with others now, and acts just like any other normal young rat.
Seeing him go from a young rat housed in solitary confinement in a cage no bigger than the phone book and then callously thrown from a top floor window, to a happy, bouncy rat who has a large cage, toys, hammocks and 3 rat buddies is such a lovely feeling. And rats like Icarus are what make me continue doing rescue, despite how heart breaking and stressful it can be. Just knowing how much better his life is now, and will be for the rest of his life, is worth all of it.
Why Icarus? The morning I went to collect him, I woke up with the name Icarus in my head. Who knows why; perhaps my subconscious had made an association with flying/falling to the ground and him being thrown from a window!