The Professional Rat-Catchers That Made Pet Rats A Thing
Finding rodents in your home wouldn't generally be a cause of celebration, but for those whose livelihoods depended on it in Victorian England, the more, the merrier.
Thriving in the Victorian era, rats were a public health and safety hazard, scouring gardens, food pantries, and destroying people's ankles as they walked the streets. Having a high fertility rate, their spawn continued to carry out the chaos. Wild rodents became nearly unstoppable menaces to everyday civilians. But how would this be stopped? Jobs were scarce, and rats were a-plenty. Rats needed to be caught, and people needed to make money. Enter the lucrative career of the rat-catcher.
Much of the population in need of money at the time relied on these types of odd jobs for employment. Some went as far as breeding more rats, setting them free, then loitering around until the next customer came knocking. It was believed that the goal was to catch at least 13 rats a day, averaging a little under 5,000 rats a year, giving one access to special privileges by nearby municipalities (and, yeah, more money).
One gifted professional of the rodent-snatching field was Jack Black. Beginning his career as a child, he chose the path as a way out of alternative work, like chimney cleaning and coal mining, both jobs heavy in child labor in Victorian England. As he got older, he had no fear in plucking rats off the streets with his bare hands and mouth, often scooping several of them at once to trap them in his famous personality-defining accessory: a dome-shaped rat cage. He even chronicled a rat gnawing deep into his finger, teeth sunk into his flesh, giving him a "bone-chilling" feeling, later removing them with tweezers. Case and point- not a job for someone with a weak stomach. Or, you know, anyone not looking to die from a rat-related illness.
According to Atlas Obscura, his fit included a "self-styled rat-catching costume consisting of a top hat, red waistcoat, green overcoat, and white leather breeches full of holes nibbled by the more capture-resistant rodents." His signature sash had Queen Victoria's name embroidered, along with two rats cast ironed into the piece, making him appear as the Queen's royal rat-catcher, given the title from the royal one, herself. The jury is still out on whether or not this was true, some historians claiming his wife sewed it together for clout. Most likely, his bragging rights were restricted to the government contract he held, allowing him to scout the streets for rodents on a higher level than your average rat-catcher.
Besides Jack Black's bizarre knack for fearlessness, he had more tricks in his pocket. Noticing the varying colors some rats sported, he thought he'd give breeding a try. Eventually, he gained traction for his suspicious talent in breeding the rodents. He uncovered a demand for white rats, known as "fancy rats," and began selling them as pets and gifting them to women. Turning these rare breeds of rats into a novelty was Black's way of maximizing his paycheck, and it worked. "Fancy rats," you know the ones, being fed brie at a picnic, with a little white bib wrapped around their necks, were the talk of the town, and now the reason why rats have been domesticated.
Beatrix Potter, the famed author of Peter Rabbit, kept a rat as a pet. Queen Victoria herself delighted in her companion, her "singing mouse," the famously strange pet of the royals. It is even said that the first-ever Philadelphia-bred white lab rat "was, according to legend, descended from an albino rat bred by the rat catcher." Currently, there is even a community known as the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, who enter their rodents in competitions, operating much like dog shows. Qualifications? You just have to like rodents.
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