Idaho StoryCorps: One Woman Learns To Love Rats

Sep 4, 2013

Dawn Burke cuddling with one of her rescued rats, Annie.
Credit Dawn and Don Burke

Boise resident Dawn Burke wasn’t thinking about rats when she went looking for new pet.  “I always thought of rats as dirty, filthy, disease carrying…like, people have them as pets?”   She shared this with her husband Don during a visit to the Idaho Storycorps mobile recording trailer this summer.

Burke did end up with a pet rat and later founded the Rat Retreat, a non-profit sanctuary for abandoned rats. 

She says she was shocked to learn her neighbor in Yakima, Washington at the time had pet rats.

“She asked if I wanted to see and I can’t resist meeting any animals.  I went over there and they were so relaxed and soft and cuddly.  She picked one up and asked if I wanted to hold it.  I was a little scared, but I said sure.  It looked safe.  I held that rat against my chest and it was amazing.

“Years later, when I was looking for an animal, because we had had cats and I had developed Muscular Dystrophy and wasn’t able to hold the cats very well or empty their litter boxes and didn’t have the energy to play with them, but we had been without an animal for four months. 

"I couldn’t stand it, I just had never been without animals.  I just stopped by a pet shop on a whim.  I’ve got to find something small and furry, not a fish.  I had thought about mice or gerbils or hamsters, but went by the aquarium where they had the rats and saw the little black and white tiny things hopping up and down trying to get my attention.  I remember that lady’s rat and I thought, 'Oh, rats! I never thought about that as a pet.'  I asked them, 'Can I reach in and pick my own?' and I picked the one that seemed to want to come home with me the most.  That was how I got Druscilla.

Dawn Burke's first rat Druscilla taking a shoulder ride.
Credit Dawn and Don Burke

"That was so cool.  I brought her in and brought the cage in and you just said, ‘I’ll put the cage together.’  That’s one reason why we’ve done the Rat Retreat so well together is because we’ve seemed to be like-minded on it.  We’re operating as one unit with it.”

“We’re trying to make up for all of rat kind,” said Don Burke, “with the few rats that we are able to help.  Speaking of that, remember George?”

“Oh yeah, I remember George.”

“Why don’t you talk about how George came to live with us…”

“…and his friend Lex.  The pet store called me and said they had a rat that got loose in the store and had been loose for six months, living on dog food.  They were all afraid of him, they were afraid to touch him.   Eating dog food, he was this huge guy. 

"We decided he would be a friend for Lex because we always tried to get a friend for them.  So we introduced George and Lex.  Lex decided he wanted to beat up on George.  George was about twice as big as Lex. He was gigantic.  George was so patient.  He would let Lex beat up on him. Lex would jump on him and roll him over on his back and chase him and all this stuff and finally George had just had enough.  It took that one time.  He rolled Lex over on his back. He laid on top of him and just sat there, like, ‘Look, I’m bigger than you.’  And that was the end of that and they were best buddies after that.”

Druscilla snacks on honey and water from Don's hand.
Credit Dawn and Don Burke

“I don’t think George lived  very much longer after that.  But those few months that he did live, the idea that we were able to give him a good life, that he had lots of companionship of other rats and of people, that’s what I love about the Rat Retreat, is being able to do that.”

Dawn and her husband Don Burke have donated much of their time, money, and living space to rescued rats. 

StoryCorps is a national initiative to record and collect stories of everyday people. Excerpts were selected and produced by Boise State Public Radio.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio