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    I survived a rat infestation once. It was a few years back, while renting an old shotgun house in Germantown that had settled crooked with age, cracks like spider veins and gashes in the foundation directing creatures toward a warm place to winter. It probably didn’t help that the home sat two blocks from the rodent wonderland that is a city dump. Rats burrowed in my stove, pooped and pissed recklessly and abundantly, ate my dog’s food. One drowned in my toilet. It is with this history that I have formed my opinion about rodents. Which is simple: Die.

    On a recent Saturday morning, I’m at an autumn festival, watching children teeter on tiptoes to stroke a puff of fur belonging to a rodent with damn good PR — the gerbil. I spot a business card reading: “River City Rodents. Saving one rodent at time.”

    God, why?

    One afternoon, I call. Tom Flaherty — who currently shelters 130 “critters” but at one time cared for 400 (FOUR HUNDRED!) rodents in his Jeffersontown home — answers. He tells me it’s just him and his wife Michelle who run the rescue. Both in their mid-40s, with two grown kids, this whole project started several years ago with a love story. “I went to PetSmart and got a Chinese dwarf hamster. She was awesome. She was my little girl. She’d hang out in my shirt pockets at night and I’d feed her dinner,” Tom says. “She liked ham and turkey. On Thanksgiving day she had her own little plate, stuffing and all.”

    Soon, the Flahertys “moved up” to gerbils, Michelle gifting Tom four of them on Father’s Day. The couple became members of the American Gerbil Society. Eventually, he says, “My wife decided she wanted pet rats. I thought, ‘Oh, gross. Those are nasty,’” and I nod along. “But they’re nice. They’re like little dogs.” No, Tom!

    Look at the River City Rodents’ YouTube channel, though, and you’ll see a brown rat named Curly wagging his long, hairless (horrifying?) tail. Other videos include a rat slurping spaghetti and a biscuit-hued rat named Honey, using pink claws that seem eerily humanlike to clutch an Oreo and take a thousand busy nibbles. A mama rat nurses squirmy wads of bubble gum that I assume are her newborns. There’s a whole corner of YouTube devoted to rats performing tricks — shaking hands, jumping through hoops, rolling over.

    The Flahertys' first rat came from Craigs-list. They named him the Dude. “Rats have been domesticated as pets for 800 years,” Tom assures me, before explaining the difference between wild and domesticated rats. The wild ones have black skin and won’t engage with humans. They are nuisances — vermin. Domesticated rats are pink-skinned and cuddly. Tom swears it’s true. The Flahertys have one wild rat. It came to them as one of several babies rescued from a dumpster. “My wife syringe-fed them every two hours, took them to work,” he says, adding that only a female named Wile E. survived. “She doesn’t bite. She just isn’t as cuddly as some of the other ones.”

    They once rescued 12 gerbils from a hoarding situation in Pennsylvania and eight hamsters from the Woodford County Humane Society, between Frankfort and Lexington. Several rescued degus (rodents that look like a cross between a squirrel and rat) also lodge in the Flaherty home. If Louisville Metro Animal Services winds up with pet rats or hamsters, River City Rodents often swoops in, as LMAS isn’t equipped to handle rodents. “Rodents are disposable pets in most people’s minds. They’re used to feed birds and snakes. You can go pick one up for $7 at the pet store,” Tom says. “They’ll use it to entertain their kid for a bit then let it go.” Don’t make me feel sorry for them, Tom!

    And, yes: At one time, the Flahertys sheltered 400 rodents, all of them caged and separated by gender. “They’re very proliferous. They’ll bite through a cage and mate through bars,” Tom explains. “So I renovated the basement to make a male room and female room.” The Flahertys have installed hospital-grade air filters to cut down on germs spreading — “One rat getting the sniffles can spread to the other real quick,” he says — and installed a special water-filtration system. He spends entire weekends cleaning cages, and it takes about two hours every night to feed and water the lot, now down to about 130. (They also have six dogs.) “It gets a little overwhelming with two people running the place,” Tom says. “So we’re trying to cut back. But we love it.”

    They love it. Even after spending $17,000 at one vet last year and this year paying for surgery to repair Honey’s vaginal prolapse. All of it their own money. River City Rodents is not a nonprofit. He and his wife have good jobs — Michelle at Humana, Tom at Dell EMC as a service account manager. Tom often works from home, rat on his shoulder while he’s typing away on his laptop or talking on the phone. I ask what his co-workers think. “Their reaction is kind of like yours,” he says (i.e., shock and a tremble or two). “Our house is basically a stink factory. We don’t entertain as much as we used to.”

    The Flahertys try to match their rescued animals with fellow rodent lovers. A hamster may end up as a classroom pet. “They’re not gross. Everybody thinks they’re gross, especially the rats because of their tails,” Tom says. I once found a rat floating in my toilet! “That’s a stereotype. Not all rats are vermin,” he says. “They’re cool kids. If you start holding them, after a bit, you’ll like them.”

    Pass. But thank you for your service, Michelle and Tom.

    This originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Oh, Rats!" To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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