Of Rats and Men... Playing God

Angelique Musick
From the September/October 1998 Rat & Mouse Gazette

Breeders of any domesticated animals ARE and SHOULD BE “playing God.” In the wild, animals have control in the form of their own selectivity to decide with whom they will breed, and even if they will give birth. Important factors include climate, food supply, space, predator number and type, etcetera. Additionally, who lives long enough to breed is determined by who survives. Those with “negative” features for their environment, including low resistance to disease, antisocial temperaments, poor survival skills, inability to avoid predators, and even tendency towards developing life-hindering tumors, simply do not reproduce successfully, because nature itself performs culling.

Culling, in the widest sense, simply means that an individual will not reproduce, hence pass on its genes to the next generation. They can live a very long, happy life, but if they do not breed, their genes have been culled from the stock. Thus, any practice which removes individuals from the breeding pool could be considered “culling,” and it does not necessarily mean the individual must be dead. Yes, the most common meaning does refer to removing babies from litters, but it can also include spaying/neutering and simply keeping your pet apart from the opposite sex so it won’t breed, in this sense.

Nature, then, does not act so strongly on domesticated animals. When our animals get sick, we treat them. When they develop tumors, we have them removed. In all but the most extreme cases, we, the breeders, can allow animals to survive which would not have, and to breed which would not have in the wild. Very often, our intervention gives the animal a much longer and happier life than would have been theirs in the unforgiving wild. In this, we are “playing God.”

Those are the facts. Now into my opinions:

All breeders of domesticated animals have a responsibility to the animals they breed. This goes far, far beyond simply making sure they have homes, and we are shirking our responsibilities if we neglect this fact. We have a responsibility to produce, in our playing of God, the best possible animals we can. We have a responsibility to isolate and remove as many detrimental genes as we can, just as nature does. We DO NOT have to do this by killing anything, but we do have to do it by breeding responsibly. There are genetic and environmental, both, components to everything from how easily your rat comes down with a respiratory infection, how likely it is to develop tumors, how large its litter will be, how friendly, calm, intelligent it will be, to the color and texture of its coat and markings. Any breeder who just breeds for color, size, or any of the above, and ignores all other factors is shirking his duty. Of course, it is impossible to know every gene in every one of your animals, to predict exactly the litter you will get out of any cross, but it is possible to look into what is probably genetic, what is probably environmental, and to not breed an animal that might be carrying something detrimental. If you notice one of your rats always seems to miss the virus that wanders through your colony, or shows no signs of the tumors some of your others have displayed, or is exceptionally clever, sweet, gentle, but perhaps has less than perfect markings, by all means breed it rather than the one with perfect markings that you had to medicate repeatedly, that gets nippy when the pressure drops, or that always picks fights. You can always work a color into your stock, often far easier than you can work a poor immunity out.

Inbreeding, outbreeding, picking up that cute boy you saw at the show... all of these are largely irrelevant if the stock you are working with is stock with as many genetic problems worked out as possible. Yes, there will always be floating recessives just hanging around to spoil your plans. Yes, there will always be random mutations in an otherwise exemplary stock, but, that is, I think, there to remind us that no matter how hard we try, we can’t really BE God, just play God.

If everyone would focus on the collective health of the rat, as well as their favorite features, then culling might well become a non-issue entirely. You’d never have to worry, when you picked up a new pet at the shop, if they might be carrying something that will give their offspring less happy lives, through sickness or poor temper or what have you.

However, unfortunately, I don’t think this vision is possible, with all the “puppy-farm” style mass-production. But, each breeder can do his part, by breeding responsibly, and tracking carefully. If you have rats you need to find homes for that shouldn’t be bred, do your best to make sure their new owners know they are pets-only and not to be bred. Offer them breeding stock if they ever decide to breed, and give them an easy way to keep in contact with you. Try, if you can, to track the progress and life of as many of your offspring as possible, since not everything shows up in the first few months. Use forums, like the rats list on the Internet, and the publications of the rat and mouse organizations to pass along any information you can on anything you’ve had success isolating or breeding out.

On more expensive and slower-reproducing animals, like dogs, horses, etc, killing offspring is almost never an option, and many breeders sell animals at varying prices, requiring an agreement to get the animal spayed or neutered to be signed, before selling them at a lower price than breeding stock. I’m not sure how viable an option that is for rats, but we can at least do our part by suggesting “pet” and “breeder” animals, helping new breeders to understand things that should be avoided in breeding animals, and, of course, by being selective in our own breeding.