Letting the rat out of the bag

The story of Debbie Ducommun, Chico’s own Rat Lady

The one and only Rat Lady, Chico’s Debbie Ducommun with one of her housemates.

The one and only Rat Lady, Chico’s Debbie Ducommun with one of her housemates.

Photo By Tom Angel

What’s that, you say? You’ve never heard of her? Chico’s rat crusader, trumpeting her message of education and care to the masses via her international monthly newsletter “The Rat Report,” several books and even appearances on the History Channel, National Geographic Channel, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, VH1’s Totally Obsessed and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?

Perhaps you’re wondering, “Why the pomp and circumstance? How tough a gig could it be?” Maybe you fancy yourself with some similar title.

Well, let me be the one to break it to all you aspiring rat-persons out there: This is more than a full-time job. It is an all-encompassing passion. There is only one Rat Lady

Photo By Tom Angel

OK, I see your arms folded in disbelief. You’re thinking, “Just what does it mean to be a ‘Rat Lady'?” What training is involved? Is there a rock-bottom minimum number of rats that need to be kept in your living room to keep the title?

The answer to one of those questions is 18. The others require expert handling.

Debbie Ducommun greets me at her door in North Chico wearing a gray sweatshirt adorned with the obligatory rat picture. I enter her living room, which is bustling with the sounds and smells of over a dozen rodents. I am introduced to each, from Mario the soft gray snuggler to a rescued female named Brisby. At each introduction, Ducommun’s face becomes more expressive, her soft brown curls cupping a radiant and lively face. It is clear that the Rat Lady is in her element.

It all started when Ducommun was given a pet hamster as a child. This hamster, which will remain nameless, crossed the ages-old line between pet and master: He bit. All right, her parents thought, let’s move on to a mouse. It died. Finally, her parents got her the pet that each of us remembers playing with fondly as children: a rat.

Photo By Tom Angel

“My sister had had pet rats before that, so my family knew that they made good pets,” she explains. When she was a teen, she got another rat, a female that was surprisingly “with rat” (it had a litter of six). But a desire to dedicate her life to rats would not become apparent until much later.

“I actually first wanted to be a vet. And then I changed my mind. I decided that I didn’t want to be doing lots of surgeries every day, and having to do midnight emergency calls and stuff like that. I started getting more interested in the animal’s behavior, and I actually have a BA in animal behavior from Chico State.”

From there, she worked as a veterinary assistant and eventually became manager of the Humane Society. She was also a dog obedience instructor for CARD, and it was here that she took on her first animal moniker.

“I was really interested in animal behavior, and I was doing a lot of reading on dog training and problem solving, so I became known as Debbie the Dog Lady.” But, alas, this highly alliterative title was not to stick, for it was then that she took on a new position that would forever change her name.

Photo By Tom Angel

“My mom was working at Chico State, and she saw this job opening come up to take care of the rats in the Psychology Department.” Uh-oh—doesn’t that mean they would be research rats? À la rats of NIMH?

“I did some research to see what they were doing with them, and they weren’t doing any really nasty experiments on them. So I went ahead and took the job at Chico State. I was there 10 years!” She lets loose a chuckle. “I knew I liked rats already, and I thought, ‘This is great. Maybe I can do something good for the rats.’ Which I did!”

And so the Rat Lady was born, and she took on the challenge of improving the lab, one rat at a time. Recognizing their social nature, she replaced all the single cages with paired or even group cages. The pine and cedar shavings used under the cages, which release toxic fumes, were replaced with newspaper.

At the same time, students in an undergraduate course looking at the effects of handling on rat behavior were given the choice to take home their rats. A small number of them always did and inevitably came back to see Ducommun for advice. They had to, you see, because there were so few resources on “rats as pets” at the time.

Photo By Tom Angel

“There was only one rat care book out there, and I found out later it was written by a 16-year-old as a book for hire. And it was an OK book, but it wasn’t great. So, I thought, you know, I could write, I should write a book.”

Publishers were not so hot on the idea—pet-care books were not yet en vogue. But Ducommun was not to be deterred—just imagine her delivering the following sentence in rapid-fire: “There are people out there who own rats and there is information that they don’t know about and I need to get that information to them!” Then imagine a feverish giggle.

She decided that she could manage something smaller, say, a monthly newsletter. So in 1992, “The Rat Report” was devised, a then-six-page newsletter packed with stories, pictures, ideas and, of course, advice for rat-lovers. But how to get the message out? Remember—we’re talking pre-Internet.

“The two main ways that I got publicity were, I sent press releases to newspapers—the New York Daily News, the Chicago Tribune and the Seattle Tribune, they all did big articles on this new Rat Fan Club.” But most of her new members came by way of an offer in another newsletter called “Freebies,” to which people subscribed for, well, freebies.

Jay Leno and the Rat Lady

“So I had it so that people could send in and get a free sample issue of my newsletter. And I swear, that was the hottest thing. That’s how I got most of my new members at the time.”

Since then, membership in “The Rat Report” and corresponding Rat Fan Club (www.ratfanclub.org) has grown to over 400. Now at eight pages, it has an online version as well, with an extra page packed with pictures.

In 1995, Ducommun noticed that one of the publishers she did some freelance writing for was now publishing pet-care books. She shot off a book proposal, but the company was hesitant—maybe in a year or two?

Her patience paid off. Rats! A Fun and Care Book and its revised version of 2002, Rats, Practical, Accurate Advice from the Expert have sold over 15,000 copies in three years.

Ducommun is not satisfied, however, as surveys by the pet trade industry show that at least a half-million households own pet rats or mice—that’s 485,000 people that have yet to buy her book.

“My mission is to educate everybody about rats so that they are appreciated and treated right. The thing that upsets all of us is that so many people dislike rats, so they are mistreated. Even the rats that are raised for reptile food [95 percent of all rodents raised], a lot of times they are treated very badly.

“But even rats that are in the pet stores that are sold specifically for pets aren’t always treated well. They’re crowded, they’re not given toys to play with, and therefore that information is not passed on to the owner. … So there are these poor lonely rats living in a cage all by themselves, they don’t get out to play enough, and then the rat gets sick, so they go to the vet, and the vet doesn’t know how to treat the rat properly!”

She leads me back to her office, a small room wallpapered in an incongruous sports theme. Rat and mouse stuffed toys, pictures, and photos cover any surface not already occupied by books about rats. All the existing back issues of “The Rat Report” are stacked in cubbies forming a small wall in the center of the room. This is ground zero for all of her rat projects, including a nonprofit called RATS: The Rat Assistance and Teaching Society, designed to educate pet care professionals, veterinarians and shelters.

A small headquarters for such a grand vision—to educate the world, one rodent enthusiast at a time.