Dawn Burke had always thought of rats as filthy animals, she says, until her neighbor introduced her to his "soft and cuddly" pet rats. Years later, she stopped by a pet shop on a whim — and ended up coming home with a rat of her own.
From there, says Dawn's husband, Don Burke, "it grew very quickly from one rat to 72." Before long, the couple had opened a rat sanctuary in their home in Boise, Idaho.
They now keep only nine rats at a time, but their home has been called the "Taj Mahal for rats" — and they like it that way. The rats they take in have been used in labs, Dawn says, or raised as snake food and then thrown away. "We're trying to make up for what they've been through," she says.
"Sometimes people don't realize just what rats can become," Don adds. "They can be very warm companions."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time again for StoryCorps. This week, we'll hear about a species often less popular than journalists and politicians - rats. Don Burke and his wife, Dawn, love rats; so much so, they opened a rat sanctuary five years ago in their home. The couple sat down at StoryCorps and talked about how that project got started.
DAWN BURKE: I always thought of rats as filthy, disease-carrying animals, but this neighbor of mine had pet rats. They were just so soft and cuddly. And years later, I stopped by a pet shop on a whim. That was how I got Drusilla. And I brought her in and you just said, OK, I'll put the cage together.
DON BURKE: And then eventually, we brought home Asha(ph) and Burka(ph).
DAWN BURKE: And Annie, Mattie and Lex.
DON BURKE: It grew very quickly, from one rat to 72.
DAWN BURKE: I have to brag that we were the very first rat sanctuary in the United States to have our 501(c)3 status. We have all the cages on tables, and we leave them open. Someone who came in the other day said, it's like the Taj Mahal for rats. They have lots of space.
DAWN BURKE: We like to have it that way because we're trying to make up for how people mistreat them and raise them as snake food - and just throw them away.
DON BURKE: So why don't you talk about Annie?
DAWN BURKE: People call it their heart rat, that one rat that they never forget. And Annie would run to the door when she heard the doorbell, to greet everybody. Everybody loved her so much.
DON BURKE: Remember, she was your own private teeth cleaner.
DAWN BURKE: Yes.
DAWN BURKE: People call them ro-dentists. And Annie was really gentle, and she would get back to my molars, you know, and pick food out. I just adored her.
DON BURKE: Sometimes, people don't realize just what rats can become. They can be a real pet.
DAWN BURKE: The other night, I was giving Bartholomew his medicine, and I felt something across my feet. And Domino had gotten off the table, and he came looking for me.
DON BURKE: That was the most surprising thing to me - is that they don't just scurry on the floor, like you've seen rats do. It's like, when they're really happy, they hop like bunnies.
DAWN BURKE: And that's one of the things we're trying to teach people - is that they have a heart. And I want to thank you for doing the rat retreat with me. I know it's cost us a lot of money and put us in the hole financially - having 72 rats at one time. But I'm just really grateful to have you as a partner to do this with me.
DON BURKE: And the feeling's mutual.
MONTAGNE: Husband and wife Don and Dawn Burke at StoryCorps in Boise, Idaho. Their conversation, along with all the others, will be archived at the Library of Congress. Sign up for the project's podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.