The pet I’ll never forget: Letty, the rat I rescued from a bin – who bit my finger to the bone

<span>‘Rats are a great alternative if you don’t have time or space for a dog.’</span><span>Photograph: Antagain/Getty Images</span>
‘Rats are a great alternative if you don’t have time or space for a dog.’Photograph: Antagain/Getty Images

While many student flats are infested with unwanted mice, 20 years ago I voluntarily filled mine with rats. I began with two from a pet shop, but ended up taking on several more rescues, buying an enormous cage so they could climb and dig and play. Lots of people don’t like rats, but they are wonderful animals and a great alternative if you don’t have time or space for a dog. Rats are clever, clean and full of personality and affection. But none of mine had as much personality as Letty, the rat I found in a bin.

She had clearly been someone’s pet, though I never found out whose, or how she had ended up on the streets. On a visit home from university one Christmas, I went for a drink with a friend who mentioned that he had seen a black-and-white rat in a nearby bin. It took two attempts, but I caught her, trapping her in a cat carrier and driving back to my family home filled with satisfaction that was not shared by my mother.

Letty was young, barely fully grown and very thin. She had painful burn marks on her back that the vet said looked as if they had been made with a cigarette. Despite that, she grew into the prettiest rat I’ve ever seen. Her fur was a silky coat of black and white patches, and she stayed tiny and dainty. I named her after Letty Lade, the notorious adventuress who started life in a hovel but married into the aristocracy.

Rat in carrier, I caught the train back to university in Edinburgh. Two elderly ladies sat at the same table as me and smiled at the cat box. “Is it a kitten?” one asked, possibly after spotting a nose snuffling at the air hole. “No,” I replied, perhaps too truthfully. “It’s a rat I found in a bin.” The ladies changed carriage.

At home, with Letty in a warm, safe cage, we began a love/hate relationship that lasted the rest of her life. I loved her and she hated me – and every human she encountered. On one occasion, she bit my finger so deeply that I swear I saw a brief flash of bone, and I bought extra-thick gardening gloves for when I had no choice but to handle her. Fortunately, she quickly formed a deep bond with the other rats. She would burrow herself into the middle of the pile when they all cuddled up to sleep and would spend hours grooming them and being groomed.

Letty was a very chatty rodent, constantly chirping demands at her cagemates or grinding her teeth contentedly as they lounged together in their hammock. She lived a long life for a rat, but even in old age she managed to boss around the younger rats through the sheer force of her personality. When Letty died, I cried more than for any of my friendlier rats. My bin rat is definitely the pet I will never forget.