Starting a rattery: Learning and Finding a mentor   Leave a comment

So you’ve decided you want to breed? Hopefully you’ve spent quite a bit of time reading up on it, studying, learning, talking to other people already. Ideally, you’ve had some rats for their entire lifespan, from youth through old age and losing them, so that you know about the challenges you face in dealing with health problems and death. Not everyone can handle these things, and recognizing that is a strength, not a weakness. Better to realize it now than when you have a few dozen rats and you realize that losing them is too much to bear.

One of the main pieces of advice given to people looking to start out is to find a mentor. This is EXCELLENT advice, but it’s not as simple as asking the first breeder you encounter to just teach you everything and give you rats, or even accepting the first mentoring offer you get if you are looking. There is a lot more to finding the right mentor to help you excel.

Since I am in the process of getting started with a breeding program myself, I thought I might share some advice for what has helped me move forward in the process.

Learning is definitely the first step to doing anything correctly, so I ask questions, read, research and learn. This link is a really good source of some information for anyone considering getting into breeding, it offers a LOT to consider, and its worth reading – several times. I still go back and read through it on a regular basis.
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/the-virtual-mentor/

A big piece of advice I can offer is to TAKE IT SLOW. Don’t expect ANYTHING to happen right away. Most breeders I know have a written requirement of spending at MINIMUM a year talking to someone and getting to know them well before they will even consider giving them breeding animals. There is a HUGE amount of work they’ve put into carefully selecting and building their lines, raising these babies, etc, and letting someone else breed their rats takes a LOT of trust on their part that you will do things right. Their names are on those rats (by way of their prefix, the pedigrees, etc) and what happens to them can reflect on not only you, but the breeder they are from. Beyond that – they care about the well-being of EVERY rat they produce, and sadly there are some people out there who will mistreat, neglect, overbreed, etc and a good breeder will do everything they can to minimize the chance of one of their babies ending up in that situation.

During that time some may be willing to adopt rats to you on a pet contract – this can actually help them get to know you, the care you will put in, how well you will keep them updated about their animals (since its imperative that breeders get as many updates as possible about animals from their lines so that they can use the information to make the best choices for the future of a line), etc. You won’t be given permission to breed those animals, and doing so would mostly blacklist you from that breeder and any of the breeders they associate with, but its a good chance for them to get to know you, and for you to get to know them. It also gives you a chance to have some hands on experience with the lines you may be working with – established lines from different breeders all seem to have their own quirks, their own look, build, possible health issues, behaviors, etc. You can get to know them before you start working with them, to help decide whether its something you would like to work with.

The best way to find a mentor, I believe, is to first sit down and determine what your own ethics, practices, impressions are. You can browse through the websites of clubs, breeders, etc to help you come up with specifics, but you probably already have some of your own ideas on them too. But looking through the reasoning on various different websites for their different practices can help you determine what resonates with YOU. Will you rehome retired breeders to a pet home, so that you have fewer rats in your rattery to distract you, and they potentially get more attention? Or will you keep them in your care, where you can ensure they get a loving, spoiled, comfortable retirement, with lots of extra scritches and kisses, without the stress of being moved away from their buddies and the home they know, and where you can monitor their health? Both approaches are taken by different ratteries, and both can be presented and thought of in ways that are potentially positive, or negative, and its important that you determine what values you will hold to. What about culling? Some people think the culling of healthy, but ‘undesirable’ babies in a large litter is a good practice to keep numbers down and reduce hard to place rats, others (many I think) find the idea of killing a healthy baby just for its looks to be an appalling practice. I do think its important that people look at both sides of it and decide where they stand. What about health care? Do you think that necropsies, blood tests, and other things are essential? Good in certain situations? A waste of resources that could be used for more critical things like medications, emergency surgeries, etc? I could go on and on, because there are MANY issues out there, different values and ethics that different breeders stand by. Read through as many websites as you can find – even if you don’t think its a good breeder, it might have a side of an argument you haven’t heard, or it might have something there that you realize you want to work to avoid ever having connection to, etc. Reading the good and the bad can help you find what specific things you find good and bad.

You will also want to figure out what things are a deal breaker, what things are negotiable, and what things are necessary. For instance, maybe you decide you feel its best to keep retired breeding animals to best ensure their care and accurate ongoing health information about them for the line, etc. Lets say breeder 1 does that, breeder 2 adopts theirs out, but only to close personal friends and family that live near them where they can check on them, and lets say breeder 3 just brings them to the local pet store to sell off. Breeder 1 is good on that point with you, breeder 2 isn’t exactly in agreement with you, but it may be considered a negotiable point where you can work together even with that difference, and breeder 3 it’s a deal breaker, there is nothing remotely similar or acceptable when compared to the stance taken on the care of retired breeding animals.

While going through all these websites, make note of ones that seem right to you, people who seem to share similar values. It doesn’t hurt to email any of them asking questions about things you see on their websites, why they do things certain ways, etc. If you are polite in your approach, saying you are trying to learn more about what it takes to be a responsible breeder, and were hoping to talk to them about the things you then ask about, etc, most good breeders will try to reply. It may not be instant, for many this is a hobby in addition to a full-time job, family, and other responsibilities, but they should be willing to talk to you. It can be a good time to start getting to know several breeders better, and help you get a feel for who you get along with, who you would like to try to work with, etc. Even if they are across the country, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to them, you can still get great information, guidance, answers, etc from someone who isn’t your mentor, so its good to have several contacts that you get to know and feel comfortable with.

Eventually, after getting to know them, you may find one that you would like to work with as a mentor, whose rats and lines are ones that interest you, etc. If you’ve been talking to them for a while, getting to know them, etc, this will help your chances of them agreeing to take you on, vs just contacting them as a stranger requesting a mentor. They may still say no – some breeders aren’t comfortable trying to mentor another breeder, or feel they are not yet experienced enough to do so, maybe they have encountered some difficulty with their lines right now that will take more attention, not giving them enough time to properly mentor, etc. A refusal isn’t necessarily a dismissal, or a snub, it’s just a decision that they made at that time. It might even change later – and if you’ve been talking to them for a while they should be willing to explain their answer. Hopefully though, in time you will find someone who you agree with who agrees to be your mentor. A GOOD mentor will not just wait for you to ask them questions, but will actively give you advice, information, suggestions, etc. Just like a school teacher doesn’t just walk into a classroom and wait for the students to ask questions about the subject, but otherwise not do anything with the students – a good teacher actively explains things, shares information and ideas, offers advice, and certainly also answers questions. A mentor is very much like a teacher, and you want one that will offer you information without you needing to know the questions to ask. And you definitely want a good mentor before you start breeding, because there will almost certainly be questions that come up during the progress, and while forums like this can help with some, a good mentor can generally help even more (especially if the animals you are asking about are from their own lines!).

So definitely, figuring out where you stand on various values, and finding several people to talk to, to help you eventually find a good mentor for your goals – that’s really where you want to start out. And it can take years. I’ve owned rats for nearly 18 years and I am a certified veterinary technician. The breeders I talk to and will hopefully get to work with I’ve been talking to for several years now, getting to know them as a pet adopter from them, asking questions, going to events when possible, chatting online, etc. I’ve been actively learning for the entire time I’ve owned rats about proper care, diet, bedding, veterinary checkups, etc – since the information always changes. I’ve spent a few years just researching the specifics to breeding: genetics, socialization, selection, health concerns, risks, lines I’m interested in, complications that can occur, etc. Even then I don’t assume any of them will just hand breeder rats over to me, and am very excited to have been offered potential animals from some future litters (should those litter actually be successful, and enough babies born for their needs and mine, etc…its by no means guaranteed until they are placed with me…and even then if something significant happens (whether a problem on my side or on theirs, with the line, etc) they have the rights to revoke permission to breed the rats!).

I’ve been a member of NARR http://www.ratregistry.org/ for several years now to give me a tool to look at the backgrounds and pedigrees of lines I’m looking at (not just colors, but longevity, health, etc, is ideally entered in there!). I’ve been actively involved in the “local” club, attending events, talking to people, going to meetings ,etc (and by local…I believe the nearest active member to me is about 2.5 hours away….and some of them are 5+ hours!) I’ve spent time talking to my vet, getting bloodwork done, having necropsies done, establishing a vet-client relationship, and learning more about my ratties. I’m currently renovating a room of our house specifically to be a rat room, with their own air purifier, sink, multiple large cages (double critter nations and martins cages), playpen, etc. They will of course get time to socialize with us too, but this gives them their own, secure place to be maintained. I have enough caging to comfortably house at least 40 rats, though I don’t intend to have that many right off the bat. It may sound like a lot, but I’m trying to prepare everything I possibly CAN prepare before I get started – I will have enough work, learning, money and time sinks, etc when I actually start breeding that it will be good to have many of these things already done.

And to go back to some of those values questions I posed above, I’d like to say that one those I intend to keep all of my retired breeders here, as they have earned a comfortable retirement in their home with their friends, and I can most accurately monitor them here for the health of their lines. I am against culling of healthy animals, as I think it is a violation of the commitment I made in breeding them, as well as destructive for the line, since it removes valuable information about their health, longevity, temperament, etc that could be gained if they are allowed to live out their lives. I am however for humane euthanasia when an animal is suffering from chronic illness/disease, injury, or other problems and cannot be otherwise helped. I intend to necropsy all my breeding animals to help me make more informed choices about my lines. Those are just a few of the points, but I figured I’d give my own personal stances on them since I mentioned them earlier.

No one magically knows everything – that’s why it’s so good to take your time, take it slow, and spend as much time as you can now just learning – yes not everything out there is correct, but the more you read the more you will see to help direct you to the correct information, and the information that may be less than accurate. Asking specific questions on forums is certainly good too, questions about preferred diets, bedding, toys, caging, etc can be answered just as well by the experience pet owner as it can by any breeder! And people will have different opinions even about things that are good, different preferences, etc. But the more you ask, the more information you’ll have to consider and apply to try to make sure you are a become a really good breeder who can educate others not just in word but example. But you will also need to find a good mentor, who is willing to not only answer questions, but also just offer information and advice to you as well.

I think you will find that if you take it slow more people will be willing to help you too. If you go into it with an attitude of “I need to start breeding right now, so give me pedigreed rats or I will ‘have to’ get pet store ones” – no one good will be willing to talk to you. They aren’t looking for people who are impulsive and rush things, they are looking for people who will stick through things, show a willingness to learn and be patient, can deal with setbacks and difficulties, etc. There are too many ‘new breeders’ out there who jump into breeding as an impulse, breed a bunch of rats that aren’t particularly healthy, well socialized, etc, and then burn out and drop back out of it, without having done anything except give breeders a bad name, create more ‘average’ animals that need homes, and saturated their local homes with animals that aren’t really up to par, and are taking spaces that could be filled equally well with a rescued animal. With that trend, responsible breeders won’t jump in to anything with a new breeder, they will insist on taking it slow, because they want to try to ensure that they don’t just fuel another new ‘back yard breeder’ getting started.

Here are some additional blog lists from the same rattery blog as the virtual mentor link I gave above – these also have some great information. You should certainly look at other places for information as well, but I think she does a really good job and is an excellent source for information!
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/genetics-tutorial-part-one/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/03/23/genetics-tutorial-pearl-locus/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/01/10/genetics-tutorial-agouti-locus/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/03/20/building-a-rattery-website/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/temperament-a-given/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/breeding-for-longevity-and-health/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/puppymills-and-byb-who-are-you-supporting/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/breeding-to-meet-demand/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/what-does-ethical-breeding-mean-anyway/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/why-new-breeders-are-good-no-seriously/
http://bvrattery.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/socialization-not-just-with-people/

There are also a TON of informational links here:
http://www.dazzlemerats.com/links.html

This is one of the more commonly referenced ‘red flags list’ of what things may indicate a less than quality breeder:
http://web.archive.org/web/20110318140357/http://blackwolfrattery.com/redflags.html
As well as a list of things sometimes mistakenly though of as red flags:
http://web.archive.org/web/20111012140218/http://www.blackwolfrattery.com/redflags2.html

Anyways, I hope those links, and my long rambling, is helpful to you in trying to get started. I think if you are really serious about doing this the right way, and are willing to put in the time and effort to do so, that being a good, responsible breeder is certainly possible, and finding a good mentor, good, pedigreed foundation animals, etc can happen. The key is to take your time, be patient, and be open to what others have to say, because even if you decide you don’t agree, their viewpoint can still offer good insights! Good luck to you!

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Posted April 15, 2011 by betuana in Uncategorized

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