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first person

As soon as I crossed over into Alberta, I knew my cuddly, sweet friends were illegal, but I couldn't leave them behind, Gavin McKay writes

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I downshift my old Toyota truck, letting it take its time heading east up the pass to the great divide delineating Alberta and British Columbia. It's a cold night in late October, and the high-beams bounce off snow. Economic mayhem has left my modest carpentry company in ruin. I'm so broke I've had to borrow gas money from my grandmother. Several hours earlier, I handed over the keys to my home to a renter. I loaded the remainder of my belongings into my truck and followed my wife, driving her car, back to Calgary. A sign welcomes me to Alberta. I am now transporting two illegal fugitives.

Farley and Bandit don't look like criminals. They are two of the finest rats $16 can buy. Although brothers, they are unalike. Gregarious and bold, Bandit is white with a large brown patch covering his head. Farley is shy and calm, his body grey with a white belly. Most often, they get along well and sleep curled up together. Occasionally, though, there is trouble. During an argument, one of them sleeps on the metaphorical couch, a pile of wood shavings outside the main nest in their large aquarium. They both greatly enjoy supervised playtime. Hide and seek is a perennial favourite, as is raisin hunting. Downtime is spent fastidiously grooming.

None of this is of any concern to the Alberta Rat Patrol, however. If "the boys" are discovered, they face an expedient execution, and I an exorbitant fine. Rats are illegal in Alberta, and the rat patrol is notorious for its zealous seek-and-destroy attitude. I get it – rats destroy crops and foul food and buildings. I'm not giving my rats up, though, so it's going to be an anxious spell in Calgary.

For the first nine months, my wife, the dog and I feel a bit like rats ourselves, burrowed into the cramped rec room in my dad's basement. Long days blur together working for a friend's carpentry company. My father, ever patient but not one to spoil guests, buys a smoked ham for my lunches. When one ham is expended, another appears in the fridge. After many hams, my wife and I begin to find our financial legs and start to hunt for a house to rent.

I am duplicitous on the rental application. There is no mention of pet rats. I have heard that the public can call the rat patrol to report rat sightings, infestations and, most worrying, pet fancy rats. We are still living hand-to-mouth and a fine or eviction would be disastrous. The boys are sequestered to a room away from windows and prying eyes. I conduct sound tests, trying to figure out if their occasional screeching spats are loud enough to be heard through the thin walls of the townhouse. Farley and Bandit are oblivious to their infamy and enjoy their usual play time on the sofa.

Around six months into our tenancy, the management company schedules an inspection. Due to a timing mix-up, the boys are not ferried off to my father's house as I had planned. I strain to carry the large aquarium down two flights of stairs and unload it haphazardly into a large plywood box in the garage. The doorbell rings, and a tense inspection ensues. I know what to listen for, so can hear Farley and Bandit faintly scrabbling at the sides of their aquarium, curious about the new and sudden change in environment. The property manager evidently does not have great hearing, and blessedly doesn't bother to check the garage.

Bandit's old age begins to show eventually and his health declines. He already has the look of a geriatric rat: His whiskers are bushy and corkscrewed like an old man's eyebrows. Weeks pass, until one evening, it is obvious Bandit is near death. He's trembling, terrified and clings to me. I wait with him until 3 a.m., then leave him with his brother. The next morning, Bandit is dead. I am filled with regret for letting him die alone. We bury him in my father's backyard, marking his grave with a miniature wooden cross.

With his brother gone, Farley changes. Once timid and coy, he now enjoys being petted and paraded around. Farley's new found confidence only lasts a couple months, however, until a tumour develops on his belly. I decide to seek illicit veterinary care, despite Farley's criminal status. I work up my courage, and call a vet clinic I am familiar with.

"Hello," I say, "I have a pet rodent with a tumour. The rodent is larger than a mouse, and smaller than a guinea pig."

There is a pause. "Okay, I think I understand. Let's book you in for a quiet part of the day. And make sure you keep the cage covered when you arrive."

I sit in the waiting room with my unlawful secret in a cardboard box. The vets are understanding and professional. I suspect that there is a veterinary equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath – a duty to care regardless of legalities, or possibly the vets rightly assume that someone willing to spend hundreds of dollars on their pet rat is unlikely to let it loose in a grain field.

The surgery goes well. Sadly, his respite is brief as another tumour soon grows on his head. I take him to the vet again, but this time there is no surgery. We bury him alongside his brother and add a second tiny cross.

Farley's death seems to herald the end of a trying era, and the grim financial circumstances of our stay in Calgary begin to lessen. My wife is accepted into a doctoral program and I land a new job at a nearby cabinet shop.

Three years later, I am driving back over the divide in B.C. with my truck loaded with possessions. Before long, I find myself at the local pet store. I put down my $8, and welcome a young rat named Bean to our family.

Gavin McKay lives in Port Moody, B.C., he is using a pseudonym to avoid retaliation for his choice of pet.