Photo: Colin Beere
When we found him, he was blind and soaking, slumped in an alleyway, clearly close to death. He struggled to stand, then listed to one side and collapsed again. We watched him for a moment, horrified. And then, because we couldn't just leave him there to die, we picked him up and brought him inside.
We laid him gently on the white expanse of our kitchen counter. After the blurry dark of the monsoon outside, the kitchen felt as bright and quiet as an operating theater. My fiancé, Colin, placed him inside a robin's-egg-blue Tiffany box. We called him Tiffany, and then later, Mr. Tiffany—but most often, we called him Mr. T. That night, while I lay in our bedroom, hiding from the creature's inevitable death, Colin nursed him once an hour with eyedroppers of milk and energy drinks.
He was a street rat, no more than a few days old. His life had begun in the grimy alley beside our apartment in Hong Kong, and to most people, he would have embodied filth and disease. But we saw instead a fragile, unknowable life, and in the three years that followed, we came to see him as no average soul.
Mr. T entered our world during a time of transition. Our wedding was three months away, and I was working seven days a week, often long into the night. My job as a foreign correspondent kept me in constant motion and took me around the world; even owning furniture seemed like a big commitment. I tried not to think about what that would mean for the future. Colin and I planned to have children someday, though some nights we could barely find time to have dinner. Taking in a half-dead rat that needed sustained attention just to survive hadn't been on my agenda.
Which was why, when Colin and I found that Mr. T was miraculously still breathing the next morning, we vowed to set the rat free as soon as he'd recovered fully. He had survived, but he was a wild animal who deserved to live among his own kind. Not to mention that we had both read up on the extensive roster of virulent diseases rodents carry. Unwilling to get attached, I avoided him like, well, the plague.
Still, as he gained strength over the following weeks, we couldn't help celebrating Mr. T's tiny milestones: the moment a week after we found him when he opened his eyes in Colin's palm, the night he lost his fear of our shiny floor tiles, the day he turned a bicycle into a jungle gym, his little black shrimp's eyes flashing in excitement as he clambered over its pedals and wheels.
Mr. T began to make himself at home, confiscating mail, pens, and whole pizza slices and dragging them under the sofa, then chewing a crawl space inside the sofa itself. It was clear he intended to settle in for the long haul. But could we really keep this animal? On the other hand, was it even feasible for Mr. T to reenter the wild? We called a professor at Oxford University who specialized in rat behavior. He told us that domesticated rats set free in the forest begin acting like wild rats within a few hours. There was nothing stopping us from bidding Mr. T adieu and moving on with our lives.