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Photos by Jeronimo Nisa Odin, a domesticated rat missing one eye, gives Hartselle resident Dewayne Stewart a kiss. Stewart used to feed rats to his snakes, but now collects domesticated rats and mice as pets. When Dewayne Stewart saw Odin at a vet's office, he said of the one-eyed domesticated rat, "he’s going to come live with us.”

From food to favored pets

By Erica Smith

For the Enquirer

Dewayne Stewart for years collected rodents to feed to his pet snakes, but his mission now is to rescue the domesticated rats and mice that have evolved from serpent food to become his favored pets.

Over 10 years ago, Stewart, 44, rescued his first domesticated rat, fell in love with her, and found new homes for all his snakes to focus on his new-found love of rodents.

“After we had her, I realized how wonderful rodents, how wonderful rats are, how social and how sweet, how much personality they had,” the Hartselle resident said. “I think I’ve been rescuing rats ever since then, if nothing else to make up for all the rats that gave their lives when I had snakes. I think I’m paying penance for feeding snakes.”

Stewart said domesticated mice and rats are not prone to diseases and viruses that their wild counterparts carry because the domesticated rodents are not exposed to the same environment.

Currently, he has seven or eight mice and two rats: Oscar and Odin. Odin came from Petco, but Stewart discovered him at a veterinarian’s office when he was bringing his guinea pigs in for a check-up.

Stewart said a Petco employee brought Odin to the veterinarian because when the employees returned to the store that morning one of his eyes was

missing. The employee told Stewart about the rat in the box and asked if he wanted to see it.

“She opened the box, and he came running out of the box into my wife’s arms like he knew her from the beginning of his life and started giving her kisses,” Stewart said. “I said, just take him back. I’ll be there in about half an hour to pick him up; he’s going to come live with us.”

Stewart said he is sure all the mice and rats he rescued would have been feeder mice and rats. That means they would have been fed to a snake as a meal.

“The majority of (domesticated) mice and rats, especially in the pet trade in the pet stores, they’re bred to be feeders,” he said. “That’s why even if we go in and buy something from a pet shop, we consider it a rescue because if it stays there it’s going to end up in a snake’s belly. I understand that snakes have to eat, but I’m going to save every rat from them I can.”

Domesticated rats, Stewart said, are misunderstood creatures who are sweet, empathetic and social.

“Rats have so much personality and they will rescue other rats that are in danger … . They’ve got to have a community; if a rat’s by itself it can go crazy with loneliness. They will take care of each other’s babies, they will adopt babies if something happens to a baby’s parents, they will feed the sick and the elderly in their communities. To me they display all of the good emotions, the good side that you want to see in humans, and they just do it naturally.”

Stewart has other rescued pets as well including two werewolf guinea pigs, Lita and Jett, which are a hairless breed.

“They have a little bit of hair on their face and their feet,” he said. “Every few months they’ll grow in patches of hair in different parts of their body, usually on the back of their neck and on their legs. Then that hair just gradually falls out and they grow hair in another spot.”

Stewart rescued a chinchilla, named Tuna, who had been through two owners before he rescued her. Stewart said Tuna is not particularly cuddly but enjoys sitting on his shoulder or his head.

The only pet Stewart has rescued that is not a rodent is a hedgehog named Pinto Bean. He said Pinto Bean had been through three owners by the time he was 6 months old when Stewart adopted him.

Stewart said he has had a love for animals all his life.

“I’ve been rescuing kittens or baby birds or spiders and lizards, anything I could save that was in trouble since I was a little bitty kid,” he said. “I guess I was just born an animal lover; I’ve always had an interest in them.”

Chad Netherton has known Stewart for over 20 years and has seen his love for animals.

“I think that he had rather just have nothing but animals around … as to ever have to have human contact; he loves animals that much,” Netherton said. “Dewayne just has a respect for them. He likes to learn everything he can, every little quirk, anything he can learn about an animal, wants to know the exact way to take care of them.”