Written By Barbara O'Brien
You have all heard of celebrities or rock stars that trash their hotel rooms. They break guitars, smash TV sets and leave big messes behind. And although I do not do anything like that, I have been known to break a few rules when it comes to hotels. My work as an animal actor trainer has occasionally forced me to take drastic measures to keep the animals safe and with me at all times.
We were once hired to train some rats for a television commercial about the plague. We had to train the rats to run up and down a table on a mock pirate ship, nibble food, and well, act like rats. That part was easy. Rats like to explore new places and they like to nibble on food even more.
Getting to the studio for the taping was no problem. We were living in South St. Paul, Minnesota at the time and the job was in Cedar Rapids Iowa, only about 250 miles away. We had talked about leaving the rats in the studio but because of a snowstorm, which slowed us down, we didn’t arrive until evening and the studio was closed. I didn’t feel too bad, as I was worried about leaving the rats there overnight anyway. What if they escaped? There would be no finding them in a massive studio with thousands of places a rat could hide.
Our big problem was that it was now –15 degrees Fahrenheit and we knew that we could not leave them in the car overnight. We had no choice but to bring them into the hotel. Kevin, my husband, checked us in and we smuggled the rats’ carriers up the side stairs and into our room. We fed and watered the rats and then I took them out individually to continue their training. Rats are highly intelligent animals and of course, food motivated so they are easy to train. These were friendly domesticated rats with cute little pink noses and long gray tails.
The next morning using animal safe food dyes and vegetable oil we colored their coats to resemble brown Norway rats, the scourge of all ships at sea. I have to admit the transformation was amazing. What was once a cute little rat with a soft white coat turned into a grayish brown, somewhat fiendish looking animal that seemed fully capable of carrying diseases that could wipe out an entire population.
Once we were done, I put the rats into the bathtub to dry. I knew they couldn’t climb the slick walls to escape.
We went downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant to have breakfast. We had a nice young man as our server. He was cheerful in spite of the early hour and asked all the usual touristry questions.
“So, where are you folks from?” he asked, smiling broadly as he poured our coffee.
“We are from St. Paul.” I said, smiling back.
“And what brings you to Cedar Rapids?” he asked.
“We are here shooting a commercial.”
“Wow, really, what for?” he said, intrigued.
“It’s for a pharmaceutical company.”
“And,” he said, nodding, “what is your part in it?”
“Oh we are not in it.” I laughed. “We are the animal trainers, we brought the rats for it.”
“Rats?” he gasped. He then quickly covered his mouth, as he didn’t want to draw the attention of nearby patrons.
“Oh, yes, rats. A dozen of them,” I smiled again. “They are in the commercial.”
I could see him taking this in and then he leaned conspiratorially over the table and whispered. “They are not in the hotel, are they?”
I paused, thinking about the consequences of my answer. What would they do if the maid found 12 fiendish looking brown rats playing in the bathtub when she went to clean the room? Could be part of a new ad campaign, I mused, perhaps a new slogan for the hotel chain. A Rat in Every Room.
I quickly I came to my senses and laughed heartily, “Oh, no, no, no, noooo, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. The rats are at the studio. We would never bring them into the hotel.” The server gave visible sigh of relief and clutching his coffeepot, made his way back to the kitchen.
Kevin looked at me curiously, as he knows I do not, as a general rule, out and out lie to people. “I guess we couldn’t tell him,” he said finally. “No, I guess not,” I agreed. I chuckled a little at the thought.
We began to dig into our meals when Kevin asked suddenly. “You did hang the Do Not Disturb sign, didn’t you?”
“No,” I said surprised and shocked. “I thought you did….”
We both jumped up, leaving our breakfast behind as we raced to our room. As we tumbled out of the stair way and onto our floor I could see the maid beginning to swipe the card to our room.
“Stop! Wait!” I called out, as I ran towards her. She pulled back, startled.
“Excuse me, maid service,” she said, glancing at her cart. I quickly put myself between her and the door. “Maid service,” she said again. “I am here to clean the room.”
“No, no thank you.” Kevin said calmly, trying to look cool “Please come back later.”
“Yes.” I said too quickly. “We are very clean. We do not need our room done.”
She gave us a look that read, “All right, have it your way” and went on to the next room.
We couldn’t stop laughing as we watched the rats crawl around the tub, wondering what would have happened if we had been caught. We thoroughly scrubbed the bathtub, packed up the rats, and, unlike rock stars and celebrities, we hoped we left no evidence of our little rat adventure.