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Jemma Fettes is one of the best known and most respected figures in the UK rat fancy. Jemma breeds as Isamu Rats, which earned it’s registered stud name in 2017. Her website and YouTube channel are regular sources of information and research for us here at Rattie Ratbags.
Jemma also runs the Facebook group Rat Care UK, and is a regular at rat shows in the North East. I interviewed her for Rattie Ratbags, to learn more about Jemma and her rats.
How did Isamu Rats get started?
Isamu rats came very much as a natural evolution for me. I’d been keeping rats for a good while by then and been active in the online fancy for quite a few years. I began to get into the more physical (showing) fancy and was soon a regular at most north of England shows. Through that I met rats from a line I totally fell for, Shunamite rats. On applying I remember clearly Alison asking me if I was interested in the boys from a breeding point of view. Up to that point I’d never considered the possibility of breeding; I wasn’t ready then but it got me thinking. It wasn’t long after that I was lucky enough to own a buck from Shunamite lines (through another rattery) called Isamu. I fell for him spectacularly, he was very much a heart rat of epic proportions. I knew then if I ever bred I would want to breed rats like him (and knew what my rattery would be called). My big blocker though was I wanted the relationship you get with rats when you only keep a small number. I had a busy life, worked full time, often with a fair bit of overtime and didn’t want to juggle multiple groups. A couple years later I found a way, with the help of some wonderful friends who decided to work together to breed for improved longevity and health in particular, with the Shunamite family I loved. Isamu rats was soon born, my first litter coming from a doe leant to me by one of those friends (back then I still kept only bucks).
At the time when I decided to start breeding I also very much wanted to create something more than just a breeding website. I knew the rats I bred would sell themselves as such so that aspect of a typical website wasn’t particularly important to me (hence why its woefully out of date, haha!). At this stage I was also a regular article writer for my local club’s magazine (North of England Rat Society: Rattitude) so I had a fair bit of material around as well as other stuff I was regularly pulling together. I was aware of a lot of websites doing rat care out there but most tended to feature heavily things like Fleece as a substrate and frankly some of the intro methods were shocking. I also found that most presented only one way of doing things, e.g. very black and white. For me its always been more important that people make informed choices than do things my way, so when I set up the website I tried to cover multiple ways of doing things, along with the pros and cons and the “why”. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve found on the whole it seems quite useful to people.
More recently, I began to notice a trend for people preferring video content. It does really depend on the person, but particularly the younger generation seems to enjoy YouTube and Instagram over Facebook. A bit more digging on both and it became clear that there was a lot of poor quality or black and white information around on both platforms, so after filming a “how to syringe rats” video for a friend who was struggling, then getting a request for a claw cutting video soon after, I decided to try and work on that further, and Isamu Rat Care, the YouTube channel was born (this is despite hating seeing myself on video). I think that probably sums things up for me. Most of what I do is when I see a gap that needs filling. If there’s good options already there I am happy to work with them, if not then I try and create better options for people, be that on my own or with others. That’s how the Facebook group Rat Care UK was born, and why I also admin Rat Rescue Network UK (not my original idea, but one I fully support). Who knows what’s next (though I have a couple of projects that are work in process, with a few others).
You’ve been keeping rats for a long time. What do you think have been
the biggest changes in rat care since you started keeping them?
I think the biggest change is in the availability of information, and also the breadth and variable accuracy of it. When I first started keeping rats (back in ’86) they were at most mentioned in a couple of general pet books, info was scarce and it wasn’t until 10 years later I actually found a book on them. You very much had to do the best with things and much of the “good practice” would be considered dangerous now (for example rats were kept in tanks because it was felt that drafts caused respiratory infections). Now we have access to a wide span of data ranging from opinion pieces, through to scientific research. We have so much data thrown at us, it’s easy for people to get confused, pick a path merely because it’s popular or they’ve read it somewhere so it must be fact. It’s a bit of a minefield and it can get quite heated too.
What made you want to make the transition from owner to breeder?
I blame Mu (Isamu); he was such a wonderful little person, and he seemed to firmly believe the world revolved around him, so affectionate and confident. I knew as soon as I owned him that the world needed more Mus. Then he fell ill and died far too young (CK is a nasty one), and I knew if I ever bred it needed to be to try and make Mus that lived long healthy lives. When the opportunity came up to work with others to try and do that I leapt at it. Soon I really fell for breeding in itself. It can be really sad and upsetting but the planning, the raising little lives to be as happy as possible, the chance to make a difference longer term, that really appeals. I also love the side of it which is working with others too, I wouldn’t be breeding now but for my partnership with Lovecraft rats.
Your website has become an invaluable resource for rat owners, but where do you turn when you want to learn more about rats?
I’ve got a few sources I use. I do a lot of reading of scientific studies on rats. You find a lot of useful information on them if you can trawl through the scientific language and apply a bit of common sense to the results. I also really value the info I get from other experienced rat owners and breeders, I have a network of people I trust and talk to, as well as using the National Fancy Rat Society forum a fair bit when I get something unusual come up. More generally I really enjoy the Ratwise membership I have, it’s like a form of online rat magazine for me but find it helps keep me thinking and challenging the way I do things (only way to learn).
What do you find most rewarding about keeping and breeding rats?
I think it’s the individauls I am lucky enough to share my life with, as well as the feeling that I make a difference to there lives, both in how I care for them and how I select each generation and raise them. There’s something very special about that.
If you could give only one piece of advice to a new owner, what would
That there isn’t one right way, speak to lots of people, understand the Why behind different approaches, try and see things from the rats point of view (and not as a human would) and make your decisions from there. And to sneak a sneaky one in, always be prepared to change and question what you do. Rat keeping has changed massively since I started, good methods are changing all the time, so don’t get trapped into one way of doing things or you wont learn.
What are you must-have rat items?
My top cage enrichment item is probably my in cage large digging box for my current cage; the girls adore it. I don’t adore the state their tails get into pre shows so much, but the joy they get from creating a massive mess along with tunnels and such is very much worth it.
This is closely followed by my beloved branches, pick right and you get a free excellent climbing opportunity, and my 16″ wheels, something they do really enjoy.
Food items I can definitely recommend liver paste as a method of hiding meds and tempting nursing does to the door of the cage. I also love dandelion, as long as you get it from a clean untreated area it’s a great free green for your rats, as is wild garlic.