Rescue rats learn to drive tiny cars thanks to BC couple’s unusual new hobby

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but a couple in BC is trying to change people’s perceptions of rats through an undeniably entertaining experiment.

Shawn and Kendal are teaching their two pet rats to drive mini cars, and despite society’s long history and aversion to rodents, the public reaction has been overwhelmingly and surprisingly positive.

“We hope people get an appreciation for how special rats are,” Shawn said.

Putting the idea in drive

The rats, named Kronk and Kuzko, were adopted from an animal shelter in Vancouver. Shawn and Kendal, who call Squamish home, had wanted to bring a pet into their lives, but they didn’t initially want rats. They changed their minds, however, once they learned how smart the animals are.

Kronk and Kuzko

Kronk and Kuzko cuddled up (@emperorsofmischief/Instagram)

The rats are estimated to be about one year to a year and a half old. One of them has health issues and some lacerations hinting at their previous life, but otherwise, the pair’s past was a bit of a mystery. Regardless, Shawn and Kendal quickly became attached to their new pets.

“They are so bright, so affectionate.”

But, the couple wanted to “keep their little minds and bodies active.”

So, after watching a documentary on a University of Richmond study that found rats had lowered stress levels after driving tiny cars, the idea of putting them behind the driver’s seat was born.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun to do with our rats,’” Kendal said.

The study also included plans for the cars’ design, which Kendal’s robot-building father, Ronnie, was able to copy in his workshop. “He’s awesome,” Kendal said about her dad.

But how?

The rats can steer the tiny cars with a left and a right pedal and move forward if they push the centre button. They practice for a few minutes each day and their owners want them to have as much autonomy as possible with the process. Plus, Shawn and Kendal are learning too.

“Rats sense more with their noses, olfactory more than with their sights and vision, and so we’re using smells to help direct where the rats are to drive to. Right now, I’m putting a bag of cinnamon underneath just an orange pylon and we’re having the rats drive to the orange pylon. And once they hit the pylon, we’re giving them a treat,” Shawn explained about the evolving training process.

“We just put a bell on top, so it’s a bit more like they also have something auditory now… So we’re trying to get as many senses involved in the training as we can to help make those associations stronger,” Shawn explained.

But they won’t be taking the Sea to Sky Highway anytime soon, as their skills are still being developed. However, he did add that he wants them to take a “driving” test eventually.

“What I’d love to do is just have it move further and further away from the cone so the rats dissociate me from the treat and associate the cone with it. Eventually, I’d love it if the rats could navigate a course of pylons through smell and sight to do like a driver’s ed course or something; I think long term, I would love to see that.”

Rat lovers, rejoice!

A group of rats is called a mischief, which led to the name behind their Instagram account, @emperorsofmischief, which has gained a major following from all kinds of people.

One of their videos has been viewed 2.6 million times, a reaction the pair did not see coming, especially since this is a hobby outside their day jobs.

Plus, it seems to be well-received by many other rat fans who share that they also adore the rodents.

It’s a bumpy road, some days

While Shawn has an engineering mind, Kendal is a teacher by day, so the pair have a bit of a different approach to the rodents’ driving lessons.

“Kendal is more patient than I am with the rats, I can get frustrated when Kronk just chooses to go forward rather than turning,” Shawn said.

Kendal laughs, adding that she is more encouraging than Shawn about the rats taking frequent and long breaks.

“They are just like little kids, they need to get their wiggles out before they can focus.”

Kuzko and Kronk

Kronk, left, has a different personality from his pal Kuzko. (@emperorsofmischief/Instagram)

While the two pets are brothers in bond, they aren’t genetically linked and their personalities couldn’t be more different.

“He’s the type of rat you’d typically encounter in a sewer,” Shawn said about Kronk, who is a brown rat and is a bit more feisty. When it comes to his driving abilities, he’s all about “little effort” and high reward and doesn’t have nearly as much patience as his pal, Kuzko.

Kuzko is more of a stereotypical lab rat with his white appearance, and he’s definitely more mindful.

“Kuzko is a little more cautious and kind of like takes his time to think about his actions, but he is very deliberate about them.”

The road ahead

For critics, Shawn encourages people to remember that rats are much more intelligent than society would have us believe.

“A lot of rats could learn this with time,” he said, adding that while Kronk and Kuzko are special to them, they are really just regular rats.

But for Kendal, they definitely have elevated Kronk and Kuzko’s lifestyle. She likes to shop and spoil them with treats and other items, but the costs are generally low.

“I’d say about $50 per month,” Shawn said.

“They really are like little dogs. They give you a lot of love,” she said but added that it’s important that people do their research and treat their pets with care.

“We found they really are as much work as a dog to have them healthy and happy and bonded,” Kendal added.