Is there any way to place someone in a pit with 400 rats and guarantee that none of them will bite? Put quite simply, the answer is no.
Most of the prep work in setting up our rat pit was in figuring out how best to keep all those rats from biting our contestants.
I spoke with several different animal handlers and kept getting the same response: animals are animals and there's simply no way to guarantee that they won't bite.
But it would be possible to reduce the likelihood of biting by giving them plenty of food prior to the shoot. Of course, the problem with giving them plenty of food is that well-fed rats have a tendency to excrete more than your average rodent.
After some consideration, we decided it would be better to put up with a couple of rat poops than a couple of rat bites.
The day of the shoot, it actually wound up being more than a couple of rat poops. Man, did those cages smell. Think about the smelliest pet shop you've ever walked into and multiply that stink by about a hundred.
We also reduced the likelihood of rat bites by strapping the contestants down on a board. Rats typically are not biters but they'd be likely to start chomping away if a person freaked out and started stepping on them. And who can blame them? If somebody started stepping on you, wouldn't you bite back?
Anyway, the handlers assured me that even if the rats did decide to start biting it wouldn't be all that serious. And they spoke from experience--one of the rats got a little frisky on the neck of one of the handlers while they were testing the stunt back at their ranch.
Of course, I'm never too worried about animal bites on the set given that
our medic is always just a scream away. When he's not working on our show,
he's busy flying around Los Angeles in a helicopter handling serious trauma
cases. It's always good to have him around to let you know that, in the
grand scheme of things, something like a bite from a domesticated rat is
little more than a boo-boo.
Although these rats were captive-bred, they didn't look anything like the cute little brown and white speckled rats you might find in a pet shop. I wanted them all to be dark so they'd look nice and creepy down in the pit. And to make our pit even creepier, the location department found a dark elevator shaft in the basement of an old abandoned building in downtown Los Angeles.
Of course, rats are pretty creepy on their own. They have very powerful teeth and will gnaw through wood and even metal to get at their food. They make high-pitched squeals when they fight with each other. And who can ever forget their role in spreading the bubonic plague throughout Europe? One of the fun things about hanging around with animal handlers is you get to ask about this kind of stuff. I was always curious about this bold rat I once saw scurrying right among the people on a very busy New York City sidewalk. Oh, there was something wrong with his head, the handler told me matter-of-factly. That's why we pay our handlers the big bucks.
Anyway, this was not an easy stunt for any of our contestants. They each had to lie on their back and remain in the pit for four minutes as 400 of our little buddies were poured onto them. Given that rats tend to run to corners, we did our best to make the dimensions of the pit as tight as possible. And it worked. In fact, you know it's working when you hear the kinds of screams we heard coming out of that pit.
by RICH BROWN