I discovered what may have been the banana peel on the slippery slope between animal lover and freaky fetishist.

Dig, Poop, and Roll

And Other Awesome Things that Naked Mole Rats Do

Illustration by Scott Vanden Bosch

The first time I saw a naked mole rat, I was wearing a hot pink unitard. My undergraduate modern dance company – shudder-worthy words, I know – was performing in “Boo at the Zoo” in Philadelphia. As best we could tell, this quaint Halloween variety show was designed to keep young witches, goblins, and Bratz Dolls safely inside the wholesome city zoo and off the dangerous city streets.

We decided to forego our Rape of Nanking docu-dance to Pink Floyd in favor of a family-friendly Rusted Root number with feathered masks. Afterwards, eight bewildered Disney princesses heeded their mothers’ demands that they clap, and we threw on flip-flops and hoodies, and wandered off to enjoy our free zoo admission.

As two freshmen dancers debated the humanity of caging animals for our own entertainment (“It’s conservation!” “But that gorilla looks like my grandpa!”), my eyes fixated on something that resembled no creature I’d ever seen. To this day, the closest description I can muster is an uncircumcised penis with an overbite.

I watched his fleshy pink body scuttle improbably quickly down a plastic tube to join the squirming pile of brethren below. They were repulsive and adorable; all wrinkled skin and tiny claws and outsized teeth. They were also, I soon learned, extremely unusual.

One of my lifelong peeves is people who say things are “very unique” – uniqueness is a binary trait, folks. But my love for naked mole rats causes me to abandon grammatical specificity entirely. They are very unique! Extremely unique! Uniquely unique! They are, I would argue, the most unique creatures in the world.

Mole rats are eusocial, which means they live in colonies like ants or bees. They are the only mammal that does. When a new animal becomes the queen, her vertebrae separate until she is the longest in her group. They are the only species on Earth that changes size based on social hierarchy. That’s like if President Obama grows six inches when he’s inaugurated next January (my lips, God’s ears). And they’re nearly blind, nearly cold-blooded, and run just as fast backward as forward, so they switch directions frequently as they travel their underground catacombs, and look totally drunk.

I geeked out for at least fifteen minutes at these amazing facts from the informational signage before pressing my face to the glass and hanging with the little guys for an hour more, until my sisters in spandex tired of the whole zoo, and dragged me away. After stumbling upon something so sublimely strange, I found it difficult to keep it to myself. I rattled off mole rat factoids in classes, dance rehearsals, and frat houses. Soon my homemade I heart Naked Mole Rats T-shirt was earning horrified stares all over campus.

When you have an obsession as obscure as mine, people find it simple to buy you presents. Over the years I’ve accumulated an Errol Morris documentary, a Kim Possible toy, several plush lumps resembling a variety of tragically depilated mice and rabbits, and no fewer than three copies of a godawful middle-grade novel about a divorced dad bedding a zookeeper.

To be fair, it’s been something of an easy way out for me too. The first writing I ever got paid for was a series of blurbs on New York’s greatest attractions for the Village Voice. And wouldn’t you know, there was soon a paragraph on naked mole rats in a garish plastic box on every corner in the five boroughs, plus an extra 50 dollars in my pocket.

During one of my frequent Google searches for mole rat iBook backdrops, I discovered what may have been the banana peel on the slippery slope between animal lover and freaky fetishist. The National Zoo has a 24-hour live naked mole rat webcam. And, oh yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. No longer did I need Gawker, AIM, and then-nascent Friendster to avoid my hilariously ill-fated publicity career. I had my nude rodential compatriots, and as I watched them dig, poop, dig, poop, and roll around in it, I felt all my anxiety melt away, down the little plastic tubes that were a mere Fung Wah bus ride away, in our nation’s capital.

On rare occasions, I visited DC to ogle my bald buds in person. Okay, I was technically visiting a boyfriend, but he soon proved less deserving of my love than even the mean mole rat who stepped on his friends’ faces to reach the center of the huddle. And as the allegedly human male wandered away to take a cell phone call from the “friend” I think I sort of knew, even then, he was cheating with, I remained calm. I watched the colony habitat, and giggled as each funny little guy ran backward, trying to dig where there was no dirt.

On a bad blind date years later, a dull investment banker tried to tell my fortune with questions from a pop psychology email forward. He asked my favorite color, number, and food, drawing parallels from each to an aspect of my personality. “Favorite animal and why?” he asked, deep insights at the ready for my inevitable reply of “Puppies because they’re sweet” or “Lions because they’re strong.”

He stared, mystified and embarrassed, as I nearly jumped out of my seat, enthusing on idiosyncratic individual roles, devotion to the society, poor eyesight, squishy bellies, and trait after bizarre trait that set this creature apart from any other on the planet. After a long swig of Scotch, he gave up and told me he didn’t have any idea what this meant for my romantic future. I’m starting to think that maybe I do.

I just hope he has a webcam. *

Rachel Fershleiser is a writer, editor, and bookseller in New York City and is a geek for iron-on letters because she’d rather wear her brain on her chest than her heart on her sleeve.

Scott Vanden Bosch is an animator in Melbourne and a geek for robots because if he wasn’t so human he would be one. scottvan.com