Reel Beach: A true tale of rats and lizards in the movie The Freshman

Matthew Broderick holds a monitor lizard (not a Komodo Dragon) in the 1990 movie The Freshman.


The best movies tell good stories. Here’s one story I first heard by the Boardwalk one sunny day last fall.

I’ll let local resident Wendy Massey tell her personal anecdote:

“Many years ago I owned a pet store in a small town. I have some really wonderful memories from the eight years I owned the business, but there is one memory that is my favourite.

“Over the years I had animal wranglers that would ask me if I was able to supply them with animals for movies or commercials. Sometimes I was able to fulfill their requests, other times I wasn’t. This one particular request I was able to fulfill. They needed feeder rats for the reptiles that were part of the movie The Freshman.

“I had to pick up the rats from the airport. My daughter came with me and I must add that she was a real animal lover and at this particular time she had a pet rat named Pocket.

“Once I picked up the rats and placed them in my vehicle and headed back to my small town she became very concerned about what was going to happen to all of the rats. My husband was with me and we both looked at one another knowing we couldn’t actually tell her what was really going to happen to the rats.

“We had to come up with something that wouldn’t cause her to become upset, so we told her the rats were going on vacation and we were just helping them get to their final destination. It wasn’t until many years later that she found out the true destination for the rats. She was much older then and able to handle the truth.

“I also supplied the movie with a cockatoo named Kelly. No harm came to Kelly, he was returned safe and sound.

“Because of my interactions with the movie in a very small way, I had the privilege of meeting some of the major actors, Marlon Brando, Matthew Broderick and Maximilian Schell. It was a very exciting moment. The actors were all very kind and gave a few minutes of their time to have a little chat with me.

“I never thought owning a small pet store in a small town would lead me one day to meet three superstars.”

I had to ask Wendy if she was any relation to the famous Toronto family: “Nope, but I bet none of the other well-known Masseys have a rat story like mine.”
Truth can be stranger than fiction.

The writer/director of The Freshman (1990), Andrew Bergman, read a news article about a gangster arrested for importing an endangered species, a Komodo Dragon, into the U.S.A.

Bergman turned it into a film shot around Toronto and at a studio on Pharmacy Avenue in Scarborough once used for SCTV. Various Asian Water Monitor lizards were used to play the part.

Did you know a group of rats is called a ‘mischief’?

Rats don’t get much respect, but in a recent The Nature of Things episode Dr. David Suzuki called them “marvels of evolution…underneath that drab, brown coat beats the heart of a hero with superpowers…love them or hate them, rats will always be here.”

You might not see rats in a Marvel movie, but Mickey Mouse started a Disney empire.

Even though there’s no Oscar for animal actors, Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin) has joked, “I wrote this script for my two stars of my film, Jenny the Donkey and Minnie the Horse!”

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The story about supplying live rats to be fed to reptiles is not a charming reminiscence.

Rats are sentient beings and like most animals, they are capable of feeling pain and fear. Anyone who has ever owned pet rats knows that they are intelligent, sensitive, and even affectionate creatures.

Of course, wild rats are eaten by other animals in the natural world, but they at least have a chance to run, hide, or otherwise attempt to escape. There is something particularly cruel in confining a domestic rat in a small enclosure with a predator, and forcing it to experience the terror and desperation of facing an inescapable death.

Lying to a small child is about the fate of such animals is equally despicable.

Consider the implications of a young child who would “become upset” if she knew how the rats were to be treated, and the fact that when she was “much older…[she was] to handle the truth.” So, the girl had been compassionate as a youngster, but she became desensitized to the suffering of the animals as she grew older. And this is presented as a good thing?

Instead, let us try to maintain throughout our lives that quality of lovingkindness towards all beings that is innate in children.

Please, do not publish any more stories that glorify cruelty to animals or lying to children.

Have you ever been in a position where you had to feed a Burmese python living in an aquarium? I know it’s a gruesome choice but sometimes the most viable options on the menu are either mice or rats. It’s just the way life is as even predators need to eat whether it be in the wild or in captivity. Judge not lest you be judged.

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