The story goes something like this: On Thursday, April 13, 2006, Neil sat down at his piano, and played some tunes. The only piece of surviving media of this performance is a small JPEG captioned “Neil banging out the tunes April 13, 2006.” Not much else is known about what he played or for how long, or even how many people were in attendance, but the event has become something of an internet fable thanks to this one picture, which has captured the imagination of millions of internet users. Neil didn’t sell many records, but everyone who bought one went out and started a band.
As you can see, Neil is a rat. This could perhaps be the main reason why many have found the image so captivating.
Sometime in the 2010s, the image made its way to Tumblr, appearing out of the aether as if by magic and quickly took on a life of its own. People know viral gold when they see it, and Neil — a once-in-a-generation talent — fit the bill. And so April 13 has become an impromptu holiday: the day when you get to post Neil.
Because so little is known about Neil, Neil fans have to invent their own ideas about who Neil is, what he’s playing, where he’s from, and what he stands for. The simple fact is: Neil is a rat who plays a little keyboard, which you wouldn’t expect, because rats don’t often play musical instruments. Neil subverts expectations like that. “A rat cannot play the piano,” you say, and Neil arrives to prove you wrong.
The mystery of Neil is part of the appeal. And yet, every so often, I’ll try to figure out who Neil really is (or, more likely, was). The internet was different in 2006—a rat could go viral just for being in close proximity to a toy piano. Where did this image come from? Why did it exist? Who was the first person to enjoy the (I assume) sultry sounds of Neil banging out the tunes? And what tunes did he play?
Despite it having never worked before, I tried reverse-image searching for Neil again. Sometimes you get lucky with an algorithm change, sometimes exactly what you need slowly ekes its way to the top of the algorithmically generated heap. Last week, after excluding results from the tumblr.com domain or even mentioning Tumblr (which I’d estimate is 99.9 percent of results for anything Neil-related), on the fifth page of my Google search, I found a link to a website called Rabbit Agility. And there he was …
Rabbit Agility is one of many sites run by a woman named Marna Kazmaier and her husband Deron. From what I can glean from various About pages in their constellation of sites, they live in South Dakota and up until the service shut down, were very active in running various Yahoo! Groups for animal enthusiasts, including but not limited to: rabbits, donkeys, gerbils, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, ferrets, fish, goats, llamas, yaks, geese, chickens, ducks, and dogs. (All of the specialty sites appear to run off of a single database, which explains why the “rat tricks” article can appear under the banner of rabbit agility.)
This led me to another website run by the duo called The Agile Rat, where, in the photos section, I discovered three more pictures of Neil. I would describe the feeling as similar to “finding another copy of the Zapruder film.” I had built up Neil Banging Out The Tunes in my mind as a singular event—one precise moment in time captured from just one angle—and yet here was more of the Neil I craved, just waiting for me to find him.
The Agile Rat is a website devoted to teaching rat owners how to get their pets to run agility courses and perform routines, and also functions as a storefront for cute little rat costumes. Apparently, it’s more like training cats than training dogs. I checked Twitter to see if there was any social chatter regarding The Agile Rat and, well, I discovered that I could’ve avoided the morning’s sleuthing. Last year, ahead of Neil’s big day, Twitter user and rat aficionado @funguspotion claimed credit as the person who brought Neil to Tumblr, and inadvertently started a movement.
Banging out tunes is just one of many rat tricks that Kazmaier has taught her rats. She also has guides for teaching rats to ride on one’s shoulder, jump through hoops, ride in a fanny pack, and go bowling. Neil can be found in a little post-credits easter egg in this 2008 clip.
The channel’s focus has since moved on to collecting dolls, but some rat videos remain in the archives. If you’re curious what it sounds like when a rat plays a tiny piano, Little Mac tickles the ivories at the beginning of this Valentine’s Day video.
But throughout the entire discovery process, Neil has still remained a mystery. He appears nowhere else on the site other than in those four photos from 16 years ago. We have no idea how old or young Neil was when he banged out the tunes, nor do we know whether it was his first performance or his 500th. We don’t know whether he knew any other tricks.
I tried contacting Kazmaier through various means, including various email addresses and texting an old phone number that surely confused whoever has it now. The internet is a wondrous amalgamation of hardware and software that allows a curious person to leave a message like “Hi, I am interested in learning more about rat agility!” on the comments of someone’s doll-collecting YouTube channel and somehow, miraculously receive a response.
Ms. Kazmaier provided this brief statement about Neil (in bolded, hot-pink font):
Neil was a Hairless Pet Rat that actually played that piano. I have trained animals for over 55 years. He also ‘Ran Shoulders’, that is he would be sitting on my shoulders (or my husbands) and we would say ‘switch’, as we joined hands, and he would run to the other person’s shoulders.
Neil was not only actually a gifted pianist, but he was also a talented shoulder-runner. I sent a few important follow-up questions (“Could Neil play any specific songs?”) but have yet to hear back.
We still don’t know why he prefers a keyboard while his sibling Nineveh played on a more classical grand piano. And were they collaborators or rivals? Rather than robbing Neil of his mystery, this expansion of the Neilverse only leads to more tantalizing questions.