And for the free ranging I have only done it outside in summer and they will follow you around in the grass and will never get too far from your feet Like ducklings LOL And, although this is not proven, My four rats all lived until they were three to four years old and I never missed an occasion to take them outside to run and get some fresh air. Compared to my friend, who's rats died after only a year and a half and she never let them get too far from their cages. I personnaly think that it is a great idea to let them run around outside! Also if you do have only a small balcony what I did was I put a box of dirt with a few treats and seed hidden inside and they had so much fun with it!! sure they get messy and you have to give them a bath, but honnestly it is worth it!
90% chance they won't, domestic pets like rats are dead scared of being left alone in an environment they don't know and with rats, I've found they always run to you when they get startled or nervous, not into hiding. Someone left a rat outside "for science" to see if it'd cope, and the thing sat there frozen for the whole night - in the morning, this sad excuse of a person found some fur and blood on the spot it had been. It didn't move even when a predator caught it.
So, I think you can freely let them free range. Take them out with a "safe spot", like a pet carrier with their own stuff like a blanket they've used inside, sit near them and make a ring with your legs where they can explore at first. Then you can turn them back with your hands if they seem too eager to jump out of that "ring" you've created, and most likely they will only step outside the box for a moment before cowering back in. They never charge out to the unknown, they go for the safe spot they know.
... and keep an eye for predators. I'm paranoid about a hawk randomly appearing on my face when I go out with my rats - even on my own balcony, lol. I haven't heard of a predator striking on a pet rat in broad daylight on someone's yard EVER, but knowing that doesn't make me less of a nervous wreck. xD
Bill me if they disappear - watch for potential hideouts though and avoid them, just in case! Someone had lost their rat to a sewer opening, the rat fell in and never came back. This wasn't on a safe yard though, it was in the middle of the street where the rat probably felt threatened by all the noise, people and smells around her, escaping to the only available quiet and dark place when she fell of her owner's jacket. Personally I'm not brave enough to take my vermin out when I go to shop or anything, mostly because of dogs and such, but with very bad luck a... dynamite could explode in the coal mine below your yard nobody knew of, and your rats could charge for safety. Choose a place where you and their box are the two safest spots on Earth for them.
Overall, there isn't much that can go wrong if you're cautious and keep an eye on your boys. Rat loyalty and trust is an amazing thing. xD Good luck!
Also, watch out for birds of prey. I've heard stories of free-ranging pet critters being snatched up out of the blue. A video of a young boy's pet hamster being grabbed by a hawk, right in front of the poor kid, even made it on America's Funniest Home Videos. This is funny why?
Yes, I was absolutely horrified to see that video of the hawk grabbing the hamster, and OUTRAGED to think that people considered it funny. These are little lives that we've chosen to be responsible for - they're totally dependent on us for their safety and health. Can't be too careful.
I used to have a 3 foot by 6 foot pen made out of chicken wire that was enclosed on the top which I'd let my little guys range in - it had a few boxes and a hollow log for them to hide in and some interesting toys to play with, and the chicken wire protected them from things like cats or hawks. Still, I never left them unattended for a minute. One day a snake crawled through the wire and into the pen with them. It was a harmless red racer, no thicker than a pencil, but it was a snake nonetheless. My silly ratties killed it and started eating it before I had any chance of stopping them. Apparently they were too domesticated to know that they were supposed to be afraid of snakes.
Agree with you wholeheartedly. Although I can see the irony of the situation, it's in no way lighthearted fun that television shows like those should show - and an incredibly sad thing to happen despite its comical aspects rooting from the fact something like that just isn't supposed to happen. Darwin Awards haven't made it to TV because they mock people dying in unfortunate situations. Animal deaths shouldn't be treated with any less dignity than human deaths. It's still a life, and indeed, like when having a child, a person takes full responsibility of a creature they take in as a pet. A death of something we promised to look after and take care of is not amusing. inb4 dead baby jokes, people are messed up in the head.
I have a random garden patch improvised on my balcony. I live on third floor and it's glassed, so it's safe enough I've left them there unattended - they tend to wander back inside soon after I do, though, since it's not their territory and they feel uncomfortable being left there alone. It has a cat post and wooden house in there to offer shelter, and rocks and branches to amuse them, but mostly they like to eat everything from the soil to the greenies and sleep in the two shelters more than anything. ... poor snake, lol. Your rats are predators. XD