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Old May 20th, 2003, 12:13 AM
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Rat lovers join forces in animal rescue

Rat lovers join forces in animal rescue
By Blair Anthony Robertson -- Bee Staff Writer

The call for help went out through an e-mail list linking like-minded people scattered throughout Northern California.
The home of an apparently troubled man in Menlo Park was overrun with rats and an immediate response was necessary -- not to exterminate the beady-eyed rodents but to save them.

That ongoing case, involving hundreds of pet rats and mice, offers a glimpse into a little-known but apparently thriving volunteer effort in California -- rat rescue.

Comical to some, creepy to others, rat rescue is much like the many dog and cat rescue groups that have proliferated over the past decade. A highly organized network of rat lovers takes in unwanted or abused rats and transports them via a "rat train" in which many volunteers share in the driving until the rats land in new homes as far away as Canada.

Never mind that most people think rats are unseemly and filthy and better off dead. Rat enthusiasts insist rats are not only wrongly maligned (it was the flea, they insist, that spread the bubonic plague) but are smart and friendly and make excellent pets.

More and more people are devoted to helping rats.

"It's a new phenomenon in Northern California. In Southern California there's a larger, more public community," said Diane Weikal, who runs Rattie Ratz Rescue from her Mountain View home.

Weikal's interest in pet rats began in 1998 when she went away to college. Looking for a low-maintenance pet to accompany her, Weikal researched on the Internet and learned that rats were clean like cats and could be trained like dogs. Their lifespan is 2-3 years.

Weikal's Web site, RattieRatz.com, began as an educational vehicle and turned out to be her link to rat rescue.

"I wanted to change people's perception about rats. When I told people I had rats, they would say, 'Oh, that's disgusting,' " she said.

"People would e-mail me from my Web site. I would take a rat here and a rat there. I ended up with about 20. At this point Rattie Ratz is maintaining 115. We try to stay around 100."

Those involved in rat rescue in Northern California and beyond cooperate by driving troubled rats from house to house until the pets reach their new homes, according to Lile Elam, a Palo Alto abstract artist active in rat rescue.

"It's the rat underground that people don't hear about every day," she said. "We have rats going as far as Canada and the northeast coast."

Shawna McGregor-King of Sacramento is part of the rat railroad. On a recent weekend, for example, she drove to a home 85 miles away to pick up 22 rats, dropping off 14 at her home to foster and taking the rest to a woman in Yuba City, who in turn drove the rats to Redding. Those rats, McGregor-King said, wound up in homes in Oregon and Washington.

"If you can put them in a loving home it's a wonderful thing," she said. "It just feels like the right thing to do."

Scott Delucchi, vice president of the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA in San Mateo, says rat rescue groups play a role in helping save the pets. Often, he said, people become overwhelmed and acquire too many rats or allow them to multiply. In the animal advocacy field, those folks are known as "collectors." The most common is the elderly recluse with too many cats.

Last year, Delucchi's organization had 175 guinea pigs seized from a home in Santa Clara County.

The Menlo Park rat case is under investigation. Alerted by rat rescue groups, Peninsula Humane is working with the District Attorney's Office to obtain a search warrant.

Meanwhile, rat rescue is on the case throughout the state, according to Elam.

"We're trying to change things one rat at a time," she said.
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