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Old July 20th, 2003, 06:38 AM
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Oh, Rats! Owners say maligned rodents make the best pets

Mike Butts
The Idaho Statesman

As far as Bobbie Meyers is concerned, rats are just about the best pets going.
She should know. She owns 26 of the long-tailed rodents.

She also keeps four dogs, ten frogs, three fish, a rabbit and eight birds in her mobile home in Meridian.

But it´s her rats, like Simon, a curly-haired “dumbo” with big ears, or Montel, a hairless rat, that she especially adores. A group of Boise rat breeders hopes to convince others of the value of pet rats with the Rat-A-Rama! pet rat show today at the Idaho Outdoor Association Hall.

Rats breeders and owners say the animals have only one problem: the lack of a top-notch public relations campaign to debunk all those myths about the animals being nasty little creatures only good for carrying diseases and gnawing through phone lines.

“I used to work at a pet store, and people would say, ´Eeewww, rats,´ ” says Meyers, 32. “(Customers) wanted a hamster. But hamsters don´t want to be with you. Rats are like little puppies. They´re smart. They´re pretty clean, and they´re really damn cute.”

So forget all you´ve seen and heard about rat horror movies like “Willard,” rats carrying the bubonic plague (rat owners say it was fleas that spread the disease) and rats having an antisocial streak. OK, they do have those yucky, hairless tails. But for pet rat lovers, the tail may be the best part.

“People don´t like the tail; it creeps them out,” says Cari Nelson, 25, of Garden City, who has two pet rats. “I think that´s one of the coolest parts about them. They like to wrap their tail around your hand to hold onto you.”

Rats´ popularity as pets is increasing, says “Rats: Complete Care Guide” author Debbie Ducommun, known as “The Rat Lady.” The California resident says there are more than a half million households in the United States that own pet rats or mice.

Rat owners make a clear distinction between rats that are bred as pets and wild rats or even “feeder” rats bred as animal food for pet stores. They say domesticated rats are highly socialized, love people, keep themselves clean and can even do tricks like coming when called.

Heather Jaycox, a 26-year-old Rat-A-Rama! organizer from Boise, has a rat that she says rides a toy motorcycle and others that walk a tightrope and run agility courses.

Kim Kish, a pet rat owner from Mountain Home, says one of her rats likes to sit on her shoulder and talk to her. Maybe she makes her promise never to bring home a cat.

“A lot of people don´t like them until they come over, and I let them hold one of my rats, and they realize they´re very lovable and they have personalities,” says Kish, 31. She also says rats are great with children.

Rats grind their teeth to show emotion. Kish says when her rats do it, it´s like when a kitten purrs.

“They´re like a little cat. They like to be scratched around the ears,” Kish says. “Some like to have their feet rubbed.”

Jaycox, 26, has bred rats to sell for pets for eight years. She has 67 rats now, even though she says she´s allergic to them.

“My doctor would kill me if he knew,” Jaycox says, “but they´re so worth it.”

Some of the more popular types of pet rats, like the tailless, have a waiting list of people wanting to buy them. Meyers is waiting on a tailless rat from Canada that will cost her $50. Most pet rats from breeders cost around $15.

Another Rat-A-Rama! organizer, 22-year-old Michelle Nelson of Boise, became interested in rats when she saw one at the veterinary clinic where she worked as a nurse.

“It was a hairless rat, and it was so ugly it was cute,” says Nelson, who now breeds the animals. “I came home and told my husband I had to have a hairless rat, and he absolutely thought I´d lost my mind. He just kind of tolerates them.”

Meyers has owned pet rats since she was a child. She´s had so many she has had to reuse old names from rats she used to have.

“Eventually, I probably won´t have quite so many,” she says, “but there will always be rats in my house.”

And they´ll never have to worry about a visit from the Orkin man.

OHIOSTATESMAN.COM
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