The little girl who couldn't have been a day over 6 years old ran up to the small glass cage in the rabbits and poultry building at the Orange County Fair and pointed at a litter of inch-long baby rats, piled peacefully on top of each other, so young their eyes had yet to open.
"Oh, Mommy, look at the rats!" she cried. "Aren't they cute?"
Mommy apparently didn't think so. Wrinkling her nose and making a face, she said "Well, I suppose so," and promptly whisked her daughter out the door before an unwelcome thought popped into the child's head.
Another mother stuck her tongue out when her young daughter voiced the same sentiment.
"We get that all day and all night," laughed Kelle Gardner, one of a small contingent of rat fanciers who are displaying their prize pets at the fair this week. "All the kids are interested, except that most of the moms have heart attacks when their children come up and try to pet the rats."
With roosters crowing and pigs squealing in the background, members of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Assn. have come out to the fair to try to dispel the "terrible myths" about rodents.
Most people are squeamish about rats because of their long, snakelike tails, members said. "And if it's not the tail, it's the name," said Gardner. "You know, a rat . They've heard all these stories about how ugly they are and how they're dirty and have diseases."
But rats are no more dangerous than other small pets, she said. In fact, unlike mice and hamsters, they do not bite.
To help rid people of their ratty misconceptions, the association, formed in 1983 and now boasting 108 members nationwide (19 in Orange County), held a show and contest over the weekend. Although they didn't run the rodents through hoops, they did display a collection of rare and exotic specimens, some of them from as far away as England.
Frosty, an 18-month-old white-hair rat, won top honors in the weekend's contest, beating out hundreds of other rats for the honor, including runner-up E.R.'s Boy, a year-old Siamese Rex (or curly-hair) rat.
Show-quality rats, aficionados said, should be long and racy, have large, beady eyes and have a tail at least as long as their bodies. And diametrically opposed to the opinion the average homeowner holds about rats, for show purposes, the bigger the better.
"They have personalities. They lick your fingers and come when you call them," Debbie Rowe, another rat owner, said as she picked up Cammie, a hyperactive 2-year-old black rat. "For example, she'll come out, and when all the people are around, she'll climb up the walls trying to get out to meet them."
Other rats, by contrast, are as lazy as some people.
One beige, straight-hair rat was in the cage next to Cammie, lying on its back with a glazed, "mellow" look about the eyes. "Doesn't he look like he needs a beer in his hands?" Gardner asked.
While many spectators at the fair may have been turned off by the exhibit, some were pleasantly surprised to find others with similar interests.
Andrew Giotis, 10, of Costa Mesa owns two baby rats of his own and thinks they make great pets. However the tail still bothers his mother a little.
"My mom doesn't like it," he said. "I don't care; it doesn't bother me. It looks creepy to her . . . like one of the rats that came out of the trash."
Rats do have their advantages, however.
Jackie Jennings, 31, who works at a Huntington Beach pet store, said the 35 rats who live with her often "act strangely" the night before an earthquake.
Unfortunately, rat owners said, family members also act a little strange--about their pets. "My mom's not thrilled, but she doesn't hate them," said Rowe, 26, who has a whole menagerie of pets at home, including 3 rats, 30 mice, 2 dogs, a cat, a bird and a tankful of fish. "Just as long as I'm not living at home it's OK with her."
In Gardner's one-bedroom apartment, the dog, the cat and her husband have all learned to get along with her 15 rats.
"He could live without them," Gardner, 25, said of her husband. "He doesn't mind them that much, but they have sharp toenails, and sometimes that hurts when they crawl on him."
Of course, she points out, she had the rats long before she had the husband.