Leona Pasley's pet Robert--her pride and joy--is . . . well, he's got really pretty pink eyes.
And he's, he's really affectionate and has won a lot of prizes. And he's never bitten--not once.
And he's so clean. He's really clean. If you could just get to know him . . .
Well, let's not mince words: Robert is a rat.
But not just any rat. He is not the junkyard variety--the black rat or Ratus ratus . Robert (named after Robert Redford for his blond beauty) is a 1 1/2-pound brown rat or Ratus norvegicus . He was bred to be a star on the show circuit of the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Assn., which has 200 members, about a third in Orange and San Diego counties.
In his short career, he has brought home honors in the categories of Standard Rat, Best-of-Show Rat and Best Self Rat, meaning one-color critters. Those victories have earned him Grand Champion Rat titles twice in seven months this year.
Honors have to come quickly in the show-rat business. Rats like Robert seldom live longer than three years. Their beauty flowers during a brief, six-month period beginning with their first birthday. After that, it's all downhill.
For that reason, association shows are frequent, but rats with Robert's pedigree can pick and choose. He will give this month's show a pass and wait for the January show, said Pasley, vice president of the organization.
Still, he is no shoo-in, she conceded. Already he's beginning to lose it.
Once the rat ideal of slender head, racy torso, big ears, big eyes and a tail as long or longer than his body, Robert's coat "is getting a bit rough, and he's getting a little beefy in the face."
Soon he'll retire to stud in the west bedroom of Pasley's house in Costa Mesa, where he is just one of her 42 rats, not including the 29 babies born this month. There are bound to be champions among them, Pasley said.
"I raise them to show, so I keep different color variations. I have pearls, cinnamon pearls, cinnamons. I have English-Irish--which is a marking rather than a color. I have champagnes, I have beiges, I have the black-eye white."
The best of them can sell for as much as $10 at a show, she said. "I don't really raise them to make a big profit. I breed rats because I like them, and I don't want people to be afraid of them.
"They're a much better pet than hamsters. They're much more reliable. They don't bite. They're very intelligent. They're affectionate. They don't do any damage around the house. I think they're the perfect pet."
Yet, she concedes, if you call someone a rat, there's a chance he'll feel insulted.
"And that's terrible. They should say, 'That person's a hamster.' "