NEW YORK – Rodents aren't usually called pretty, but at least one group finds them beautiful — and even holds shows to honor the fairest of them all.
Last month, City Slicker won best-in-show for his lovely bluish, shiny coat, his fetching tail and ears, his well-shaped body and his pleasant demeanor. And although he's a rat, the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Association, which sponsors at least six rodent beauty contests a year, thinks he's the cat's meow.
"He has good color, really nice ears and a long tail," said AFRMA president Karen Robbins. "And he has a great temperament. He's a very nice, mellow rat."
To win honors at one of the Fancy Rat and Mouse shows, a rat must have a clean, glossy coat; big ears; large, alert eyes; a well-proportioned, shapely body; and a nice personality.
The critters can be disqualified for having a broken tail, a missing eye or foot, a rip in the ear or a problem with biting and aggression.
"We judge the animals and give away trophies and ribbons to the winners," said AFRMA membership representative Louise Stack. "We just try to get people interested in this."
The California-based group, which has about 150 members, promotes the plusses of having domestic rats as pets, and breeds and shows rats as well as mice.
Rats, say AFRMA members, make ideal pets because they have all the best qualities of cats, dogs and pint-sized companion animals like hamsters or birds.
"They're small, so they don't need a lot of room," said Robbins, who currently has six pet rats and 40 others that she breeds. "They're smart like a dog, clean like a cat and they interact with their owners." They're also trainable.
The group distinguishes between the domestic, "fancy rats" that appear in shows and are kept as pets and the unsavory sort that skulk around in alleys and burrow in garbage cans for food.
"The rats we have have been domesticated for over 100 years," said Stack. "We don't have rats from the wild. We have pretty rats that are pets. They're part of the family."
There are six breeds of domestic rats: hairless (which have only a pink, wrinkly skin), tailless, standard, rex (with curly, thick fur) dumbo (which have bigger, floppier ears) and satin (which have gleaming, glossy coats). They're further labeled depending on their markings and color.
Robbins suggests prospective rat owners get their pets from a breeder at a cost of $10-20, instead of paying $6-8 for the pet store variety — which are often sick or pregnant, she said.
Owners swear by their little pets, saying rats are friendly, neat, obedient companion animals.
"They're the pet for people who live in apartments," said Stack, who currently owns three rats. "They're smart little animals and they like to hang out with people. My husband used to watch TV with the rat in his pocket."
But not all animal lovers support the group's mission.
"It's sad to us that there are organizations that promote breeding and showing rats and mice," said Martin Mersereau, a cruelty caseworker with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "This is as far removed from a natural environment as these animals could be."
He believes showing rodents is a form of exploitation and said the group's enthusiasm over rodents would be better used in other ways.
"We don't doubt for a minute that they love these animals," Mersereau said. "We would suggest that the love be extended by rescuing animals already in this world. Love isn't just about appreciating beauty — it's about alleviating suffering."
A more common reaction to the rodents is one of distaste. But Robbins and Stack said that's changing.
"We don't get as many negative responses as we did 20 years ago," Robbins said. "People are much more receptive to rats as pets. Most people are like, 'Oh, rats — I love rats.'"