Oh, rats!

Abby Roeser is a foster par­ent for rats she gets from an or­gan­iz­a­tion called Philly Rat Res­cue in Rhawn­hurst. The loc­al teen­ager has trained ro­dents and even taught them tricks. 

  • Roeser has two white rats as fosters and a black rat and a baby rat that are her own pets. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Rat race: At top, right, Abby Roeser feeds a baby rat via a thin paintbrush and formula. She has to feed her pet every four hours until it grows. She prepares infant formula for her pet. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

  • Abby to the rescue: Abby Roeser, 16, with her rat pet, Pepper, at her home. She has two rats as pets and is also a foster mom for rescued rats before they get adopted. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

You can call her Ab, you can call her Abby, but don’t go call­ing Abby Roeser “rat girl.”

The 16-year-old is a foster par­ent for the ro­dents she gets from an or­gan­iz­a­tion called Philly Rat Res­cue, loc­ated in Rhawn­hurst. One of her teach­ers at Ger­man­town Friends School pinned the nick­name on her after her You­Tube video, “15 In­cred­ible Rat Tricks,” be­came a hit on­line. The video has had more than 300,000 page views since it was pos­ted four months ago.

“My teach­er was ac­tu­ally the first one, he star­ted call­ing me ‘rat girl,’ ” Roeser said dur­ing a re­cent tour of the room in her home that is known to her fam­ily as “the rat room.”

“I think he thought it was a com­pli­ment be­cause I love rats so much.”

“But then every­one in my home­room called me ‘rat girl,’ ” she said. “And I was, like, no, don’t call me ‘rat girl.’ ”

Over the cen­tur­ies, rats have been vil­i­fied in myth, movies and pop­u­lar cul­ture. But the ver­min with the long, skinny tails are be­com­ing more pop­u­lar as pets, ac­cord­ing to an­ec­dot­al ob­ser­va­tions by Roeser, by the North­east’s Philly Rat Res­cue and by a Cali­for­ni­an who bills her­self as Debbie the Rat Lady.

Moreover, some rat lov­ers are out­spoken on be­half of the pets they love. In a let­ter to the ed­it­or of the North­east Times, Philly Rat Res­cue sup­port­er Brenda Matusow wrote that she was “in­sul­ted and dis­tressed” by the por­tray­al of rats in an ed­it­or­i­al car­toon that de­pic­ted the Bo­ston bomber sus­pects as rats.

“To la­bel sav­ages like the Bo­ston bombers as rats caught in a trap is to un­fairly at­trib­ute to rats char­ac­ter­ist­ics that only hu­mans have and dis­play,” Matusow wrote.

At least some of the ro­dents’ bad rap is based on the Black Plague that laid waste to a good deal of the pop­u­la­tion of Europe and Lon­don at vari­ous points in his­tory. Re­mark­ably, what caused the plague in the Middle Ages still is a mat­ter of de­bate.

The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion lays the blame on bac­teria that can in­fect small ro­dents, like rats, and is trans­mit­ted to hu­mans by an in­fec­ted flea. But that is not a un­an­im­ous con­clu­sion. A Brit­ish ar­chae­olo­gist with the Mu­seum of Lon­don, Barney Sloane, said in a 2011 book, The Black Death in Lon­don, that the plague spread so fast in the 14th cen­tury that it could not pos­sibly have come from ro­dents, but rather was spread by hu­mans.

This much is cer­tain: These days, plague can be treated by an­ti­bi­ot­ics, the CDC says.


Roeser, of Chel­ten­ham, is well-known to the Philly Rat Res­cue, which sends rats her way. She has two foster rats in the “rat room” now, as well as one of her own. She keeps an in­fant that must be hand fed every four hours in her bed­room.

Her fath­er, Reed Roeser, watched from the door­way as his daugh­ter led a tour of the “rat room” and con­fessed the ro­dents were not ex­actly his cup of tea. “I’m not crazy about them,” he al­lowed.

But he sup­ports his daugh­ter’s ef­forts any­way, and she ap­pre­ci­ates it.

“I think he likes how happy they make me but he doesn’t really doesn’t like rats. He’s ac­tu­ally very help­ful with them, but he’s not go­ing to go in there and cuddle them.”

Philly Rat Res­cue — you can find them at ht­tp://phil­lyr­atres­cue.res­cueme.org — is so busy these days that it has stopped tak­ing in rats for ad­op­tion be­cause of a lack of foster homes. The or­gan­iz­a­tion now has about 35 pets in ad­op­tion fa­cil­it­ies.

In­deed, Philly Rat Res­cue is in such de­mand that or­gan­izers are fear­ful of list­ing their names and ad­dresses be­cause of con­cern that rat own­ers will dump their pets on their door­steps. Roeser has achieved some celebrity in rat world be­cause of an art­icle in the New York Post and the You­Tube video.

The video fea­tures two rats owned by Roeser, “Pep­per” and “Nami,” al­though Nami has since passed away, a de­vel­op­ment men­tioned on the You­Tube site.

Among the 15 tricks fea­tured are rats fetch­ing ping pong balls, jump­ing over hurdles, open­ing a cab­in­et, jump­ing in­to Roeser’s hand on com­mand, run­ning in circles when she tells them to, run­ning through hoops, and in­cred­ibly, diving un­der wa­ter to re­trieve peas.

So why rats, Abby?

Well, she likes them for one thing, al­though she con­fessed that she prob­ably likes dogs more. (Her fam­ily has a small dog named Scruffy, who pretty much stays away from the rat room.)

In ad­di­tion, Roeser fig­ures rats have just about the right lifespan for a 16-year-old who will be a ju­ni­or in high school in Septem­ber. Rats live for only two to three years, by her reck­on­ing. That ruled out her first choice when she went look­ing for a new pet, a guinea pig — they live for six to eight years.

“I’m go­ing to col­lege in two years and I don’t want to leave my par­ents with the pets,” she said as the oc­cu­pants of the rat room, par­tic­u­larly “Pep­per,” which has a tail nearly as long as her body, squirmed about.

“So, it just seemed like a prac­tic­al an­im­al to get,” she said.

What she has learned in the year that she has been rais­ing rats is that they are smart — smarter, she fig­ures, than dogs.

“They prob­ably learn like 10 times faster,” she said

Still, she real­izes that in pop­u­lar cul­ture, rats are not the most be­loved an­im­als.

That is a sense that Hol­ly­wood has re­in­forced over the years. In­di­ana Jones once fam­ously said, “Oh rats!” when he ran across a rat pack in “In­di­ana Jones and the Lost Cru­sade.” And the late Jimmy Cag­ney is widely quoted as say­ing, “You dirty rat!” al­though there seems to be little evid­ence that he ac­tu­ally said it.

Still, the rat stigma lingers.

Debbie the Rat Lady, whose real name is Debbie Ducom­mun, of Chico, Cal­if., is keenly aware of the rat pub­lic re­la­tions prob­lem.

“You put a rat in a scene in a movie and it auto­mat­ic­ally makes it more creepy,” she said.

Part of that is­sue, she be­lieves, is that people don’t make a dis­tinc­tion between wild rats and do­mest­ic rats.

“I like to show people that they are smart and af­fec­tion­ate, cute and cuddly,” she said. And she should know — she has had as many as 35 rats at a time.

These days, though, she said rats are just more ac­cep­ted than they used to be. So much so that Roeser has al­lowed to con­vert a spe­cial space in her fam­ily home in­to the rat room.

“It used to be my nurs­ery when I was a baby,” she said. ••

You can reach at dwarner@bsmphilly.com.

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