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. ••