MCKINLEY PARK — The number of rats in Chicago homes is growing, sources say.
But some of those residents are happy about it.
Welcome to the world of fancy rats, the friendlier, domesticated cousins of street rats, and a pet that owners say are "like a mini dog." They're bred for certain color markings, head shapes and temperaments, with their own competitive shows and standards akin to the American Kennel Club. And, yes — they're really called "fancy rats."
"These aren’t the rats you find down on Lower Wacker," said Debbie Fratini, owner of Sweet Genes Rodentry in suburban Naperville. "These aren’t Wacker rats."
Kyla Gardner explains that the pet rat industry is growing, but says it's not as gross as you think:
Fratini breeds between six and a dozen litters per year, selling her rats for $25 each. She's got coat colors like agouti (a light brown), Russian blue, pearl and chocolate with markings like hooded (color on the head and a stripe on the back), Berkshire (white on the belly and legs) and Siamese. There are standard ears or Dumbo ears, and fur that's smooth, curly or wirey.
With customers driving from across the United States for up to 10 hours just to pick up a rat, Fratini can't keep up with the demand.
"People are just beating down my door. I've got a waiting list," she said.
Byron De la Navarre, a veterinarian at Animal House of Chicago, 2752 W. Lawrence Ave. in Lincoln Square, sees a lot of rat patients.
"They are incredibly intelligent," De la Navarre said. "They're very responsive, and despite the stigma of being a rat, they make great pets, and you don't know it until you care for one."
Two of his patients, Michelob, an agouti rat, and Bailey, a black Irish rat, live in McKinley Park with owner Charlotte Olson.
The landlord of Olson's three-flat doesn't allow dogs, so for her, a few fancy rats are the next best thing. Just like a pooch, they're excited to see her when she gets home from work, she said.
"They want to be around you," she said. "A hamster will tolerate you at best, but with rats, if you're by the cage, they're looking at you like, "Take me out, pay attention to me.'"
Fratini agrees that rats aren't like hamsters, gerbils or other rodents.
"They have personality that other little animals don’t have," she said.
Parents are often reluctantly dragged by their kids to see her rats, and by the end of the visit, the skeptical parents are smitten, too, Fratini said.
"You can't help it; they draw you in," she said.
Olson has taught Bailey and Michelob to respond to their names and perform a few tricks. They can both spin in circles on command, and Michelob balances items on his head, as cataloged on his Facebook fan page, Stuffonmyrat Michelob.
Rats have another leg up on hamsters and other small rodents, too.
"Rats are significantly less smelly than mice, hamsters, gerbils and guinea pigs, believe it or not" said De la Navarre. Many learn to use a litter pan.
Despite all those advantages, for those outside of rat fancier circles, the idea of cuddling with a rat can be repugnant.
"Obviously, they have a bad rap, especially [for people] living in the city," De la Navarre said.
Besides Pixar's "Ratatouille," rats haven't been given the same treatment as mice in popular culture, often being cast as the villain in children's shows, or the red-eyed, fanged monster of B-movie horror flicks.
And, of course, in terms of stigma, there's that whole Bubonic Plague thing to overcome, De la Navarre said.
Even the official City of Chicago page on street rats can feel like reading a horror novel: "Can become impregnated within 48 hours after giving birth ... may even eat the weakest and young ... excellent climbers ... can crawl through holes the size of a quarter, tread water for three days and land unharmed after a five-story fall ..."
But fancy rats have been bred in captivity for more than a century, growing far apart in many ways from their wild cousins. Domestic fancy rats have developed a dependence on and bond with humans, leaving behind the fear of people felt by their city-street counterparts.
Fancy rats are carefully selected for breeding so that only the best traits get passed on. If a rat has a temperament or health problem, Fratini retires the rat from reproducing.
"I carefully choose each breeding pair to complement each other," she said.
She also keeps records of pedigree that go back back generations and include parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. She makes sure each rat is properly socialized with other rats and humans before handing them over to buyers, and she won't adopt out a rat unless it will be living with a companion.
"Rats are social. They can become depressed and lonely if they're by themselves," she said.
Fratini said it's unfortunate that she can't keep up with demand, and that people turn to pet stores or what she calls "backyard breeders," places that might be mass-producing unhealthy rats, some of which are raised just for snake food.
"If they get them from a pet store, they're going to be disappointed," she said. "It's hard to find a good breeder, just like it is with dogs or anything else."
She hopes as rats become more popular, others will start breeding to help her keep up the good name of fancy rats. She serves as a mentor to a couple of breeders across the United States.
Fratini is also president of the American Rat Club and speaks at schools, libraries and Humane Society summer camps to spread the word about the pets.
For all of the comparisons to man's best friend, Fratini said, in some ways, rats can be even better pets.
"You don’t have to take them out and walk them in the rain, that’s for sure," she said with a laugh. "They're easy to transport if you want to take them somewhere. They don’t jump on the furniture. They take up less space. [And] it's not a major time commitment. They don't live for 50 years like parrots."
But the short lifespan of rats — two to three years — also comes with a lot of heartbreak.
"It can be depressing," De la Navarre said.
Olson has owned seven rats over the last six years, including Michelob and Bailey, who are both at the geriatric age of 2 years old.
"I've lost five now, and after these two pass, I feel like I'm going to need a little break," she said. "It can be a little heartbreaking. You have to learn to live in the moment, and appreciate what you have right now with them."
For Fratini's rat business, that appreciation, however fleeting, is everything.
"It makes people happy. I get emails that people just love them, spoil them rotten," she said. "And that’s what keeps me going."