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Pet Rat Provides Furry Addition to Menagerie

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Who knows what trials the rat named Sunny Jim endured in his days alone in the wilderness?

Was he chased by voracious owls? Beset by marauding gangs of streetwise sewer rats? Did he yearn for a child who had lost him on a day’s outing?

His new owners--Hayley Huttenmaier and Nachshon Rose --can only guess. The little rat that they rescued, housed and fed isn’t talking, of course.

And now Rose isn’t sure he wants to find out about the past of the rat they have named Sunny Jim if that means the owner is going to come forward. Rose, in fact, has become attached to this sweet, squirming, don’t-call-him-vermin little guy.

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All the former veterinary hospital employee knows is that he was returning from a short hike through Corriganville Park one Tuesday when a bundle of fur scampered across the parking lot. He followed, saw it stick its nose out of a little burrow, and then--bit by bit--come to perch on his shoe.

“I was kind of concerned that if I didn’t catch him, he would probably be eaten,” Rose said. “He probably couldn’t have been out there more than a day.”

The rat wasn’t wearing any tags. There were no remnants of a leash. But he had to be a pet: Just look at the white and brownish-gray markings, his docile--could one go so far as to say friendly?--behavior, his clean fur and diminutive size. Clearly this was not one of those sooty, dirt-brown outdoor creatures known as rattus rattus.

So, he brought the rat home, and there, he and his fiancee, Huttenmaier, welcomed the rat into their family of two dogs and three cats. Now, Sunny Jim has his own room--well, a cabinet actually--with a cubbyhole formed by bricks, a handful of toys, a soft bed of wood shavings and regular meals.

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Huttenmaier insisted that they place an ad seeking its owner. “My theory is a kid took him out to play and lost him,” she said. But so far they have received no calls. While Huttenmaier feels a bit for the poor owner, Rose doesn’t want to give Sunny up. He thinks a mom forced her kid to abandon the creature when she realized there was a rodent hiding in a bedroom.

Which brings up the question: Isn’t owning a rat found in the woods--even one with a cute glossy face, busy little hands and a slippy short tail--a little worrisome?

“We can’t turn down a cute face,” Huttenmaier explained simply.

And experts agreed: Sunny Jim is almost certainly not a tree-dwelling, bubonic-plague carrying, skinny wild rat. He is closer to man’s best friend.

“Oh, rats are like little dogs,” said Louis Stack, membership director of the Riverside-based American Fancy Rat & Mouse Assn., whose members raise show rats the way purebred owners raise show dogs. “They can sit on your shoulder and watch TV with you.”

And indeed, rat lovers are not shy about their enthusiasm. The Web hosts scores of sites extolling rattus norvegicus--the pet rat, domesticated about 100 years ago in England--and dispelling what they call misinformation about the cleanliness of their pets.

“There are people who are fanatical about rats,” Stack said. “There are . . . all kinds of newsletters.”

Huttenmaier and Rose have no intentions of going that far.

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They are just happy to offer little Sunny a home, a sense of safety--disregarding one little incident with a curious cat--and a chance to take it easy for a while.


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