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Rat Pack Takes the Stage at O.C. Fair

Times Staff Writer

Star quality is hard to come by, but this guy had it: lush, dark hair, piercing eyes and plenty of good genes.

His papa, Blackie, was a grand-prize rat. His grandpa, Simply Slick, is talked up like a silver-screen icon. So it was no shock when sleek, black Simply an Encore -- 21 inches from nose to tail’s end -- was crowned best in show on Saturday at the Orange County Fair’s rat show.

Rat contests are part of the quest for ever-elusive physical perfection. The judging, by the American Fancy Rat and Mouse Assn., celebrates the most splendorous of specimens, which are in turn bred to produce more champions.

Rat lovers know it sounds weird. Wild rodents, they say, give domesticated rats a bad rap.

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And don’t get them started on Hollywood, where rats generally are villains, chasing Indiana Jones in “The Last Crusade” and attacking a town on command in “Willard.”

“It’s not Mickey Rat, it’s Mickey Mouse,” said Nichole Royer, 33, of Quartz Hill, who entered six rats and five mice.

Rat breeders’ eyes only see beauty. Protocol at the fair, which has featured rats since 1986, resembles the short-lived TV show “Are You Hot?,” in which judges inspected humans clad in bathing suits for flaws.

Fair judge Karen Robbins, 43, of Winnetka closely inspects each of the 41 rats: Does the animal have a taut, “racy” body? Bright eyes? A glossy coat?

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To be a supermodel of the rodent world, a rat also needs rounded ears and smooth color and markings. A lack of temper tantrums helps too.

“This guy tried taking a nibble out of my finger!” said Robbins, pointing to a pet rat entered in the most affectionate category. It took a fourth place.

As at the other five shows the group holds, rats are divided into 20 categories. In the “standards” categories, rats compete for best in show. There are “fun” rat entries too: biggest rat, best pet rat and most laid-back.

Robbins hoped the rat show could debunk the myth of rodent filth. “There are some people who think we dig them out of a sewer,” she said.

Her interest in rats was sparked when she saved a baby rat, called a kitten for the first eight weeks, from being fed to her sister’s snake. She took it back to the store, had it weaned and nurtured the rat through its 2- to 3-year life span. The rat’s name was Baby, Robbins said. And she was more precious than any grand champion.


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