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Sunday, October 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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At this show, rodents rocked

Seattle Times staff reporter

This was not a time to cringe about having a 1-pound rat nuzzle up to one's neck.

It was a time to honor and appreciate rats of all sorts and shapes.

There was a lot of rat nuzzling Saturday at the VFW 5760 hall on Mercer Island, where the RatsPacNW fall rat show and carnival was held.

Most of the nuzzling was done by women, as they made up the majority of the 100 people who attended, and they make up the majority of the group's paid membership of 45.

"Maybe it's because rats bring out a maternal instinct. Maybe it's because rats are so responsive. I think women really like that," said Kim Lampson Reiff, the show's organizer, as she looked around the room that was filled with rats sniffing inside their cages.

She's also a psychologist.

Another part of rat psychology is that many people are undeniably afraid or repulsed by the rodents, or maybe both. Monstrous rats are common devices in horror novels and movies.

In George Orwell's nightmarish novel about the future, "1984," the character Winston Smith has a phobia about rats.

A one point, his torture includes a cage full of rats strapped onto his head. He's told, "They will leap on to your face and bore straight into it ... " The threat breaks Winston.

Lampson Reiff said she understands why so many people are scared of rats.

"It's the tails. People hate the tails. People have an aversion to anything that looks like a snake or a worm," she said. "And then there are the rats with red eyes. There's something about the red eyes, probably that it looks devilish."

But yesterday was about the many positive aspects of rats.

Hilary Price, 48, of Bellevue, who works the front desk at a recreation club, had brought seven of her 30-some rats to the show. One of them, DJ, had just won best of show.

There was a detailed score card for judging the rats: 2 points off for poor teeth; 1 point off for a missing toe (male rats can attack each other); 2 points off for squinty eyes; 2 points off for a pot belly. Biting or hissing resulted in disqualification.

Price said she'd had rats as pets since age 10, when she, her sister and brother all got rats.

"They're superintelligent. You tell them to do something, reward them, they figure it out, and do it again," she said. "They're just like dogs. They're very loyal. You let them on the ground, and they'll walk right after you. They obviously recognize you."

Coming home after work, said Price, she can have a rat sitting on her shoulder while she's on the Internet, or just sitting on the couch.

"They don't require much, just a little love," she said.

Saturday's show did have some unusual features not usually seen at other animal shows.

Cakes were sold in which the decoration included rubber rats.

There was a display with rat first-aid tips, such as using "The Fling" to help a rat choking on food — "... gently lift her above your head and then swing her down forcefully."

And there was something else about the rats at the show. In a year or two, many would be replaced, as a rat's lifespan is two to three years, said Lampson Reiff.

"You learn the cycle of life. You see birth, growing up, having children, getting diseases like cancer, moving into old age," she said.

"My children have learned to deal with loss, and they're not as afraid of what death is. You grieve and you move on. You know what I think of rats? I think of rats as little angels that come here for a very short time."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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