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In Victorian England, it was not uncommon for women to have pet rats. As a matter of fact, it was considered trendy.

No, they didn’t walk the furry rodents through the town square on leashes. Instead, women would stroll the streets with their pets perched atop their shoulders.

Funny how times have changed. Today, rats are considered a scourge of society.

Maria Pandolfi is doing her part to change that.

For most people, the mere mention of the "R" word makes their skin crawl. But not Pandolfi. The 41-year-old loves the little buggers and can’t seem to get enough of them.

Inside her apartment on the 1600 block of West Passyunk Avenue, Pandolfi releases her four pet rats — three albinos and one hairless — from their cage and begins cuddling them on the floor. The rodents lovingly crawl all over their owner as she reclines.

While most people would rather walk barefoot on broken glass than have rats crawling on them, Pandolfi is in her glory.

"Look how beautiful! They are so affectionate. When they see me, they come running," she says. "They" are her rats Edgar, Aloysius, Lee Lee and Jenelle.

Frolicking in a cage across the room is Pricilla, Pandolfi’s newest pet, a rat she rescued three weeks ago from an animal shelter.

A cat and an African gray parrot complete Pandolfi’s home menagerie.

She currently has four other "rescues" (two male and two female rats) at her South Philly office. She and business partner Gregor Majeske comprise HandsomBoy pet designs, a company that makes artsy, high-fashion pet supplies, including feeders, beds and carriers. Pandolfi named the company after — what else? — her favorite rat (now deceased).

It’s important to note the difference between domestic and wild rats, Pandolfi says. The rats some people keep as pets are domestic, while the ones that invade your home and come looking for food are wild sewer rats of the Norwegian breed. When people’s homes are infested with rats, it isn’t necessarily a bad sign, Pandolfi insists. The little creatures have the same taste in food as humans and are just looking for a good bite, she says.

History blames the furry rodents for starting the bubonic plague, but that’s not true, according to Pandolfi.

"The plague was started with fleas," she says. Sure, rats carried the fleas, but so did other animals, she points out.

Other prevalent misconceptions? Rats are filthy. They bite. And they carry rabies.

At the risk of offending feline owners, rats are cleaner than cats because they groom themselves more often, Pandolfi says. Domestic rats don’t bite; wild rats can, but so will any wild animal, she insists. And the rodents aren’t capable of carrying rabies, Pandolfi adds. Myths like these have caused society to develop unfounded prejudices against rats, she says.

"I think they are really beautiful and fun to be around. They are very attentive and give you so much love. I also feel sorry for them because of this prejudice."

As far as Pandolfi is concerned, rats make far better pets than dogs. For one thing, you don’t have to walk them. And the rodents also can be litter-trained. (Pandolfi did make use of some dried rat droppings by creating a portrait of a rat.)

Pandolfi feeds her rats fruits and veggies and rat kibbles from the pet store.

According to a national pet magazine, 55,000 people in this country have pet rats, she notes. Clint Eastwood and singer Pink number among the rat pack.

As for anyone who considers rodent-lovers crazy, Pandolfi can handle the insults.

"I know I’m not nuts. Their belief that I’m nuts is nuts," she maintains. "They are so uninformed. It’s completely laughable."

Pandolfi admits she gets upset with rat-haters, but understands their aversion. If you tell her you hate rats, she’ll ask, "Have you ever ‘met’ a rat?" Almost every time, the answer is no. Pandolfi has converted countless wary individuals by simply talking about the creatures and showing them her beloved furry friends. "Once they see them, they are fine," she says.

Pandolfi was born and raised at 22nd Street between Jackson and Wolf. Some years later, her family moved to Washington Township, N.J. Pandolfi moved back to South Philly to attend college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of the Arts and a master’s in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. Pandolfi taught art for 10 years in city schools.

Her love affair with rats was inspired by a friend who kept them as pets in his hair salon. The rats were rescues from the Academy of Natural Sciences. Pandolfi thought the pets were really cute and told her friend that when the rats had babies, she wanted them.

"Since then, I’ve been on a mission to educate the public and change their impression [of rats]," she says.

Tomorrow, history will be made in Philadelphia and, quite possibly, the entire country. The Fab Rat Festival is the first rat art show and beauty pageant organized by HansomBoy Designs. The event includes a pageant ($3 entry fee per rat!), adult and children’s rat art contests, raffles, prizes and more.

The Fab Rat Festival is being held at Bone Jour Pet Supplies, 14 N. Third St., beginning at 5:30 p.m. and will coincide with First Friday art gallery events in Old City. All proceeds benefit the Morris Animal Shelter and the American Anti-Vivisection Society’s education department, Animal Learn.

"People get very upset if dogs are experimented on and people get upset if cats are experimented on, but they don’t care if rats are experimented on," Pandolfi says. "Because it’s rats, it doesn’t matter — it’s all because of the prejudice."

For more information or to adopt a rescued rat, call 215-467-5206 or visit www.handsomboydesigns.com.

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