Life can be a rat race for actress

August 24, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

Melissa Arleth wears her honey-colored hair below her shoulder. It has a lot of body and if anyone ever accuses her of having a rat's nest, they might be right.

Friends of the New York actress, who recently completed a summer at Pioneer Playhouse, aren't surprised when two little beady eyes peek through her hair. They know her for carrying her pet rats around on her shoulders.

Being shoulder-trained is one of the tricks Arleth has taught the rats that she started keeping a year and a half ago. She now has three.

"It's hard when I have more rats than I have shoulders."

The 25-year-old's interest in rats began when she took an honors program psychology class and studied operative conditioning. She trained the rats to respond to press levers on cue.


Her interest in dramatic arts led her to participate in Renaissance fairs and it wasn't long until she combined a love of rats with that area.

"I was performing at a fair and a director said, 'If you get one and train it, we'll pay for it.'"

She thought that sounded like a pretty good offer.

"Where else can you get paid to walk around with a rat on your shoulder?"

Fairs' rural settings hold much appeal

The Renaissance fairs' rural settings hold much appeal for Arleth, who says she hasn't owned a TV in 10 years, and loves the country.

"I'm just a great, big hippie and if I get to hang out in the woods and get paid, I'm happy."

The rats she has now not only distinguish themselves with tricks, such as jumping through an embroidery hoop, but they have fancy names. Whingybum Fisticuffs the Amazingly Incontinent has a hooded pattern on its skin. Merkin McGillicuddy is black and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme is champagne colored.

As the rats nibble at her blue jean shorts, enjoying the taste of glue from a papier mache project, Arleth explains that Whingybum means whiny butt in British. Merkin is a specific type of wig. Squeaky is named after one of Charles Manson's followers, who tried to kill the president.

"She's one of only two women who ever tried to kill the president and neither succeeded," Arleth notes. "It's a cheap joke but I'm not proud."

Her first rat, now deceased, was Dangerous Beans, the Barefoot Piddler. With names like these, Arleth says often has requests to put a tag on an animal.

"I have a reputation for naming pets. People I don't know call me to name their pets."

Arleth says the rats are affectionate and quick learners.

"They're almost like little smart dogs. They come running at you with their tongue hanging out."

She misses Dangerous Beans terribly, but knows it is a situation she often will face as rats only have a life expectancy of three to five years. Dangerous Beans died of respiratory problems.

"Usually they get one or two things, respiratory problems or tumors."

Being a rat owner does have its perks

Although her rats definitely rated as unusual pets at Pioneer Playhouse, Arleth says they were more accepted in Kentucky than in New York. Being a rat owner does have its perks in that crowded city.

"I sit on the subway station with a rat on my shoulder, and I get a seat to myself."

As far as training the rats, Arleth says it's pretty easy once they know their handler and are supplied with treats.

"To train them, you get them used to you. You take them out of their cage for a couple of hours a day. You pet them and give them food and love so they know you're mom."

To get them to do tricks, she usually rewards them with bits of Cheerios cereal.

"If I'm desperate I use Cocoa Rice Krispies because rats can't resist chocolate but it's not good for them."

After spending so much time with the rats, Arleth says she can definitely tell their personalities.

She labels Whingybum as sympathetic.

"When my other rat died I was crying and Whingybum jumped up and licked all my tears off."

She thinks of Merkin as shy and neurotic but one of the smartest. Lynette is pushy.

"She'll fight the other rats for the food."

She recommends owning females

She highly recommends owning females because they have more energy and are more inquisitive.

When they grind their teeth, that's equivalent to a cat purring in contentment, she says. Contrary to the idea that rats are dirty, Arleth says they clean themselves like cats do.

Her main problem has been controlling the rats' tendency to gnaw.

"They'll munch on everything. I think I'm very good at fixing my electrical wires."

Arleth, whose roles at the playhouse included being a German maid, did not find an opportunity to use the rats in a production at there. One of her rats did star in a brief TV spot to promote tourism and Renaissance fairs in New York. She kissed the rat in the commercial. She usually finds that people want to focus on the rats more than her acting skills.

"They do upstage me. People get all excited about the rats and don't listen to what I'm saying. All that theater training and Shakespeare just to be a rat pedestal."

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