The sound of a sneezing rat was keeping me up at night.
All would be silent, and then from across the room I'd hear it: a tiny "pff!" followed by two paws furiously wiping a fuzzy face.
The sneezes belonged to Christopher and Robin, two little guys I'd picked up from a breeder a few months earlier. Why rats? Well, a dog was too big, I'm allergic to cats, and I don't like the way birds and fish look at me.
I just worked my way down the food chain until I got to rats. They're great city pets: small, social, and tidy.
The sneezing was quickly remedied by their vet at Arguello Pet Hospital, who put a stethoscope to their chests, nodded in recognition, and prescribed an ameliorative brew.
But when word of their recovery came up in conversation with friends, it was met with wrinkled noses. People seem to think that rats are weird pets.
They're my weird pets, though, and I love 'em. And I'm not alone: Here in the strangest city on Earth, there's no shortage of unconventional companions.
Some summer night when you're near the 24th and Mission BART station,
pause for a moment and listen for a peeping, chirping song. It means
you're close to Jack McAllister's colony of chorus frogs, iguanas, and
The animals come from all over: some are donated, others are rescued, and each has its own little quirk. The Argentine side-necked turtle came from Steinhart Aquarium, the tortoise learned how to open his gate, and the cat-eyed snake vanished for months and was presumed dead
before reemerging from some foliage.
With a background as an animal caregiver and science educator at the Exploratorium and Tree Frog Treks, Jack cares for all creatures great and herpetological.
"That's Nicolas Cage's crocodile monitor lizard," he told me, pointing to what I thought was driftwood. Years ago, he'd helped care for Mr. Cage's lizard; upon its passing, it was preserved and entrusted to Jack.
Providing for each species is a challenge; the key, Jack says, is to mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. For food and supplies, he gave high marks to The Animal Connection, a pet store in the Outer Sunset. I decided to check it out.
No shop's collection of critters beats The Animal Connection. When I
arrived, a rainbow parakeet was frolicking on the counter, just across
from a squirmy box of baby rats.
"Hello," I said to the bird, and he hopped on my shoulder, clambered down my arm like he owned it, and nibbled my finger.
I also met Rosebud, a gigantic pink gourami – a fish – that came to the store a year ago and has nearly outgrown her tank.
I watched as she gleefully devoured a handful of wriggling crickets. Despite being on a diet, she's a big girl, and the store is frantically trying to find a new home that can provide her with at least 100 gallons.
Upstairs lives Star, an Argentine tegu. For a lizard, Star's demeanor was surprisingly canine. He padded around,investigating my shoes; and as caretaker Joe petted his head, Star closed his eyes and sprawled on some moss like a dog on a couch.
Across the aisle, a veiled chameleon zapped some silkworms with a long sticky tongue, and calotes (lizards) basked under a leaf. They're look-but-don't-touch pets, Joe explained. "Your motive for having these is like having an orchid. You can create a biome where you can be privy to something you ordinarily wouldn't see."
Want to get even more exotic? Spend a day at the Academy of Sciences. I
got the inside scoop on sea horses and sea dragons from Academy
biologist April Devitt. She told me about being able to detect hints of
a personality: "Some will come up to surface during cleaning, others will hang out at the bottom." One frogfish recognizes when
she approaches and wiggles the lure on his head in an attempt to
And that food can come from some unexpected sources. The Academy usually gets shipments of mysid shrimp from Florida; but in a pinch, they can catch some over at Lake Merced in the dead of night.
The mention of invertebrates made me squeamish, but then a friend heard that I'd been meeting a lot of strange animals and put me in touch with Rose, who owned some millipedes – until they were eaten by a possum.
"I got them as a gift from a friend who had a lot," she told me. And before that? A praying mantis, and a centipede she caught up on Bernal Hill.
"I wouldn't advise having centipedes," she cautioned. "They bite and they're pretty fast. Some are poisonous."
Eek! And yet I have no doubt that to their human caretakers, even
centipedes are utterly lovable.
I was ready to talk about something more adorable when I met Nina, the
owner of a parrotlet named Peewee. "It's the smallest parrot," she told
me. "All the features of a regular parrot, and the attitude of a big
Aww. "The thing that's really quirky about him," she went on, "is that he is unbelievably horny."
Oh, that's ... what?
"This little guy is just constantly humping," Nina explained. "It's either my finger or my toe or a fuzzy ball when he's in his cage."
Well, okay. I think we can all agree that this bird is indeed really quirky.
"He doesn't just hump to be humping," she added. "He humps to finish.
Of course, there's more to Peewee than just his libido; he's also affectionate and social, following Nina and coming when called. "When I sit down to eat dinner, he comes up to the edge of the plate and eats with me," she said.
And then danger came knocking in the form of the pet that dares not speak its name.
"He's about a year old," a ferret owner told me on condition of anonymity. "I raised him basically like my son." This person's ferret devotion was clear, but sadly, no one must know.
The Department of Fish and Game's concerns about feral ferrets destroying agriculture and native birds have led to penalties such as fines, jail time, and two years of random ferret checks.
But there are sympathizers. Once, upon visiting a vet, a receptionist saw this owner's ferret and said, "Oh, he's just like my three guys at home!"
Pigs aren't illegal in San Francisco, but they're not advised, said
Marcie Christensen, President of the California Potbellied Pig Association. "Pigs need outside areas to root around," she told me.
"And they don't like stairs."
San Francisco's dense, vertical development presents a challenge to pigs. But some owners make it work; searching for pig fanciers, I met Katelyn, who kept a Vietnamese potbellied pig in the Outer Richmond and walked him on a harness along Ocean Beach. Imagine the look on the faces of the seagulls.
When I heard that Pets Unlimited was hosting a rabbit adoption event, I simply had to attend. Upon arrival, I met a white rabbit named Aretha and petted her with delight.
Like rats, they can make good city pets. "They're as smart as cats and dogs," said Marcy Schaaf of SaveABunny. "They learn their names, they play with toys, they bond for life."
But they can also be a lot of work. You have to rabbit-proof electrical wires; they conceal their illnesses; and they need a level of exercise similar to that of a horse. And they can be willful.
"They turn into a teenager at three months," said Marcy. "If you're looking for someone who wants to spend a lot of time with you, it's not a teenager."
And then I came full circle with a trip to a regional rat adoption fair, hosted by the Rattie Ratz rescue agency.
"I was looking for volunteer work to do," a volunteer named Charlotte told me. "And it was between this or working with people."
I knew what she meant. Humans are great, but sometimes it's nice to have a furry little creature to take care of.
As I write this article, Robin and Christopher are both snoozing in my lap. Every now and then, Christopher will climb up onto the desk to lap at a water dish I put out for him.
Looking after any little creature is a comfort, and my reward for caring for rats is to see them happily thrive. It's a feeling of companionship that's familiar to the caretaker of any animal, no matter how weird that animal might be.
Except for spiders! Those are totally yucky.
There's always a desperate need to find homes for rescue animals. Contact SaveABunny or Rattie Ratz to meet some lovable mammals, or Mickaboo for some charming birds (including pigeons of all kinds, from "fancy" fowl to feral city birds in need of care). Check out a comprehensive pet store like The Animal Connection for supplies to set up a habitat that mimic your new friend's natural environment. And avoid wild-caught animals – if they're born in the wild, they're not meant to be pets.