In a dimly lit basement room on Fisherman's Wharf, well-fed rats are scurrying around, their hairless tails trailing behind them as they pick up and eat individual pieces of breakfast cereal and glance around with their beady eyes.
In almost all cases, this would be cause for a San Francisco business to get an untimely visit from the city's health department. But for four nights at the San Francisco Dungeon, these rats are the main attraction — and the health department says it's A-OK.
"These are not wild rats," explained Jennifer Paz, who runs Vallejo-based Ratical Rodent Rescue. "You can't just go start picking up a wild rat and be like, 'Here, take this treat from me!'"
Though genetically identical, the rats scampering around and climbing up visitors' arms are called "fancy rats" — the kind that are bred by humans and kept as pets. These rats in particular, Paz said, are trained to be docile and friendly for animal education events like this one.
"They're smart and they do tricks, and you can train 'em and you can do all kinds of stuff with 'em," she said, laughing and nuzzling a furry brown rat that stayed perched on her shoulder throughout our interview.
The San Francisco Dungeon is a live-actor tourist experience that explores the dark, seedy side of the City by the Bay during the gold rush years. Two years ago, the Dungeon hosted a weekend pop-up "rat cafe," complete with coffee and pastries, that sold out in 45 minutes. The Rat Bar is version 2.0, now with a liquor license, extended evening hours and a signature cocktail dubbed the "ama-rat-to sour." It's garnished with a startlingly realistic rat's tail (though we have it on good authority it's not actually from a rat).
"Nobody wants to mix food and rats and drinks," explained Dungeon marketing director Jennifer Edwards in the dimly-lit room decorated with faux rat skeletons and wood shavings.
That's why the rats are downstairs and the drinks are upstairs, she said — with clearly-marked hand sanitizing stations in between.
Rats are polarizing creatures: adorable to some, positively repulsive to others.
"When humans have had to deal with wild rats, it's always in a negative light," Paz explained. "They're always stealing their food or destroying something in their house."
Rats have a reputation for being able to chew through just about anything — wood, electrical wires, even glass — but the pet variety is often content to chew on a single Cheerio.
"They're perfect little donuts for their little hands," Paz said.
Ratical Rodent Rescue has over 150 domesticated rats available for adoption — animals Paz said make great pets despite their all-too-short lifespan of 2 to 3 years. And just like the rats themselves, the pop-up Rat Bar is also short-lived: It's only around through Saturday, June 15.