HER SOUTH Philadelphia home, with its burnt-orange Venetian-plaster wall and smooth concrete kitchen counters, reflects the sensibilities of its owner.

But, so do the brass rat paperweight, the decorative bowl full of stuffed-animal rats, the rat clock, the rat artwork and the metal letters on the stairwell that spell R-A-T-S.

In case you hadn't noticed, Maria "Rat Chick" Pandolfi is a fierce devotee of rats. She wants to ensure their well-being in a world where most people learn early on to fear the critters.

Pandolfi, 47, an art teacher at the G.W. Childs Elementary School, on 17th Street below Dickinson, founded the Rat Chick Rat Rescue and Advocacy Group about 10 years ago.

She has heard all the harsh words about rats. To her, those words cut deeply.

"When I tell people about the rat rescue, some people are interested, but more often they say, 'Ewwww, rats! I hate rats!' " said Pandolfi, referring to her education-and-adoption group. "It's so mean to say that to someone. You would never say, 'Ewwww, I hate dogs!' 'Ewwww, I hate babies!' or 'Ewwww, your child is ugly!' or 'Your dog is ugly!' "

That kind of passion has gotten her noticed. The American Anti-Vivisection Society gave her its 2007 Humane Award for Promoting Non-Violence to Students. And a year ago, Clint Eastwood and his wife, Dina, donated $1,000 to her organization.

Pandolfi, a graduate of the University of the Arts, brings three attributes to her group, says Douglas Buerkle, its vice president. "Her passion for the rats is probably the major thing," he said, also citing her openness in educating people about rats and "her ability to get people to help out and volunteer."

Pandolfi is "selfless," said Laura Ducceschi, director of Animalearn, the educational division of the American Anti-Vivisection Society, which opposes the dissecting of animals.

"She engaged students over the summer on her own time" to design a mural sponsored by Animalearn, Ducceschi said. "Maria wanted to provide something to her students to build respect for animals and create a sense of pride in the students, something they could accomplish artistically."

(For the record: The rats that Pandolfi saves - occasionally from pharmaceutical laboratories - are the cute, cuddly types, the kind that could be mistaken for gerbils or hamsters, except for the long tail. They are not the gray rats with large teeth living in sewers.)

But, back to the rat-haters: When she encounters them, Pandolfi asks, "Did you ever meet a rat?" They usually admit that they have not.

To those who haven't had the pleasure of some rat-bonding, Pandolfi is prepared to sing the praises of the species.

"I love rats because of their personality," she said recently, sitting on a pleather couch in her home. "I love rats because I know the truth about them, and they're wonderful little creatures."

Through the Rat Chick Rat Rescue and Advocacy Group, Pandolfi spreads the positive word about rats at fairs and at the nonprofit organization's annual Fab Rat Festival in June at PetSmart, on Oregon Avenue. The group - primarily Pandolfi, Buerkle and volunteer Maria McAllister - has also organized and participated in protests, including at Monster Pets, for selling pregnant rats, Buerkle said.

As a teacher, Pandolfi uses rats to teach diversity and tolerance to the students at G.W. Childs. And even to some adults.

Buerkle remembers once when he and Pandolfi were discussing rat-carriers with a PetSmart employee, and an African-American couple couldn't believe their ears. "The people had the 'Ewww, rat!' look on their face," he said.

"Maria then explained how rats are prejudged as evil, nasty creatures" when they aren't, he said. "At that moment they had an epiphany . . . they were doing the same thing that they were experiencing in their lifetime" with racial discrimination.

Back at home, Pandolfi proudly points out the animals in her residence. Two cats (Reds and Ralph), a parrot (Kramer) and 8 rats. She does not "own" them, she says, because people are not above animals. To her, they are companions.

Three of the rats are her pals - Peanut, Willie and Whittie. The five others await adoption. (In addition, another 50 rats are in foster care, waiting to be adopted.) The rats rest or explore silently inside one of four cages in the living room. Inside one cage, two rats relax in a makeshift hammock.

"They're intelligent, they're affectionate," Pandolfi said. "I love rats because they're the underdog."