By Ronan Fitzgerald
BBC News, Eastbourne
Emma says people don't research rats before buying them as pets
Some people devote their lives to saving Indian elephants or Chinese pandas, but Emma Dickson only has eyes for East Sussex rodents.
From a tiny house in Polegate, near Eastbourne, 22-year-old Emma runs Rodent Rescue which gives a home to unwanted rats, mice and hamsters.
"We started in February 2007 because someone said they were going to release a hamster that they didn't want.
"It wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes so we ran and got it," she explained.
"I jokingly said in the car we should call ourselves Rodent Rescue. Then everything went a bit mad really."
Today Emma looks after over 60 animals, mostly rats, with help from her partner Kevin Forster and a friend, Ross Fillery.
'Not educated properly'
She works part-time at a clothes shop, but spends her days off looking after the rodents.
The trio try to find foster homes for all the animals, with regular adverts in local newspapers desperately seeking conscientious owners.
But at the moment there are more animals coming in than going out.
And even though the Polegate house is devoted entirely to Rodent Rescue, Emma has recently had to take the orphans she can't fit there into her own home.
Rodent Rescue recently took in 33 rats from an elderly woman
It is not that people are neglecting their pets, Emma said, they just don't know the right way to care for them.
"When we're given a rat, nine times out of ten it's not because they're not loved, it's because people are not educated properly.
"For example, a lot of our guys are accidents, where people have bought a boy and a girl and then 'magically' there's children," she continued.
People also just get bored of their pets, she said.
"Maybe a new film comes out and it's flavour of the month, so people go out and get a rat, but all of a sudden it's 'no, I don't really want him anymore'.
"For any pet you should have a licence. As you can see with our guys we've got too many of them, we are literally cleaning up other peoples messes," she added.
And cleaning that mess costs Emma, Ross, and Kevin about £50 a week, plus hours of care and attention.
They receive small donations, but since they're not taking in the annual £1,000 necessary to qualify as a registered charity, their fundraising options are limited.
But they're more interested in looking at the pleading eyes of an unwanted rodent than numbers on a balance sheet.
A small number of mice are also kept at the Polegate house
That's why they recently adopted 33 rats from an elderly woman who simply couldn't cope with them anymore, despite the huge strain on space.
Emma clearly loves rats.
"They are fantastic companions. They are very clean and hygienic, and they're very very clever, they are just a fantastic pet.
"If you haven't got room for a dog you should get a rat."
But sitting in the Polegate house with cages everywhere, a discernible, if not awful, smell and the number of animals steadily rising, do Rodent Rescue's three volunteers ever have doubts?
"Sometimes Ross and Kev have wondered why the hell we are doing this," Emma said.
"I've said it several times but not quite as often because I'm slightly more in love with the animals.
"My motto is 'there's always room for one more', because I cannot look at a creature and say no, I can't do it, it's just not me.
"But I think they might have to restrain me at some point."
Even at 63 animals and counting, that point could still be a long way off.