BEDFORD, Mass. — The American Gerbil Society's annual pageant brought dozens of rodents scurrying to New England this weekend for a chance to win "top gerbil."

The Bedford competition called for agility demonstrations in which the gerbils must overcome obstacles and race to the end of a course. Breeders of the small animals vie for coveted ribbons based on body type and agility.

"A male gerbil should be a good, strong, hefty-looking gerbil," said Libby Hanna, president of the American Gerbil Society. "If you are going to think of it in human terms, you might think of a football player – somebody who's big, thick neck, nice, strong-looking male gerbil."

An ideal female gerbil will have a more streamlined appearance that even humans covet, she said.

"So she would be strong and athletic-looking – not really scrawny, but slim," said Hanna, who serves as a judge in the show. "I usually use a figure skater as my mental image or gymnasts – so obviously a gymnast is not necessarily a big, big woman, but she's gonna be strong, muscular and athletic."

The Friday-Saturday show drew gerbil enthusiasts and breeders from around the country and culminates in the presentation of champion and breeder certificates.

Fourteen-year-old Sarah Kaden from Bordentown, N.J., thinks gerbils have great personalities.

"Even though they are so little, they are very different from each other and they smell a lot less than my brother's hamsters," she said Friday.

That sentiment is not surprising since the small, furry and inquisitive creatures look cute when they nibble on their food, stand on their hind feet or scurry around their environment.

Gerbils are perfect pets for modern families as they don't require to be taken out for a walk, could easily fit in a small apartment and their tanks only need to be cleaned about once a week.

Still, some people freak out when they visit friends and see gerbils in the home.

"I've had a couple of people come to my house that actually didn't know that I had gerbils. They were sort of freaked out, but I just told them that it was OK, they stay in their tanks, there was nothing to worry about," said Diane Nott who traveled from Elyria, Ohio, to compete in the show.

Gerbils thrive in desert habitats and their growing popularity as pets led authorities in California and Hawaii to make it illegal to keep them since the weather there would make it possible for escaping animals to flourish in wild colonies that would damage crops and native plants.

At the New England show, each animal undergoes a health check. Inspectors look at the whiskers, teeth and mouths and check to ensure the rodents have no runny noses, bugs, loss of fur on their tails or other signs of health problems.

Donna Anastasi of Waltham got hooked on gerbils after buying them for her daughters when they were younger.

"Anyone can buy a $12 gerbil and get into the sport of gerbil showing or gerbil agility," said Anastasi, who is also vice president of the American Gerbil Society. "It's very fun ... easy and affordable and something you can do with your kids."

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Rodrique Ngowi can be reached at www.twitter.com/ngowi

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