When my book "The Mexican Pet" was translated into Italian in 1988, I got my first hint that the title story, which I first collected in 1983, had international circulation.

I guess it was inevitable, because this travel-adventure tale is based on a foreign connection. It originally was told about American tourists in Mexico who smuggled home what they thought was a stray Chihuahua but actually turned out to be a sewer rat.Although I've heard countless variants of this story told from coast to coast, I was surprised to learn that the legend had gone abroad.

The Italian translator's note proved that it had a wider range:

"The same legend," she wrote, "had its moment of notoriety in different Italian cities around 1984, but the lady finds her little dog not in Mexico but during a vacation in some African country."

Perhaps the country was Egypt, as in the following version heard in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and sent to me recently by a reader in Ithaca, N.Y.:

"A Dutch couple was traveling in Egypt, and while they were walking along a road, a little dog started to follow them. They began to feed it and soon became attached to the cute little creature.

"When their vacation was over, they couldn't bear to part with the dog, so they smuggled it home in a backpack. When they went back to work, they left the dog with their pet cat in their apartment.

"Returning home the first day, they were shocked to find bones, fur and blood everywhere, and they realized that their new dog had made a meal of their cat!

"So they took the dog to a veterinarian, who told them, `That is no dog! It's an Egyptian pharaoh rat!' "

The reader concluded, "My friend said that the rat was now on display in the Amsterdam zoo. Needless to say, when we asked about it at the zoo, no one had heard of such a rat."

Later, the Ithaca reader bought my book and saw the light.

Tales like "The Mexican Pet" are typically told with circumstantial details such as those included here about how the pet was smuggled, what happened to it at home and exactly what kind of beastie it turned out to be.

The following version that I recently received from an American English teacher in Barcelona, Spain, is equally specific, yet the details are completely different:

"A Spanish friend and her husband went to Thailand for a vacation, and on the first day they saw a little stray dog that looked sad and hungry. They gave it something to eat, and it seemed very grateful.

"After that it waited for them every day, and they continued feeding the poor abandoned little thing. It never barked, but only made a funny high-pitched noise.

"When it was time to return home, they couldn't bear to leave their new-found pet behind, so they put it in a box with airholes and smuggled it into Spain.

"At home they introduced it to their two children and their German shepherd. They intended to take it to the vet at once, but they delayed for a few days - you know how people are about such things.

"One night the family went out to the movies, leaving the two animals alone in the apartment. When they came home, they found the house completely ripped up and their dog brutally mauled. But the small dog seemed unharmed.

"They immediately rushed both dogs to the veterinarian, and the vet took one look at the smaller animal and said, `That's not a dog; it's a rat!'

"He explained that there's a breed of rat in Thailand that looks exactly like a Yorkshire terrier."

If you believe that one, or any of the other stories about foreign wharf rats, sewer rats, hairless rats, coco rats, wampus rats, etc., that are going around, then let me tell you the equally true story about the tourists in Mexico whose dead grandmother was stolen from their car's roof rack.

That travel story has also been around the world a few times.


(C) 1990 United Feature Syndicate Inc.