Naked mole rats: these ugly (but endearing!) critters are back by popular demand at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

How's this for a ringing endorsement?

"They're not pretty, but they're pretty fun!"

And that's from a guy whose job it is to promote the animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs -- which will welcome back a pack (gaggle? family? nest?) of naked mole rats after an apparently painful, much-maligned years-long absence.

In a press release sent to this fine state's finest NMR (that's naked mole rats, newbies) reporters, zoo spokesman Sean Anglum announces that the NMRs will make their big debut at 10 a.m. this morning. "You won't be disappointed in the sheer ugliness, but endearing qualities, of these creatures," he promises the intrepid reporters.

But, wait! There's more! Anglum is just full of compliments for the NMRs.

Having looks that only a mother could love with pinkish skin, a hairless body and buck teeth orthodontists dream about, naked mole rats (NMRs) still seem to capture the imagination and sympathy of many zoo-goers. Ever since the NMRs left the zoo collection half a decade ago, guests have continually inquired into when they might return and tell the zoo how much they are missed. This Thursday morning, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo will introduce media to the new summer 2010 exhibit of naked mole rats. With this news, local NMR fan clubs are ready to cheer the return of these rodents which resemble a badly stuffed sausage.

A badly stuffed sausage? Ladies, don't hire Anglum to write your profile.

But he sure is good at writing about NMRs. At the risk of overloading you with facts about an extraordinarily ugly species of zoo animal, I feel compelled to relay the following:

Despite the fact that they burrow underground like moles and have rat-like tails, naked mole rats are in fact neither moles nor rats. The majority of the species are more closely related to porcupines, chinchillas, and guinea pigs.

They live in large colonies, presided over by a queen, in which only the queen and a few select males breed while the rest of the colony -- all members of the same family -- work together to raise young and maintain the colony. Wild colonies range in size from 20 to 300 individuals, with an average colony consisting of 75. (The zoo has 20 of these suckers, who will live in an exhibit in the zoo's Primate World.)

Naked mole rat colonies are organized into castes. At the top of the heap is the queen's harem of one to three males with whom she chooses to mate. Beneath these high-status breeders are soldiers -- both male and female -- who defend the colony against predators and foreign mole rats. Odors distinguish friends from foes. To achieve a recognizable odor, naked mole rats often roll about in the burrow's toilet chamber, coating their body with the familiar scent of the colony's feces and urine.

If you ask this NMR reporter, seeing a feces-covered sausage-rat is more than worth the price of admission: $14.25 for adults, $7.25 for kids under 12. Plus, who doesn't love a zoo with a sense of humor?

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar