It started with two beloved rats named Jacob and Rachael.

Down on her luck and homeless, the owner kept the pair in a cage in her van, friends say. But things quickly went awry when the breeding began. Soon, rodents were nesting in the upholstery, chewing through electrical wires and roaming outside. The car reeked of urine.

By the time photos made the rounds among neighbors on community website Nextdoor, the van parked outside a San Diego-area Circle K convenience store was home to hundreds of rats — and a woman who didn’t know what to do.

“It was devastating,” said Kimberly Jackson, a local animal shelter volunteer who saw the pictures and set out to find the van owner earlier this month. “She thought I was there to ridicule her like everybody else was. And I just asked, ‘How can I help you? This is not good.’ ”

Help came, for both the rats and their human. Last week, staff from the San Diego Humane Society showed up with crates to carry off about 320 critters, scrambling to get the job done before the vehicle was towed. A GoFundMe page launched by another concerned resident has raised over $5,000 for the van’s owner, identified online only as “Carla.”

With the rats gone, Carla is able to stay with family now, the fundraiser announced this week. And she has a new car — a well-traveled but functional SUV — donated by another local.

The outpouring of support has left Carla overwhelmed and sometimes tearful, her helpers say.

“She said she had no idea so many people cared about her,” the GoFundMe page says.

A few weeks ago, Carla’s world was much more bleak. The rat situation was alarming local businesses — including Carla’s employer, Circle K, the online fundraiser says. The woman feared losing her job as rats swarmed around the Del Mar shopping center, near what the San Diego Union-Tribune called one of the area’s “toniest communities.”

The van was “a health hazard,” the GoFundMe said. With average litters in the double digits and gestation times of about a month, the rats were set to keep multiplying.

A man who answered the phone at Circle K told The Washington Post the convenience store did not wish to comment.

Humane Society officers who arrived Oct. 8 found a car that no longer started and would have to be dismantled to flush out all the animals, said Danee Cook, a captain with the Humane Society’s law enforcement department. With the owner’s help, Cook said, staff removed dozens of rats that first day.

Then came what Cook called “the big removal.” Hearing that Carla was under pressure from her employer to move the van quickly, staff rushed back to pull out seats and tear up upholstery as they tried to round up the rest of the rats, many of whom were skittish or pregnant.

Some animals burrowed too deep to reach, Cook said. She’s not sure how many animals were still snuggled inside the car when it was finally towed.

The car smelled so bad that the first towing company turned down the job, according to Jackson. The tow truck driver didn’t even want to open the door.

The influx of rats has strained the resources of a shelter network that typically keeps just a handful of the animals at each of its locations: “Unless its an animal cruelty case, we’ve just never had an impound of this magnitude,” Cook said.

But this was not a case of animal abuse, she said. The owner gave her rats ample food and water — and surrendered them readily when Humane Society officers showed up.

“They were not being handled regularly and socialized, but she was doing the best she could,” Cook said.

More than 100 of the rats are now ready for adoption at $5 for a same-gender pair, she said, while about 10 have found new owners already. The rest of the critters are in foster care until they give birth.

As the rats await adoption, others are still working to help the animals’ owner — “a sweet soul and a smart woman who fell on very hard times,” Jackson said. The GoFundMe money will pay off some but not all of Carla’s more than $7,000 in credit card debt. And on Friday, Jackson said, Carla agreed to meet the GoFundMe creators’ one condition for giving her money: getting counseling. She plans to join a six-month program for people who struggle with animal hoarding.

But Jackson said Carla still lacks what her rats are now headed for: a permanent home.

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