Last Christmas Eve., my son and I visited a pet shop and brought home two female guinea pigs. The woman at the store told us they were siblings, about two months old. Skeptic that I am, I scarcely believed her pronouncement—the creatures trembling before us bore little resemblance to one another. But apparently it’s not unusual for litter mates to look completely unrelated.
One of our new friends is mostly white, with smooth fur and black and brown splotches on her back and an inky half-mask that obscures the right side of her face. Her alleged sister is mostly black with rust-colored patches and crested fur that swirls in a mass of rosettes, like cowlicks. My son named the white one Cloud and the black one Pepper. I wish he had taken a more conventional approach to naming. Salt and Pepper would have been much easier to remember. Sometimes when I look at them I draw a blank.
Guinea pigs are rodents native to the west coast of South America. Their scientific name is Cavia porcellus, and even in plain English, they are more properly called cavies than guinea pigs. Although guinea pigs, or cavies, no longer exist in the wild, related species still roam the forests of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The Incas kept them for food and offered them as sacrifices to the gods. Andean Indians kept them as pets and let them run loose in their kitchens, where they frequently ended up in the pot. The feasting continues to this day: Modern South Americans in places like Ecuador and Peru continue to raise cavies as pets and dine on them when they’re grown.
Europeans first encountered the guinea pig when the conquistador Francisco Pizarro vanquished the army of the Incan emperor Atahuallpa in 1532. The Spaniards called this new animal conejo, or rabbit, and mimicked the culinary customs of their erstwhile foes. Dutch sailors brought cavies to Europe in the 18th century, where they become popular as pets and enjoyed a respite from the dinner table. Not long after, they were exported to the United States, where they were again spared the knife and welcomed as companion animals. Not that their troubles were over—scientists discovered their utility as laboratory animals in the mid-19th century, and and some cavies are still used in this manner. It is this part of the animal’s history that gives us the secondary meaning we associate with its name—the guinea pig as expendable patsy.
Cavies have small, formless bodies, short legs, and little twists of flesh for ears. Their eyes are small and bright, with a perpetually startled expression. You can tell at a glance that these animals aren’t very smart, but they have other endearing qualities. They squeal, purr, chatter, and chirp. They chase each other around the cage like Keystone Kops. They sniff the air avidly when their curiosity is aroused. Meek and cowardly, the guineas scurry for cover when I approach their cage and whimper when I pick them up, but once captured, they recover quickly from their fright, squirming in my lap while I stroke their fur and feed them parsley or lettuce. When I peer into their eyes, they gaze back with a comical and poignant expression, like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh.
Because their bodies are so shapeless, guinea pigs resemble anything and everything. Sometimes they remind me of their rodent cousins, the rabbits and rats. At other times, they bring dogs or sheep or pigs to mind, or even miniature bears. I think of them whenever I see formless things, like abandoned socks or russet potatoes. These feelings are sharpest after I have handled the cavies for a spell. The animals leave an imprint on the mind, the way a day at the beach will leave you feeling the tumble of the waves long after you have left the water. Of course, resemblance is a human concept, produced by our branching intelligence. So is memory, although it’s hard to know what form that takes in cavies. Guinea pigs can learn, so they obviously have some ability to remember things. On the basis of recent experience, I would also say they recall people, places, and events as we do, all dressed up with meaning and emotion. One day I must have frightened Cloud, or even accidentally hurt her, for she squealed with particular urgency when I tried to pick her up. Since that time, she has been shy of my hands.
Still, guinea pigs are unsurpassed at worming their way into your heart. They’re cute, which is another human concept, one we project onto the young of every species. Cuteness encompasses many things, including vulnerability. When I hold a guinea pig, I feel its little rodent heart thrumming like mad against my palm, and the animal’s smallness and timidity make me feel warm and protective towards it. So does that Eeyore-like gaze I see whenever I cup one in my palms and lift it to eye level. It is an expression that signals complete submission.
The day we brought them home, my son and I were like parents with a pair of newborns. My son addressed them in baby talk, as if the cavies could understand that language more easily. We handled our pets gingerly, discussing with the utmost concern their health and well-being. Lacking insight into their character, worldview, and disposition, we focussed on events at the ends of their alimentary canals. Were they drinking enough? Eating enough? Had we purchased the right brand of food pellets? The choice hadn’t been easy—the pet store was as richly stocked as a supermarket.
Events at the other end of the animal were no less deserving of our attention. Because their diet consists entirely of hay, lettuce, spinach, carrots, and other fibrous elements, guinea pigs are prolific shitters, and it wasn’t long before their fresh bedding was liberally strewn with feces. Nor is this fact the only noteworthy aspect of the guinea pig’s toilet habits. If you have delicate sensibilities, you might want to stop reading here. I’ll post another cute picture so if you must leave, you can at least go out with happy memories. But if you’re still here when we get back, I’ll let you in on a little secret.
Still with us? Good.
Guinea pigs practice coprophagia—that is, they eat their own poop. The practice helps them recycle healthful vitamins B and K, and it also helps maintain the balance of bacteria in the animal’s gut. Guinea pigs produce two types of stools, the hard, dry pellets we find in their cages and soft, moist pellets called cecal feces. It is the latter type that they eat, typically by crouching until they are nearly folded in half and removing the pellet directly from their anus. Considering that a typical guinea pig will perform this act up to 200 times per day, it’s a wonder I haven’t seen them do it yet. A quick scan of the blogosphere reveals the ripples this natural phenomenon makes on the human mind, like this scabrous post. I say it only shows how small our minds can be in the face of something so grand and mysterious as nature. If the cavies are not squeamish about their habit, why should we be?
© 2012 – 2014, Andy Kubrin. All rights reserved.