Sunday Journal: Falling in and out of love with Gunther

"We eat them," my Colombian friend said upon observing the guinea pig setup in my daughter's room: homemade wooden cage, hog-wire top, water bottle, feeding tray, hut. "Like rabbits," I thought to myself.

Through another member of the family, we'd acquired quite suddenly a pet mutually incompatible with our other pets. Dog eats cat, cat eats guinea pig. Fortunately, guinea pig eats hay, pellets, cilantro (but not parsley!), carrots and apple cores. We'd acquired, in effect, a picky garbage disposal.

Gunther, as he was called (we've no idea why) by his original rescuer, Rachel, was found wandering under a hedge along the Palm Court walk at New College in Sarasota, where she was a student. Rachel had given him a name and a home in her mother's empty house in Arcadia; she fed and watered him when home on weekends — not an optimum arrangement. We had a wide-eyed kindergartener quite ready, she thought, for her very own pet, and so, on an overnight visit, smitten with guinea pig love, we adopted him, cage and all, as our own.

Our daughter did not love the guinea pig for long. He peed and pooped in her lap; he deposited trails of dark pellets on the family room rug where we made him cardboard brick mazes, which didn't endear him to me. He was smelly, and it fell to me to clean his cage every week.

In bursts of interest, our daughter would attempt to dress him through his shrieks of protest in doll clothes, of which we had an ample hand-knit supply, the gifts of a Scottish great-aunt every year of my own childhood. We bought him a harness and leash, also shriek-inducing, to go for walks. He was made to ride skateboards — terrified or bored, it was hard to tell.

He drove a shiny red superhero's sports car. He went platinum on the electronic keyboard, pounding away (as his childish owner held him) with all his weight on his tiny paws, bossa nova on the backbeat. He wore sunglasses (mine), cool as Elvis in his pompadour. Oh yes, our guinea pig had big hair, black and orange long cowlicks, black eyes and a steadily quizzical expression: "So this is life . . ."

He shrieked sometimes when I walked by his room, and I soon found out why: He needed water, or he was out of food. Usually it was the water, and what still amazes me is the ability of a footlong rodent to makes its needs known to a human. It was interspecies communication, and he was the initiator. He chortled when hay was placed in his bowl; he purred and shivered when he was petted; he shoved his nose into my hands when I rubbed his forehead. He was a guinea pig of simple wants.

Gunther grew old. He became, after five years in an increasingly complex household, the leftover pet. Extending the line of mutual pet incompatibility, we'd just bought a snake. And then Gunther began to die.

We regarded this as good timing.

But I felt guilty. What if he were dying of neglect? Of depression? I searched the Internet, typing in symptoms. Loss of appetite, low water intake, failure to finish eating even his favorite goodies; slobber down his chin, eye crusts. Lethargy. We were terrible owners!

My guilt would cost me $329 for the operation, anesthesia, pain relief, overnight care, supplemental liquid diet, office visit and cheery assistants. Cute little guinea pig. Dental malocclusion was the official diagnosis: Guinea pigs' molars keep growing, just like their front incisors, and they tend to grow inward, either piercing the flesh (causing abscesses) or trapping the tongue, making it impossible for our cavy to swallow. He would starve to death without help, and he'd already lost a lot of weight.

I asked, just for research purposes, what it would cost to have him put down. The technician bustled out of the exam room, then came back: $90. She went out again. I felt awful even for asking, but this is not the kind of unexpected expense we can afford. It's like putting a new transmission in a totaled truck. The technician popped in her head, still calculating, and asked brightly, "Would you be taking the remains home?"

Gunther came through the operation fine. He sucked down his citrus-flavored pain meds, but after the first liquid-diet-in-a-syringe feeding, swaddled in a towel on my lap, he refused to play the baby. I cut his apples into tiny cubes without the peel. He got cherries until he was sick of them.

For two weeks I watched his water, his pellets, his little life. One morning last week he sighed in his sleep, a droopy, sorrowing whistle like a misplaced bird.

Some things a vet can't fix.

Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal.

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Sunday Journal: Falling in and out of love with Gunther 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 5:31am]

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