An addiction begins.

Posted in Memorials, Philosophy at 7:26 am by Jenn

It was October of 2004 when I decided that I would really like a much larger fish tank. We currently had a 10 gallon tank, with a few little bottom feeding catfish and some guppies. I enjoyed watching the fish (as did our cat), and they were fairly rewarding pets. But my 10 gallon tank was as stocked as it was going to get without killing everything.

Our family traditionally exchanges “want” lists at Thanksgiving so we’ve got some time to shop, and so I requested gift cards to a pet shop so that I could expand my watery kingdom. I dutifully received a several gift cards from my family, and I started planning. But then I realized a major flaw in my plan. A bigger tank meant hauling a lot more water around our house. It also meant a lot more cleaning. We started to rethink the whole “bigger tank” idea. But we had a huge stack of pet store gift cards.

And so, a few fateful days after Christmas, we went in to “see what we could see”. And we met a little walking mop that

we couldn’t leave behind. I was fascinated with these weird little rodents. I knew what guinea pigs were, of course, but I’d never dreamed of owning one. I wheedled my patient boyfriend, and he conceded. We fetched the salesperson, and were told that they were really social, and two would be better. I quickly picked out a second pig, a light butterscotch colored short-haired pig. The salesperson advised me again buying that one, as he had “some sort of weird gunk all over his eyes and face”.

If only I knew then what I knew now.

But at the time I didn’t realize there were guinea pigs in rescue. I knew about dog and cat rescues (in fact, we’d adopted a dog the year earlier from the local SPCA), and even thought that people could not really abandon a 2 lb rodent. I mean, really, they weighed 2 lbs.

So I picked the “runner up” to the butterscotch pig, a dark chocolate colored pig, and walked around with the salesperson buying all the equipment I would need — a “huge” cage that was roughly 5 square feet, some delicious guinea pig mix completely with seeds, a small bag of hay (“because it was a good treat”), a bottle of vitamins for the water, some aspen shavings for bedding, bowls, water bottles, hidey houses, and tunnels. I did not buy a ball because she said they would pee it in and get messy.

The little white mop became Gizmo, and the chocolate pig became Mogwai.

So I got home, set up my pigs, and then started doing my research (in the complete opposite way of how it should be done). I realized that I hadn’t done a very good job with my poor pigs. I went out, got some coroplast and cubes to make a C&C cage, improved their food, started feeding them LOTS of hay, and started giving them vegetables.

And then I noticed that Gizmo was scratching and wheezing. I called our vet at the time, who’s specialty was dog and cat medicine, but who “saw” guinea pigs, and took home some antibiotics and treated everybody with ivermectin. It was at this point, I felt like I was really in over my head. I hit the internet, and it was there that I found ACR&S.

Susan immediately jumped in and started offering support — by recommending a more specialized exotics vet in our area, teaching me how to handfeed, and helping me cope with what turned out to be a very sick pig.

Our initial visit to the better vet was not comforting. Gizmo has serious pneumonia, and his lungs sounded terrible. The prognosis wasn’t good, but this vet was much more in the know about guinea pigs. He received subcutaneous fluids, stronger antibiotics, a probiotic to help his system handle the antibiotics, and a bag of Critical Care to help me handfeed. And at that point, is was me vs. pneumonia.

Although Gizmo was obviously very sick, his breathing sounding at times like a roaring blizzard, very limp, and rapidly losing weight, he attacked the Critical Care with gusto. He absolutely loved it! And his will to fight gave me hope. So I made a small “holding” bag, and would carry him around the house with me, feeding him almost constantly.

After a week and a half, his wheezing was better, but not gone. We went back to the vet, where she cultured some of his mucous and determined that he had bordetella. It was surprising he was alive, as bordetella often kills guinea pigs very quickly. But she warned me that it would take a lot of effort to take care of it.

And so the next 6 months was an ongoing trial of antibiotic courses, followed by the wheezing returning, followed by antibiotic courses. Finally, he stopped wheezing, and, miraculously, it didn’t return. During this time, we spent between $500-$800 on diagnostics, Critical Care, medication, and vet visits. It was like a bucket of cold water to what I thought was a low maintenance, “cheap” pet.

When Gizmo was finally healthy, he was about a year old. In honor of Gizmo, I joined ACR&S and began fostering, so that other people, and other pigs, would not have to go through what we went through!

Gizmo was truly a special pig. He wheeked the loudest, and was the most demanding. He was always hungry (though he was always a petite pig), and would climb the sides of the cage, dangling and screaming for food as though he hadn’t been fed in years.

A consummate slob, he required frequent haircuts to keep him in a somewhat livable state (although as you can see from the picture, I was not a very adept hair stylist). He would frequently wade into a pile of vegetables and lie down, so it wasn’t unusual to find a purple, blue, red, or orange stained pig wandering around seemingly very pleased with himself.

Then, in July of 2007, I found in his his pigloo, wheezing. I rushed him to the vet first thing in the morning, and we immediately started him on antibiotics and started handfeeding him. I took him into the vet on Thursday. Friday morning he was noticeably worse. Saturday we started giving him IV fluids. Sunday he was prone, his breathing rattling and strained and terrible as he struggled, panicked, every time we came near. He refused to chew food, and I truly believe he didn’t recognize me. Monday morning I was at the vet, and we helped him to leave, and be out of his pain. The vet said his lungs sounded terrible, and that she didn’t feel there was anything we could do to pull him back.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I cried the whole time, and the whole way home. What Susan had told me prior to the appointment was right — driving over a speed bump and realizing that you didn’t have to go over it as gently any more because the animal in your carrier won’t care if he’s jostled is the worst, and most terrible feeling in the world. And it still is. It never gets easier.

It was the vet’s opinion that his first, terrible bout with bordetella had permanently scarred his lungs, and perhaps had damaged his sinus tissues, maybe weakened his heart. It was like a punch in the stomach. My little sticky blueberry stained friend died at 3 years old because of the conditions that he came from.

When he was originally sick, I contacted the big box pet store I bought him from about 3 months into our ordeal. I complained, and asked why they would let the animals suffer like that. I asked why I’d been sent home with an animal who had obviously been exposed to other sick animals? (Remember the butterscotch pig?) And the manager said a phrase which I will never forget. “You signed a contract.” I hadn’t managed to complain in a 10 day window. So they didn’t care. I was told that “none of the of the other pigs had been returned as sick”. I suspect many of them probably died. I know now, working as a rescuer that we are sought out by many individuals after their pet store animals have died.

To that corporation, my little friend’s life was a matter of contract. They were legally safe, ergo it was not their problem that they had internally crippled a tiny little animal and doomed him to being euthanized in the prime of his life, wheezing and helpless and confused.

Gizmo’s legacy has been my rescue work, first as an advocate, going to events, and talking to the public, then as a foster home, and finally taking over as the local coordinator. When you volunteer with animals, you always know the number of dead. I have lost 2 gerbils, 1 hamster, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 rat since starting to rescue. I remember them all, and I relive the sadness of their passing each time I remember it.

What I don’t know is how many animals we have, directly or indirectly, saved. How many guinea pigs never had to suffer quietly through a respiratory infection, because people learned about them through us? How many guinea pigs never starved while sick, because we taught them to handfeed? How many rabbits recovered because we helped someone find a vet? How many of our adopters have reached out with the knowledge that we equipped them with, and improved the life of the classroom pet, the niece’s guinea pig, or the rabbit purchased on Easter? In the end, you can never number the living, and that was the most important thing that I learned from Gizmo.

1 Comment

  1. carrie said,

    July 7, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    this is a very touching story, and though I have not been a rescue worker, Michael and I have rescued (and made that same mistake of buying) very sick animals. It’s heartbreaking work, but it’s worth it. I know must miss Gizmo terribly, but I’m so glad you found such meaningful volunteer work through his legacy and that you help SO many more people because of your sweet pigs! Thanks again for fostering Mia so we could adopt her at just the right time!

    I think you’ll enjoy our memorial to Freddie that I posted on my website last week. It has a similar ring! I’m with ya on the whole pet store thing. I really wish they would make selling pets in an environment like that illegal.