Warning: if you don't like heart warming animal stories then you'd be better off not reading this post!
Because my mother was allergic to cats and my father not especially keen on dogs, my brothers and I were only allowed to keep rodents or small mammals as pets. In my lifetime my family have owned 10 guinea pigs, 3 rabbits and a hamster. And also a parrot (for a day).
When I was seven my parents finally agreed to let me have a pet, and so we chose a black and white Dutch rabbit and a ginger and white guinea pig for my brother Matt. We named them Blackdrop and Sarah. For the first few months they lived together in a hutch, but we found that the older they grew the more they didn't get on. We separated them and bought two more guinea pigs as companions for Sarah. They were named Bubble and Squeak. We didn't know it at the time but our guinea pig numbers were set to multiply. One morning I went out to check on them and found five new guinea pigs had appeared in the cage over night. It seemed that Bubble and Squeak had been pregnant when we brought them home!
The runt of the litter died a few hours later, but the other four grew up into healthy guinea pigs and were affectionately christened Twinkle, Ginger, Patch and Snowdrop. Twinkle was the only male, and as soon as he was weaned we separated him from the others to avoid further incestuous guinea pig relations! Our neighbours took Ginger, Patch and Snowdrop (renamed Boogie) off our hands, and Twinkle went to a family we knew from church. Not one of them outlived their mothers, who lived to be very old ladies indeed.
The next few years were fairly uneventful. Then we moved just around the corner, taking our small menagerie with us. This was where our encounter with the parrot took place. I was about eleven and had woken up fairly early one morning during the summer holidays. I was wondering what had woken me and looked out of my window to see something dangling from the telegraph wires. I thought it was a wounded pigeon because the shape was grey with a flash of red. I alerted my parents and my father identified the 'pigeon' as an African Grey parrot.
Within a few minutes we had dressed and formulated a plan to catch it. I assembled a breakfast of banana, apple and guinea pig food, and we spread this on the lawn like a picnic. The parrot seemed to ponder us for a few minutes. We stood still as statues, hardly daring to breathe when it flew down to investigate further. It took an instant liking to my father and landed on his head. We carefully moved from the garden to the dining room where we secured our visitor to enjoy his breakfast. I was bursting to tell my next door neighbour, who was my best friend at the time, but I knew she wouldn't be awake. In the mean time my parents phoned the RSPCA and the local radio station in case someone was looking for it. We had the parrot for a whole day, because it wasn't collected by the RSPCA until late afternoon.
In our new home Blackdrop proved to be quite an escape artist. We frequently let her out of her hutch and allowed her the run of the garden which was pretty secure. The first time she escaped through a narrow hole in the fence, darted down the neighbour's drive, across the road and into a garden opposite. Thankfully the neighbour returned her later (rather than shooting her for chewing up his flowers!) The second time she broke through the hedge at the back of the garden and into the fields behind. The freedom must have bewildered her as she was found by a man walking his dog in the field, cowering in the open. My father built her a secure run where she lived for the rest of her days. When she died at the age of six, we replaced her with...
Two more escape artist rabbits! Fern and Bracken were literally half wild. They were born at the animal shelter after one of its residents enjoyed a chance encounter with a rather handsome wild rabbit living nearby. Within two years Fern and Bracken cracked my father's escape proof run. They'd already tried digging their way out and built a rather precarious tunnel beneath the hutch. They couldn't get any further than that because we had spread chicken wire about a foot beneath the earth. There was a danger of the tunnel collapsing inwards, along with he hutch directly above, so we had to replace the grass with concrete slabs to prevent them from digging.
One windy night in October the roof of the run fell inwards and the rabbits used it as a ladder. Bracken didn't venture far, but Fern, the more docile of the two, was nowhere in sight. We guessed she had probably fled to the fields, and knew there was a chance we wouldn't see her again. We enquired around the neighbourhood all the same, and minutes later we received a phone call from a family a few doors down who had found Fern lurking in their garden. Why she hadn't made a beeline for the fields I do not know! She was very reluctant to return home and evaded capture for a further hour! Following this incident they were grounded, until my father had made their run about as escape proof as a maximum security prison!
By this time all three guinea pigs had died of old age. Sarah died one Easter at the age of seven, and Squeak followed her about six months later. Bubble, however, lived another year and made it to the grand old age of eight! She became very frail and for the last few days of her life didn't move at all. Perhaps it would have been kinder to have had her put to sleep but she wasn't in pain and seemed very peaceful. I ensured she had food and water in reach and a comfortable bed of hay. My youngest brother David also had, during this time, bought his first pet, a hamster called Peanut. He lived two years, and his life seemed a very short one in comparison to the guinea pigs.
After Peanut's death, my brothers bought two guinea pigs, male this time. One was white with a black patch over his eye, and the other was white and ginger. They were named Rascal and Marmalade. It was May, and as the weather was warm, we out them out in their run frequently. About three weeks after their arrival, I noticed that Marmalade was quieter than usual. They were tamer than they had been, but still difficult to catch, but that day he didn't struggle at all when my mum picked him out to show my younger cousin. I pointed this out, but it was quite late and there was little we could do. The next morning we awoke to find that Marmalade had died in the night. I did some investigation into his death, and highlighted buttercup poisoning as his cause of death (buttercups are fatal to guinea pigs). However, we never knew for sure.
Rascal became very quiet when his brother was removed from the cage and, concerned for his welfare, my family bought him a new companion, Fudge. Fudge was a tiny little thing, and considerably tamer than Rascal and Marmalade had been. I picked him out of the box, and he seemed quite content to be held. However, when we introduced the two we found they didn't get on at all, and we kept the two in separate cages for the first couple of years. We introduced them gradually, and eventually they grew, if not friendly, then tolerant of each other.
(Rascal and Fudge)
They both had many health problems during that first summer, and I proved to myself that I could have been a vet, because I was always the one to diagnose them. I found out on one trip to the veterinary surgery that the vet had highly commended me! Firstly Fudge developed a dry patch beneath one of his ears, and both guinea pigs were treated for skin mites. Rascal had the mites worse than Fudge and had to wear a collar around his neck to prevent him from biting his wounds. However, the collar must have chafed, breaking the skin around his neck. The new wound became septic and the collar was hastily removed. We were given some cream to apply. As our holiday coincided with this incident, Rascal came with us. We were staying in a friend's house for the week so we were able to bring him.
A few weeks later we went away for a second time, and we returned to find that Rascal had diarrhoea, a condition that can be fatal to a guinea pig. He was rushed to the vet and given some medicine in liquid form that he was supposed to take every half an hour. It was very late, and so I volunteered to stay up and syringe feed him every half an hour. His cage was moved to the living room for my own comfort. Matt, as Rascal's owner, joined me, but fell asleep immediately. In between administering the medicine, I read Jane Eyre, and had nearly finished it at the end of my night shift.
By about four o' clock in the morning Rascal seemed more himself, and the medicine had clearly done its job. I felt able to return to bed for a kip, and sure enough he had improved vastly when I woke up a few hours later. The next few years were uneventful. When I started at university the rabbits were moved to the college where my father is a tutor. It is a college for the visually impaired and one of the courses available to students is animal care. I knew the students would benefit from my rabbits being there, and the rabbits, in turn, would get the care they needed in my absence. Rascal died in December. At four he wasn't particularly old, but didn't show any signs of suffering. His death was very sudden and unexpected. Fudge continues to live. He is beginning to show signs of old age, but he seems happy and well. And that brings me to the end of my History of Guinea Pigs. I hope you have enjoyed this series of anecdotes!