I understand the principles of natural selection just fine. Still, it is hard to accept that the guinea pig wasn’t designed for the sole purpose of eliciting adulation. The little creature’s high-pitched warbles, baked potato physique, inquisitive black marble eyes and big goofy nose make it look less like a rodent and more like a CGI addition to a kid’s movie developed around toy sales.
But it is a rodent, and sadly that goes hand-in-hand with mistreatment. While the guinea pig hasn’t got to worry about glue and spring traps, it shares the hamster’s fate of having become a disposable pet – something for parents to buy their kids when a dog is out of the question, and whose untimely death means little less than the repurposing of a shoe box.
Alicia, the founder of Piggy Haven in Brooklyn Park, won’t have it. Her mission is to take in and rehome guinea pigs to whom life has been unfair. Her animal rescue is the only one of its kind in the state of Minnesota.
“To be honest, I made the same mistakes as everyone else when I got my first guinea pig,” said Alicia. “I didn’t know it would need so large a cage, fresh hay and vegetables every day, and at least one companion. Guinea pigs are social animals and can actually die of loneliness. In Switzerland it’s illegal to own only one.
“My first guinea pig died in two weeks, so I went to the books and learned more about them. When I got a new one I made sure to give it a bigger cage, the correct diet, and most importantly a friend. They lived together for a very long time, which my daughter was delighted for.
“You know, they’re a lot smarter than people give them credit for. You can teach guinea pigs tricks. A few of them can even remember their names. They’re not as quick to learn as dogs, but they’re also not as needy. They’re more like cats in that regard. They’ll let you know when they want attention. And just like they all come in different colors, they all have their own personalities as well. They get in quarrels with their siblings and throw their dishes around when they get in a mood. I remember Bongo in particular. He thought he was a macho man and would sometimes kick my poor German Shepherd out of his own bed!
“I started Piggy Haven in 2010. At the time I was going to school to be a veterinary technician, and I took a pocket pet class. The guinea pigs used as teaching tools were going to be donated for snake food afterward, but I volunteered to find them all good homes instead.
“I eventually put up an ad on Craigslist offering to take in more unwanted guinea pigs, but I had no idea what I was signing up for. To date we have taken in thousands of pigs, which we’re only able to do thanks to our volunteer foster homes. And because so many people consider them throwaway pets, we do wind up taking them back sometimes.
“We cared for one little girl named Mango. We had adopted her out, but her new cage wasn’t properly set up. Her adopters refused to get her medical treatment after she received a terrible eye injury. When I came to pick her up, Mango ran right up to me – she remembered who I was after three months and knew I’d come to help her. She wound up having her eye surgically removed and becoming one of our ‘safety pigs,’ who teach the importance of cage safety.
“This job is more emotional than it is physical. Caring for 50 guinea pigs at any given time isn’t as difficult as biting my tongue when I see the conditions these creatures are so often kept in. You have to learn not to pass judgement when you go to pick up a guinea pig, or else whoever’s abandoning it might take offense and not let you take it to safety. That’s the hardest part of what I do.
“The number one question I get is ‘Why guinea pigs?’ I say ‘Why not?’ Somebody has to help them. That somebody might as well be me.”
It might as well be you, too. To learn how to foster guinea pigs, adopt them, or donate toward their care, please visit piggyhaven.org.
By David Scheller