Andrea Orr: Lessons in loving and losing a pet

My daughter researched how long the guinea pigs would live and when she learned that they sometimes made it to eight years. Photo / 123RF
My daughter researched how long the guinea pigs would live and when she learned that they sometimes made it to eight years. Photo / 123RF

What happens when you combine an animal-loving child with an animal-indifferent mother?

You relent and get a guinea pig.

A dog would be too much work and too much money. And while a goldfish might be the ultimate choice for the pet-indifferent parent, it seemed cruel to offer that to a kid who was constantly running up and smooching every furry creature she encountered.

But a guinea pig seemed manageable. There had been one in the day-care center my daughter had attended years ago, and as far as I could tell, all it did was sit there. A note was sent home the day the day care guinea pig died, asking us to tell our kids that it had just gone away for a while, and explaining that the teacher was sad and would be taking the day off. Well that's a bit much, I'd thought at the time. Even if you were an animal lover, could you really mourn a rodent?

I wasn't about to cuddle up to our pet guinea pig. I certainly would never call in sick when it eventually died.

I didn't see the appeal of a creature with zero apparent personality. But I decided I could live with it. So last Christmas, my daughter awoke to a cage and a furry creature under the tree. Or rather, next to the tree. Adding a guinea pig cage was a like adding a piece of small furniture to our house. Still, it didn't take long for me to see that the lost square footage and the subtle smell of wood chips in our home was worth it.

The new toys were tossed aside before winter break was over, but our new pet became an ongoing source of fascination that entertained my daughter and brought out her nurturing side. She started insisting that play dates come to our house, and when the weather got warmer she took it upon herself to give the pig weekly sponge baths on our front lawn.

None of this was a surprise. My daughter is a real animal whisperer. But what I had not expected was that I too would be won over. We invested in a larger, more comfortable cage, researched different types of hay and bedding, and started visiting the pet store for fun to observe the other caged animals. And then a few months later, we got a second guinea pig. I found I couldn't dismiss what was clearly Pig 1's loneliness and I started to worry it was ailing. When I read a New York Times story, "Is your pet lonely and bored?" my conscience got the best of me.

My daughter and her beloved guinea pig. Photo / Andrea Orr
My daughter and her beloved guinea pig. Photo / Andrea Orr

Our two guinea pigs proved to be more work than I had imagined. At some point when I was cleaning out their cages it occurred to me that for all the joking about car seats or minivans or single-family homes being the ultimate symbol of parenthood, the really telling symbol was probably a guinea pig: a pet that only a reluctant pet owner would get (the animal lovers would go for the dogs or the cats), but one that would nonetheless find its way into the home as the child's wants and needs slowly overtook your own so that at the end of a long day you were sweeping up wood chips and picking pellets out of the cage as your child slept.

Despite the work, I found the pigs delightful. They squeaked hello when we came home, chased each other around the cage, and late into the night when the house was dark, they seemed to go back and forth in a conversation that was incomprehensible to us, but sounded quite involved. It was sort of like that talkative, wordless teacher on Charlie Brown cartoons. Pig 1 one stopped sitting lazily in its cage and became more animated now that she had a friend.

Friends teased that I was crazy to open my home to a pair of rodents. My daughter, meanwhile, wrote a poem about guinea pigs for her school yearbook, and when her ninth birthday came around she asked for a cake decorated with two guinea pigs. I rolled my eyes at her growing obsession, yet when we went to see The Secret Lives of Pets, I found the guinea pig was my favorite character. I enjoyed how it wandered endlessly through the building's ventilation system trying to find its way back to its cage and was amused when it uttered a profanity only a guinea pig owner could appreciate: "Oh, pellets."

My daughter researched how long the guinea pigs would live and when she learned that they sometimes made it to eight years, she assumed they'd still be alive when she was well into her teenage years. But our adventure in pets turned out to be a crash course in their life cycle: Shortly before the school year started, Pig 2 died a sudden and untimely death. It was not yet fully grown.

If there is a hierarchy of pets, you have to figure that the guinea pig ranks significantly below the dogs and cats that are pretty universally beloved, perhaps a rung or two above rats or mice, or the goldfish that can be replaced without your kids being any wiser. That's at least how my non-pet loving self saw it. So, even as I gradually took to our guinea pigs and found myself occasionally watching cute guinea pig videos on YouTube, I was careful not to post Facebook photos or make the pigs my screen saver.

I was struck by how much the loss moved me. No, I didn't call in sick. But I was briefly moved to tears, mainly for my daughter, who felt the loss profoundly. She cried herself to sleep for several nights and asked all those deep questions about death, including this killer, "Why did she have to come into the world if she was going to leave so soon?"

Good question, I think, as I remind myself of the blessing that she's asking this question about a guinea pig. Because I know that after all, it is still just a guinea pig.

I suppose there are a lot of teaching opportunities in here somewhere but I haven't yet figured out what a child is supposed to learn from the loss of a pet, especially a pet rodent who died young.

One thing I have learned is that pets get the best of you. If you get a pet, no matter how reluctantly, you'll probably be won over. And that means more upside and ultimately more downside too.

Which is something to consider as I mull over a possible Pig 3.

Andrea Orr is a Washington writer and mother.

- Washington Post

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