An Angel in Pet Heaven

John and Angel, 2006

John and Angel, 2006

After nearly seven years as our pet, our guinea pig Angel died two days ago.

We knew this day was coming. Angel was at the upper end of the actuarial tables for guinea pigs; we know of many fellow guinea pig owners who had far less time with them. Guinea pigs are in the same temporary-pet class as rats and hamsters, Eastertime baby chicks, most bunnies, and goldfish. It’s no wonder that “small pet care” has such a tiny stretch of shelf space in the local Target.

Even if they live to an old age, Guinea pigs don’t insist on a bond with their humans like dogs and cats do. They don’t climb into your lap and rub up against your leg. They come out of their plastic igloos just long enough to grab a proffered carrot, then scramble back into it to eat in solitary peace. I’ve heard of several people who’ve trained their guinea pigs – including our friend Bernie, whose guinea pig Elwood had as much free range as an indoor cat — but Angel was more private.

Yet we bonded with this little rodent and she became part of our lives, even though we never expected her to share our lives for so long. She was an eighth birthday gift to our son John, now 14, who had fallen in love with his friend Greg’s guinea pig. We found her at the local Petco, where we had a choice of just two guinea pigs since most pet stores now steer people towards adopting small pets. One was a docile brown one who kept to herself in the corner of the shared cage. The other was a calico-patterned, spikey-haired furball who careened around the cage and squealed like a middle-school girl with a crush. Streaks of brown fur around her left eye looked like smudged mascara on Courtney Love.

We brought this punk rocker home, along with $75 worth of guinea pig accessories, and presented her to John the evening before his eighth birthday. What do you want to name her?, Bob and I asked. The answer was immediate: “Angel Happy Face.” A Sandra Dee-type name for a head-banging hunk of fur, but she became Angel.

We had visions of John becoming an ever-loving, responsible pet owner but in truth this did not happen right away. Angel was the focus of much attention at first but in time he had to be reminded to clean her cage, check her bowl and water and do other maintenance. Eventually, after a few years of nagging, it became automatic. Bob and I were equally guilty of less than hands-on treatment; we held her constantly when she was new to our home but less as time went on. Still, she demanded little and gave us so much back. When we held her she’d make a low, slightly rough purring sound as we stroked her fur. Her eyes never blinked, a constant source of amazement.

In the early years we would let Angel run around our screened-in back porch on warm summer days, and often all three of us had to chase her down to put her back into her cage. Our furry fugitive would run away from us, squealing and dodging the whole way, until we chased her into a corner and dropped a small towel on her, stunning her just long enough to bundle her into her cage. Eventually, we discovered to our great delight that we could train her to return to her cage. We would let her run around; then place the cage in the middle of the porch, open the hinged drawbridge-styled door until it touched the floor, create a path with slices of strawberry, then get out of the way and out of sight. Angel would eventually nibble her way back home; we’d shut the door as soon as she let herself in. Eventually the strawberries were not necessary. We’d put the cage in the middle of the porch after letting Angel play for an hour; and our pet would approach her home, mysteriously circle three times around it, then ascend the drawbridge and enter.

After Angel began chewing our wicker porch furniture we had to consider other options. One Father’s Day John, Bob and Bob’s father Gene built a four-by-six-foot outdoor cage from wooden planks and chicken wire. Angel would spend many summer hours there, in the shade, happily nibbling on blades of grass.

Angel did not have a lot of contact with other animals – except for one wild afternoon romp on our back porch with T-Bone, my daughter’s friend’s chinchilla — but we had great friends who cared for her when we were on vacation, some of whom had pets. Our friend Darren, who raised bunnies, would include Angel as part of his menagerie; he and his children would hold Angel while they watched TV. Angel also stayed over Greg’s house and hung out with his guinea pig, Mocho, and his yellow parakeet, Twinkie. We took care of Twinkie recently when his family went on vacation. Angel helped us bond more deeply with our friends.

Several months ago, when we brought our dog Gus home, we introduced them to each other carefully. Gus was curious at first, then recoiled from Angel when she began squealing at him. He eventually started ignoring her. Since dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which remotely resemble guinea pigs, we watched them closely when they were together, but for the most part they left each other alone.

Gus is a more interactive pet. He climbs onto our laps, stares up at us appealingly, whines when he wants attention. He is impossible to ignore, unlike Angel, who was content to be by herself and whistled for us only when she was hungry. Angel taught us our limits as pet owners: we needed pets that talked to us more and gave us more love. At times, even before Gus came home, we worried that we were not giving Angel the attention she deserved, even though we lavished her with fresh carrots, parsley and lettuce until she grew so fat she waddled.

A few months ago I noticed gray streaks in her coarsening fur, some caked spots at the roots and more shedding than usual. And over the past year Angel changed from doing her business in one corner of her cage to being more indiscriminate. She developed a skin infection three months ago and we had to take her to a vet for the first time. Sometimes Angel would just peek her head out of her blue igloo long enough to grab the baby carrot we poked through her cage; then quickly retract back inside.

Over the past few days Angel was not herself. We were accustomed to hearing her squeal when we first entered the kitchen; she knew our footsteps meant a carrot was forthcoming. The past few days were silent and we had to remember to bring her something. Three nights ago John tried to pet her and she bit him, something she had never done before.

Two afternoons ago I found her dead. We told John when we picked him up from school. John does not cry that often and we wondered how he would react. His face crumpled in the car and he did not say much. When he got home, he and Bob dug a hole in a wooded area of our back yard, not far from where we stored the outdoor cage they had built for her, and buried our pet in her blue igloo. I moved a bunch of newly blooming crocuses there and we marked the grave with a rock.

Then we cried for the pet who had outlived the actuarial tables and our attention spans for her, who had given us so much and had asked for so little.