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February 08, 2005


I haven't written much about the fifth mammalian member of our household, Harley the guinea pig. And the way things are going, I suspect I don't have a huge amount of time left to do so.

We've had guinea pigs around the house for almost a decade. The first one, Stripey, was supposed to be Becky's classroom pet, living with us on weekends. About a week after she came home we realized she was pregnant. Not long after I cracked a beer and watched her give birth to four little squealing furballs.

Stripey and her litter were pretty messed up. Among other medical problems, they all had congenital dental malformations that interfered with eating. Little Sister, one of the sweetest animals I have ever known, died at the petsitters' when Becky and Zeke and I were traveling cross-country. Stripey'd died shortly before that. We adopted out two of the other pigs, and kept the first-born, who was renamed by each successive class Becky had. His final name was Mr. Bear.

Mr. Bear lived for a few years, but never really reached normal weight for a guinea pig, and had other problems as well. He died at about age four.

A couple weeks before he died, a co-worker of Becky's offered her a healthy baby guinea pig from her pet's new litter. Becky was reluctant - we'd had heartbreak after heartbreak with Stripey's litter - but brought him home on a trial basis. I got home, she handed the baby to me, and he snuggled right up against my collar bone and started cooing. I informed her she was not taking him back.

We sat out in the backyard in Richmond that evening, the little pig tucked under my chin, and as the sun went down a neighbor fired up his hog and rode away. The new guy purred loudly when he heard the motorcycle engine. I looked at Becky. "His name's Harley, I'm thinking."

A week later, he took a chunk out of my right shoulder.

Harley loved Mr. Bear, and would spend hours cuddling with and grooming him. I think he made Mr. Bear's last couple of weeks far more pleasant. When Mr. Bear died more or less in the arms of his favorite student from Becky's class, Harley inherited the big cage. Within a couple months, he outweighed Mr. Bear by a factor of two.

He was sweet and cuddly, having learned that people were not to be bitten. We found it difficult to persuade him not to piss on us, which served as a disincentive to long bouts of lap time, but he didn't seem to mind, happily accepting whatever attention we had for him, coyly giggling and running under his box when we tried to pick him up.

And through it all, his appetite was nothing short of prodigious. We'd put him on the lawn and he'd mow it. Piles of weeds were processed in short order. We spent many dollars on carrots each week. It was thus alarming a couple years ago when we realized that a carrot had stayed in his cage for a few days without being so much as nibbled. Off to the vet he went. The news was bleak. His teeth were seriously screwed up, growing across his mouth so that he couldn't chew without biting his tongue, pushing backward down through his jaw. His incisors weren't meeting properly in front. The vets shook their heads. He hadn't eaten for a few days, and guinea pigs must eat more or less constantly to keep things moving in their gastrointestinal tracts. Otherwise, they're prone to life-threatening infections. The vets said they weren't sure if Harley would make it. But they put him under, trimmed his teeth, and sent him home along with a carton of Critical Care (dehydrated vegetable paste) and a plastic syringe. Becky had some time off from work, and she spent much of that time sitting in a chair with a towel on her lap, shoving the syringe into Harley's mouth.

We'd force-fed Mr. Bear for a few weeks, and it was an ordeal for him and us. We weren't looking forward to doing it again. But Harley went for that syringe like a calf to an udder. He would eat his fill and then flop over on his side, laying on Becky's lap the picture of contentment. Within a few weeks he'd regained all his weight and then some, and his teeth were functioning more or less normally. But we still brought him into the den and put him on our toweled laps. He'd roll over almost immediately and fall asleep, his happiness evident.

The tooth trimming became somewhat of a routine. I watched him eat, and as soon as he showed signs of trouble eating a carrot or somesuch, off he went to the vet. The vet told us about a fund available for medical treatments for classroom pets: Becky's students wrote a stack of "grant proposals" mainly consisting of crayon drawings of guinea pigs on examining tables, with accompanying text along the lines of "Please let Harley live!"

And he did. All he needed was a little help. I have rarely seen as stong a will to live: all he asked was the ability to chew and he'd take care of the rest. Hand him food and his delight is palpable. He is the embodiment of joy in the food chain.

Last month I saw that a carrot had stayed uneaten for a day and a half. Becky took Harley to the vet while I was in the Mojave. The vet looked at his x-rays, and said that his jaw had eroded to the point of uselessness: there was no ball left to fit into the socket. She trimmed his teeth anyway, and asked us to keep a close eye on him: if, as she expected, he couldn't eat after the pain wore off, a difficult decision would be necessary.

I called from the Mojave, and Becky said Harley seemed to be languishing. She wondered if she'd made the wrong decision, whether she'd put him through unnecessary pain if he was only going to die anyway.

I came home a day early, spent some time on the chair with the towel in my lap, feeding Harley Critical Care a bit at a time from the wrong end of a fork. He seemed glad to have me home. He started to perk up a little, even purring after an hour or so.

He's eating again now. The vet figures that masses of scar tissue are holding his jaw in place, allowing him to chew for the time being. Carrots are once again disappearing from the floor of his cage within an hour or two. Chard leaves and handsful of hay vanish in minutes. I expect we won't put him through another bout of dental work, but his exuberant appetite still echoes crunchily through our house, for now at least.

Posted by Chris Clarke at February 8, 2005 05:32 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Some critters just have all the luck in their parent/owners.

Posted by: OGeorge at February 8, 2005 06:13 PM
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I am honor-bound to mention the time he was in my lap and the hawk almost took him out of it. He didn't even pee on me during the life-threateningness. I do love Mr. Harley.

Posted by: Allison at February 8, 2005 07:32 PM
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Harley has made my morning, Chris, and probably changed the way I will think about guinea pigs from now on. Thanks for this great story (love the name, by the way; maybe the chunk was worth it.)

Posted by: beth at February 9, 2005 06:41 AM
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sounds like Harley has good parents :)

Posted by: Anne at February 9, 2005 08:09 AM
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Very cute, and one life-loving little guy.

Posted by: leslee at February 9, 2005 11:21 AM
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Guinea pigs are so cool, and this one sounds like a Cavy among Cavies. :)

(Would giving him sticks or blocks of wood to gnaw on help with the teeth? I seem to remember having to do that with my rabbits when I was a kid.)

Posted by: Rana at February 9, 2005 12:36 PM
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It would help if he actually chewed on them. We offer them to him all the time, and he's never indulged.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at February 9, 2005 02:47 PM
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Oh, that's frustrating. Reminds me of my former housemate's cat who refused to drink water and kept getting his little urinary tract blocked as a result. (Inevitably requiring a 2am trip to the emergency vet, too.) We eventually had to start making cat food "soup" to get enough liquid into him.

Maybe you could freeze the carrots?

Posted by: Rana at February 10, 2005 05:18 PM
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