When our bunny got killed by a hawk a couple months ago, my son tearfully mentioned that he wanted another small pet, all his own. In my moment of profound weakness brought on by our family distress, of course I said, "sure."
I quizzed my associate Dr. Elizabeth Rogers, local small mammal expert, about what the best little pet would be. No more rabbits for us — too hard on the allergies and the whole outdoor predator thing is just too much. She recommended a guinea pig, but those are too big. I wanted a small pet that doesn’t take up a lot of room. So she recommended gerbils. She said they tend to be much healthier and friendlier than the hamsters.
So I did my due diligence and researched gerbils. They live 3-5 years, are friendly, social, and super cute. A ten-gallon aquarium is plenty of space. As luck would have it, our 5+ year old hermit crab recently died, leaving us just the required area. I really just wanted one gerbil, but Dr. Rogers said they become despondent when alone and really need a buddy. So, two it is.
My Facebook friends made lots of snide “disposable pet” comments. I laughed uncomfortably.
Turns out it was hard to find a pair of gerbils in June. Apparently there is a run on gerbils when school lets out, when kids get them as rewards for good grades. Then demand goes down with supplies. While my mom called around to all the pet stores within a 20-mile radius, I got on my trusty iPhone and tried to find a reputable gerbil breeder through the American Gerbil Society. (That’s how I’d approach finding a puppy, right? Why not a gerbil?)
There were no breeders in the area, but mom found us a pair nearby at a pet store. Thus we got Jake and Jacob.
Let me just say they are the cutest little critters. They snuggle together, groom each other, and dig tunnels through their substrate. They occasionally get into arguments and poor Jake gets stuck sleeping upstairs (I bought them a wire cage attachment that hooks to the top of the aquarium so they have a two story gerbil condo. Upstairs is the exercise and food area, downstairs is for sleep, tunnels and bathroom). They quickly make up though and go back to sleeping curled up in a little gerbil ying-yang configuration.
Monday we discovered that they love, love, love hay. They suck it up like spaghetti noodles. Jake likes to cram as much as he can into his mouth so that wads of it stick out the sides like giant whiskers.
The kids and I just like to watch them. The way they play and eat. I love the single-minded intensity with which they run on their little wheel, like it’s not an exercise in futility at all.
We don’t handle them a ton because we are deathly afraid one will get loose and the dogs will get them. The last thing we need is another pet eaten by a predator. They don’t mind being picked up though; we transport them in their gerbil balls to their play pen in the bath tub. (Double safety: If they climb out of the pen, they’re in the empty tub. Just to be extra safe, the bathroom door is closed and the dogs are in their crates. We were very traumatized by the bunny killing.) I had five kids stuffed in my guest bathroom for a good 45 minutes on Monday, playing with the gerbils.
So I’m now more than a little bothered by the "disposable pet" comments. I’m not sure they love us, but they’re cute and sweet and we love them. We take good care of them and hopefully they will live long healthy lives.
That’s the best any pet owner can hope for, right?
Dr. Vivian Cardoso- Carroll