Capybara and Co. My life with Rodentia

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

My life is happily peppered with rodents. From teenhood to adulthood, a rodent in some shape or form has wrangled its way into my heart – a series of relationships that fed my nurturing nature beautifully.

Although as a youngster, I held my nose and endured my elder sister’s penchant for keeping mice - relegated to the garage for their whiffy ways - my own forays into the realm of Rodentia didn’t begin until I was a 15-year-old living in the city. No room for the coveted pony my parents allowed me to size down to a couple of guinea pigs. Napoléon and Joséphine they were called, and much like their antiquated namesakes of 225 years ago, the royal pair ruled the roost briefly, but with empirical aplomb.

The neighbour’s cat dealt to both Napoléon and Joséphine with almost the same savagery as the wars Napoléon Bonaparte led his soldiers to fight (incidentally, the first purpose-

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

My life is happily peppered with rodents. From teenhood to adulthood, a rodent in some shape or form has wrangled its way into my heart – a series of relationships that fed my nurturing nature beautifully.

Although as a youngster, I held my nose and endured my elder sister’s penchant for keeping mice – relegated to the garage for their whiffy ways – my own forays into the realm of Rodentia didn’t begin until I was a 15-year-old living in the city. No room for the coveted pony my parents allowed me to size down to a couple of guinea pigs. Napoléon and Joséphine they were called, and much like their antiquated namesakes of 225 years ago, the royal pair ruled the roost briefly, but with empirical aplomb.

The neighbour’s cat dealt to both Napoléon and Joséphine with almost the same savagery as the wars Napoléon Bonaparte led his soldiers to fight (incidentally, the first purpose-built (1850) 90-gun steam battleship shared its name with that first dear guinea pig), but not before they had spawned many litters of perfectly-formed baby guinea pigs.

Guinea pigs join the ranks of much larger mammals; giraffes, zebras, horses, camels, and pigs in that they are precocial (from the word precocious), meaning capable of being independent at an early age and able to walk and eat grass immediately. They do suckle and once weaned at a month old, can mate and bear babies or ‘pups’ themselves.

So you can imagine how quickly I accumulated a fair posse of these promiscuous wee hussies, all utterly adorable and deserving of their wide appeal. I competed proactively with the cat next door to commandeer enough ‘pinny gigs’ to make some swift financial deals with unsuspecting friends and family. Then, when the last squeak waned, I decided that both bank and cat were fat enough and abandoned my small-animal husbandry for the duration.

Life intervened most annoyingly, and it was years before I could explore my love of the gentle guinea again after several iterations of the mandatory tropical fish, cats, dogs, rabbits, budgies, ducks, goats, and chickens came and went – the more recent embodiments are still with me.

Living in the country brought me in close cahoots with the wild rat community. These friendly neighbours didn’t take long to introduce themselves and were very willing to share my personal space. The saying “There’s no free lunch” meant nothing to those rats, and they were quick to rear their curious heads when the food supplied to my hardworking chickens made life a little bit too easy for Rattus norvegicus. Things went from bad to worse when they decided that my bedroom windowsill was prime position to boldly gather, sit and wait in hope of said free lunch/breakfast/dinner and snacks. So pleased were they with the largesse, that they also wooed and won each other over, furiously, and noisily and I tired of their frisky antics until Pest Free Services provided the only fair solution.

Mice re-entered my life via my children, who loved them to bits. They were housed in the upstairs office for the sake of our olfactory senses and though well-caged, still managed to escape at frequent intervals. Some of the babies (of whom, naturally, there were many), got stuck down the back of an heirloom, antique leather armchair. There was only one way to rescue them: cut away the leather. The kids were unwittingly sold a brother and sister (mice are tricky to sex) and, though we had two cages: one pink, one blue, it all got rather mixed up. Mishaps caused by interbreeding led to mutants Clueso, Bear, and Houston (“… we have a problem”) who departed this mortal coil leaving their grief-stricken owners to deal with the dilemmas of dodgy DNA.

Harry mouse

We had a good side-line in guinea pigs going at the time as well. Enter Caramello, Benny, Tufty and Albert, Pearl, Teddy, Treasure, Molly the Beautiful and Toffee the Ratslayer – true! Finally, I could again indulge my affection for these little pets – albeit vicariously through my equally enamoured children. Our guinea pigs won prizes at school pet days and were spoilt rotten. Brushed, washed, fed treats and adored, they also bred fruitfully – and lucratively. The local pet store provided an appreciated top up to our bank accounts, even though we lost the odd one to stoats. The viciousness of those attacks made me loathe the mustelid family with a vengeance.

Molly’s beautiful babies

 

Guinea pigs have chortled their way into the cockles of many a heart worldwide. The Andean states of Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia are connected by the Andes Mountain range. Inhabitants speak a mix of Spanish, Quechua, Aymara, and 34 other indigenous languages, and the guinea pig is commonly called a ‘cuy’. Although Andean people accept that cuy are small and sweet, their sweetness is valued more in Incan cuisine than as part of their pet appeal and general cuteness.

Bear in mind that animals have unique values across all cultures and what is anathema from one perspective makes good commercial and survival sense from another.

Suffice to say that the Andean Community in South America is where folk culture lets the guinea pig take centre stage as a justifiably excellent consumable, agriculturally farmed to help alleviate subsistence poverty. Growing demand for quality meat has allowed Andean governments and charities to provide rural women with training on sustainable guinea pig farming and help with poverty, malnutrition, and equality.

Organically farmed giant guinea pigs, bred for meat and twice the size of the creatures used as pets, are being marketed as an alternative source of protein to poultry and a healthier alternative to red meat. Cuy is a popular option in traditional kebab-style street food and fine dining, and is a culinary meat staple. It apparently also makes for a very nice ice cream!

It’s thought that our domestic guinea pig Cavia porcellus (also known as the cavy) originated from the Andean area and not, as its name suggests, from Guinea at all. How it came to be called ‘guinea’ or even ‘pig’ is a mystery, as it’s not related to the pig one iota. Some suppositions maintain that the name derived from the South American area of Guiana and if you Google a map of the place, you’ll see that the outline is uncannily guinea pig-like! I have to admit the cavy does behave a little like a pig; snorting, squealing and snuffling, and they certainly do spend a lot of time eating.

Their diet needs plenty of owner intervention. Like humans, guinea pigs require a supplementary intake of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) because they can’t metabolize that vitamin themselves. Without added vitamin C, they are affected fairly rapidly by scurvy: a potentially fatal disease commonly suffered by buccaneering sailors during the mid-16th to mid-19th centuries’ ‘Age of sail’.

These previously hale and hearty merchants and warmongers often lost fifty per cent or more of their crew to scurvy – over two million sailors all told – until in 1747, Royal Navy surgeon James Lind confirmed Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral’s and surgeon John Woodall’s earlier (16th and 17th-century) claims of the curative effects of citrus fruit. In collaboration with other eminent physicians, it was proved without a doubt that scurvy could be successfully treated simply by eating the odd lemon or orange. From 1795 onward, three-quarters of an ounce of lemon juice preserved in alcohol per day was mandated to be given to every sailor serving throughout the Royal Navy, nearly banishing scurvy at a stroke.

You might now understand why your parents harped on about eating your greens – and heaven knows there are plenty to choose from as virtually all veges contain some if not heaps of vitamin C: broccoli, brussels sprouts (ewww), cabbage, potatoes, spinach, parsley, chilli peppers; and of course, the historically famous lemons, limes, oranges as well as capsicums, blackcurrants, guava, kiwifruit, papaya, and strawberries. Don’t take my word for it; just ask the nearest healthy-looking guinea pig.

History tells us that domestic guinea pigs played a big part in aiding scientific explorations into the reasons and cures for scurvy, and in many other human medical conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, and pregnancy complications.

“Holst and Frolich of Copenhagen in 1907, working on guinea pigs, produced the first systematic and convincing demonstration of experimental scurvy in animals. The finding of the exact counterpart of the human condition in the experimental animal has given impetus to carefully controlled scientific investigation of scurvy. The prophylaxis and cure being perfectly clear and evident, most of the study has centred on attempts to determine the actual changes which occur in the animal organism in absence or deficiency of vitamin C.” (American Physiological Society, 1927).

Being used for biological experimentation is a practice guinea pigs have endured for centuries. The animals were employed so frequently as experimental models that the epithet ‘guinea pig’ became used to describe a human test subject. Nowadays, guinea pigs have been largely replaced by other rodents, such as mice and rats, due to their anatomical, physiological, and genetic similarity to humans. Though a subject in their own right, these animals provide incredibly vital assistance in helping facilitate the transition of research from ‘bench to bedside’ to improve human health.

I’m positive that keeping any breed of rodent as a pet helps human health in far more prosaic – yet emotional ways, too – but guinea pigs are just next level. The emotional bond created from engaging with its personality – like the utterly gorgeous ‘popcorning’ and purring – its perfect prettiness, and its reliance on your kindness is something to be experienced.

So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that our local small-animal zoo recently acquired two more relatives of this delightful creature. I hightailed it down there and gazed enraptured at rock cavies perched, yes, on a rock, and South American capybara couple Luis Suarez and Fernando softly snoozing in the sun.

Capybaras are socially gregarious animals and usually live in groups of 10-20 individuals. Close relatives as the case may be, though guinea pigs quite enjoy a quick bath but won’t beg for one, capybaras seek out water, and in fact, their scientific name Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris comes from the Greek hydro (water).

The capybaras at the zoo were living their name when I visited and bathing luxuriously in their fancy pool. They’re semiaquatic and can hold their breaths for up to five minutes at a time and so prefer a watery environment – which is what the kind folk at Brooklands Zoo have supplied.

The image of a capybara features on the 2-peso coin of Uruguay. To me, that value should be much higher because, like guinea pigs, these members of the Rodentia order are brilliant examples of a blend of practical utility in their countries of origin and show-stopping pet appeal in the west.

They are also the world’s largest rodent, growing up to 67kg – and wouldn’t I just love to have a few free-ranging in my backyard! I’ve got just the right spot.

To immerse yourself in more articles like this, Subscribe or Log in