Guinea pig parenting is a surprisingly full-time job. Recently we needed to go away for a weekend and, it being winterish, this meant organising pigsitters to put the beasts to bed and release them in the morning.
We took up local offers of pigsitting instead of palming them off onto our usual (and most enthusiastic) pigsitter (my mother) who lives two and a half hours’ drive north.
The tricky bit is catching the pigs at night. For this I enlisted the help of Roger and Christopher, who are experienced (three black cats and two fat rats – my reasoning: transferrable skills). They would catch the pigs on nights 1 and 2 and put them inside the house to bed.
For morning release I scheduled (a) my father, who was staying in town overnight, and (b) our next door neighbours.
With regard to (a) – my father loves the guinea pigs dearly but has a nonspecific phobia (transferred from dogs). Catching is out of the question. But my father would release them (preferably with gloves and tongs) on morning 1.
With regard to (b) – our neighbours love the guinea pigs dearly but have several bad legs. Catching would be hazardous. Our neighbours would release them (carefully to avoid tripping over fences) on morning 2.
We have three pigs at present, the glorious and adorable Phoenix having met an untimely end on my last trip away. It was nobody’s fault, but being away makes me anxious about drafts, and frosts, and nasty infections.
So we have Chickpea the Blind, Zeus Nutkin, and Bramble Blackbelt.
Bramble has been sequestered behind a safety screen since he bit Phoenix on the bottom and left vampire holes.
Chickpea usually chases baby Zeus joyfully and relentlessly. But all good things come to an end. Zeus chose the day before our sojourn to teach Chickpea a lesson.
I tended Chickpea’s tattered ear and wounded ego, and rearranged the guinea pig palaces. Chickpea’s reign of pleasure is over. There is now a safety screen between himself and Zeus.
Friday evening (night 1)
At 9pm my father calls. Where, he enquires tentatively, did I say the pigs were being put to bed?
There’s not a pig anywhere, indoors or out. My father has been crawling about the lawn, checking with a torch.
On the precipice of anxious-mother hysteria, I urge Pete (the much calmer guinea pig father) to ring Roger and Christopher. I am having visions of three very fat black cats.
This is what happened
They forgot the house key. No key, no beds.
They took the pigs home, in their pockets.
Bramble thought he was being pignapped and bit Roger on the finger. His upper fangs gripped Roger’s nail and his lower razorlike incisors pierced the flesh. He hung on like a bulldog. Roger has a high tolerance for pain but this was unexpected.
Christopher screamed at Roger to stop him hurling Bramble (reflexively) into a briar patch. ‘Merridy’s Bramble!’ he yelled. ‘It’s Merridy’s Bramble! Merridy!’ He was imagining, he told me later, my returning to a corpse. This would have been nobody’s fault, but another untimely death would have been traumatic.
Roger controlled his reflexes heroically and stuffed Bramble in his pocket. Bramble let go. His back legs dangled from the pocket. Roger sucked his finger all the way home. Zeus and Chickpea were in other pockets. They didn’t bite anyone.
Nobody phoned anybody because they were traumatised by Bramble’s teeth.
My father came home to empty beds.
Back at the ranch, Roger stops bleeding.
Chickpea lolls in his new bed on top of the fat rats’ terrarium and Zeus skulks underneath. Bramble lurks in a box. They have cushions. They have blankets. They have fresh carrots. The three black cats are banished to another room.
Bramble is excused on the grounds of mistaking Roger for Zeus – not a predictable error but feasible under stress.
Bramble and Zeus eye their captors with suspicion.
Chickpea the Blind nibbles his carrot serenely.
Bramble goes headfirst into his pillowcase and leaves his buttocks outside.
The phone rings and it’s Peter, with a hysterical guinea pig mother visualising pythonesque black cats with distended bellies.
All’s well that ends well
My father was relieved of glove-and-tong duties, Roger fell in love with Chickpea, and nobody tripped over any fences.
The pigs were in bed when I arrived home from the airport.
They looked at me warily, as if to say, WTF?