The Ecphorizer

Prolegomena to a Pet-Guide
Gareth Penn

Issue #10 (June 1982)

When you tire of dogs and such, consider the humble boa constrictor

My friend Ralph, who teaches at a major university, was going over an assignment with his class. The text included the word Meerschweinchen, German for "guinea pig." On being told that its literal meaning is "little sea-pig", one

My friend Betty keeps a tank of octopi in the kitchen.

of his students demanded to know why. "It isn't a pig, and it doesn't come from the sea," the student said. Ralph retorted with what he thought was a crusher. "It isn't from Guinea either -- so why do we call it 'guinea pig'?" After a moment's silence, someone piped up, "It's because it's used in so many laboratory experiments!"

[quoteright]Our guinea pig was a replacement for Broderick, the epilectic rat. He used to have violent seizures three or four times a day. I took him to the vet to see what could be done about it, and he said they didn't have an EEG machine that small. Other than the epilepsy, he was a nice, inoffensive little animal and a pleasure to have around. But one day, he had one grand mal too many - it was as grand as a rat can have - and he made like a toad.

My son just had to have that guinea pig when Mitch got one. Whatever Mitch has is the summum bonum. There's a natural law that says that things little boys just have to have soon lose their appeal and are forgotten. This guinea pig set what must be a world record in appealloss, but it refuses to be forgotten.

If you've never owned one, you will not appreciate how it is that such a darling-looking little animal can wear out its welcome so quickly. The beast's metabolism appears to be, pound for pound, as voracious as a fast breeder reactor. It must be fed constantly. If the Horn of Plenty isn't disgorging its contents into the cage every minute of the day, the guinea pig will do its impression of a steam calliope, tooting and shrieking in tones that can be heard a mile away. It does this number every time you open the refrigerator door. When it isn't eating, it is getting ready for its next feeding-frenzy by noisily sharpening its little incisors on the bars of its cage. The most favorable time for doing this appears to be about 3 a.m.

This is a family magazine, I know. But I have to say this anyway. The guinea pig's excretions are exceedingly repulsive. Its cage has to be cleaned out 3-4 times a week to keep flies from breeding in it.

We have a friend named Tibor, who came over from Hungary a long time ago but still has a thick accent. The accent is such that I expect at any minute to hear him say, "Ah - the cheeldren of the night!" Once, I unburdened myself to him about the tribulations of guinea-pig ownership. He is well-educated, and I asked him if he just happened to know the life expectancy of guinea pigs. We had already had ours for two-and-a-half years too many.

"It all depends," he replied with a Transylvanian drawl, "on hvat you feeeed it."If you or your children want to keep pets, there are a lot better choices than guinea pigs. There are animals that are nasty adn objectionable but still have some redeeming virtue. Charles Steinmetz, who did more than any other individual to make Genera Electric what it is today, used to keep pet Gila monsters. There was a dean at Oxford who is supposed to have kept a whole menagerie in his digs. There is a story about one of his tea-guests remarking on unusual crunching noises coming from under the chesterfield. "Oh that!" his host said. "That's just the jackal eating one of the hedgehogs!"

I used to keep geese. Geese will mow your lawn for you. They will eat, and recycle into compost, most everything you now throw out: artichoke leaves, banana peels, eggshells, wilted salad - you name it. It's easier to list that they won't eat: bacon grease, coffee grounds, aluminum foil. Geese will warn you of invading Gauls, and they don't need to be attack-trained. And there's a financial benefit. I used to sell my goose eggs for $1.25 each to a local sarisari store. This idyll came to an end when a goose-poisoner did in my little flock, probably with a strychnine-coated canteloupe rind. If you get geese, train them to eat only the garbage that you feed them.

Sheep make good pets, too. Not so much because they are affectionate or train easily. It's mainly that sheep do an excellent job of keeping up the firebreak around your house and making all those weed into lambchops. When Brandy had her twins, Ugly and Stupid, I was struck by the profound revelation that they were made entirely out of grass. They also made it easier for me to get to sleep. When the guinea pig woke me up at 3 a.m. by chewing on the bars of her cage, I would go out and count Brandy. It was dull, just counting the same sheep over and over. The arrival of the twins made things more interesting.

I'm not partial to dogs. Of all the animals that people keep, dogs are the ones whose drawbacks are surpassed only by the guinea pig's. Did you realize that the 40 million dogs in this country deposit about 5.5 million tons of fecal matter on our republic every year, none of which receives even primary sewage treatment? You can't say that of the guinea pigs, whatever their other defects. There is study of the ecology of urban dogs in print that says that dogs, far from reducing the rat population, create conditions that actually foster the breeding of rats. And other than pet cobras and grizzly bears, dogs are the only pet species known to attack and kill humans.

Boa constrictors are nice, but they have a way of slinking off when you're not looking and turning up in unexpected places. I know that because friends of mine lost their boa that way and didn't find him until three months later when they were going through the couch looking for lost change. They also had a hamster that got out and nested in their closet. They figured out where it was when Marian noticed that all of her long dresses had been hemmed exactly to the height of a hamster standing up on its hind legs. They solved the problem by digging the boa out of the couch and locking him up in the closet for 24 hours.

My friend Betty keeps a tank of octopi in the kitchen. They aren't much trouble, if you overlook the time one of them got out and wound up in the high-voltage section of her television set. About the only other hazard is that your husband may get into the frozen brine-shrimp during a commercial break in the late movie, taking it for ice cream, as hers did. He thought it was Baskin-Robbins' 32nd flavor.

Everybody knows somebody who owns an unusual pet. And now that I think about it, no home with a small boy who just has to have small pet animals ought to be without a boa constrictor as well - just in case. Tibor was wrong. It all depends - on hvat you feed it to.  

The sage of Napa Mensa, he wrote this month's article to exhibit his deep attachment to the animal kingdom.  We are thinking of recommending him for the job of Head Keeper at the Eureka Zoo.

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