Guinea pigs sleep with their eyes open.
They are prey animals, herbivores with no real natural defenses, so they never close their eyes. You know when that they’re asleep because they lie down relaxed and motionless like a library statue of a lion. You know they’re afraid if they are motionless but standing up, alert. You know they’re happy when they mill around, exploring, and chew on things. But they’ll go right back to being motionless with terror at the slightest provocation. They can’t defend themselves. They are naturally anxious, as a necessity. Without anxiety they’d be eaten.
We have had McFluff for just over a year now. Adrienne held his birthday the day he got back from the misbegotten trip to Columbus. McFluff did not like to ride in the car back to Steubenville, but he enjoyed getting back to his larger cage and he especially loved his presents, a two-roomed house for hiding in and a new chew toy.
“He’s so happy to be home,” Adrienne remarked as he popcorned around his cage, settling in.
He is always happy to be home. When we first brought him back from the pet shop, he was motionless with terror, hiding under the ramp in his cage or burrowed in his hay hopper. It took days to get him used to us enough that he wouldn’t dive under the ramp or into the hay when we came into the room. Now, he’s at his ease with us. He hardly ever darts away when Adrienne reaches to pick him up. She likes to take him out of the cage to do school work with us, where he sits on her lap sniffing the textbook. He has a bad habit of trying to eat the fake paper money when we learn math. He likes to be read to, because it means someone is paying attention to him. He likes to sit next to Adrienne on the sofa while she watches videos, and he likes to sit on my shoulder while I write.
The best part of McFluff’s day, though, is just before bedtime. Just before bedtime, Adrienne takes him upstairs to sit with us on my bed. While we chat and make up dollhouse stories, McFluff goes spelunking under the quilts. He burrows underneath them to find a nice dark cave; then we pull the quilts off and ruffle them up so that McFluff can go exploring and find another cave. And while we chat and he explores his caves, he sings. He makes a low, chattering, warbling sound that goes on and on, a noise he doesn’t make when he’s in the cage playing by himself.
Adrienne looked up the meaning of the guinea pig song in an informational YouTube video. “It means he’s happy!” she told me. When a guinea pig is annoyed, he’ll vibrate. When he’s scared, he will freeze stock still. When he is hungry or has another need, he’ll shriek loudly to get attention. But when he’s content, he wanders around, chewing on things, singing.
After he has his bedtime song, when it’s time for us all to go to sleep, I tell Adrienne: “Pamper that pig and put him to bed.”
And Adrienne goes to the kitchen and throws together a salad of spring greens and sliced carrots with a strip of apple, and serves it to McFluff in his cage with a fresh dish of water. Then she turns off the light, and then she goes to bed herself.
“That pig is always happy, because of you,” I said to her one day. “The only thing he knows is being happy and safe with people to love him, because of you. And someday, in two or three years when he’s very old for a guinea pig and he goes to Heaven, he will have had a whole lifetime, a childhood and an adulthood and an old age, of feeling happy and safe. If he’d lived in a different home, he might have known something else. He might have always been scared or hungry or lonely. But because he’s with you, he knows happiness. That’s a power you have. You can do that for animals and people.”
And she can.
And we all can.
When creatures that can feel are around you, you can help to make them feel happy and safe.
I can’t think of anything better in the world to do.
image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.