November 23, 2012 7:01 pm

Alas, poor Olek …

How do you comfort a grieving guinea pig?
Illustration of a grieving guinea pig©Lucas Varela

We’ve spent the past fortnight trying to cheer up a grieving guinea pig. At least we think he’s grieving. Outwardly, there is not a lot of difference between a normal pig (eats, sleeps, defecates and mopes around the cage) and a grief-stricken one (eats a bit less, sleeps, defecates and mopes around the cage). He could be bereft at the loss of his brother or just be bored. Olek (that’s what happens when you let an eight-year-old name a pet) does seem rather listless, but after four years he’s probably discovered all there is to discover about his cage; I’ve lived in the same house for 10 years and I have to say the excitement of exploring the upstairs bathroom has all but gone for me too.

There are, however, few sights more pathetic than a grieving rodent. To see him lying around his cage is to know that if it were possible, he’d be wasting away his days watching Jeremy Kyle and Matthew Wright, something no sentient creature should ever have to do. As a consequence, a substantial amount of time and emotional energy is going into a pet acquired primarily because it was low maintenance. The whole point about guinea pigs was that you don’t need to do much for them. Now we are fussing over the survivor like it is a potential champion at Crufts. Cheer up, Olek, we’ve got your favourite meal, watermelon rind on the turn, just how you like it. We gave his brother the full send off, upmarket shoe-box solution, with deluxe garden-sack cover to deter foxes. The boy was suitably upset, but appears to be finding consolation in old episodes of The Big Bang Theory. They do say TV is a great healer, although spookily he was using it extensively even before the loss. Perhaps he had an intuition.

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Robert Shrimsley

Meanwhile, Pets at Home has taken us for a tidy sum as we went looking for things to amuse the lonely beast. We returned laden with extra food treats and ridiculous toys to liven up the cage, but there’s a limit to what you can do with an animal noted for its stupidity and timidity. The most bizarre step has been the purchase of a soft toy – in this case a small, flat, scarlet thing with a bag of seeds inside that can be heated in a microwave. This allegedly recreates the warmth of the lost partner when it is time to sleep, which seems an unlikely solution and not one I’d be inclined to pursue with elderly relatives: “So Papa, we know you miss Gran, but here’s a sack of buckwheat to snuggle up to. It won’t stay warm all night, but at least it doesn’t snore.”

We could find a new guinea pig, but this is not as simple as it sounds. Male pigs do not bond easily unless they have always been together. We could get a female, but this is the 21st century dammit; it doesn’t seem right to introduce some pert, young slip of pig just to satisfy the carnal lusts of a far older boar – although from some angles his resemblance to Peter Stringfellow is uncanny. And truth be told, we don’t want lots of babies – especially with the new cap on child benefit that’s planned for next year. We could have him neutered, but it’s not a widely recommended panacea for bereavement. “Yes Grandad, we’ve found you a ladyfriend, but we’ll need to have you sterilised first. There’s our inheritance to think of.”

When you think about it, the antidotes to grief for a witless rodent are fairly similar to those for humans, aside from the neutering. Keep them busy, make sure they eat and pointlessly urge them to keep their chins up. It’s just that guinea pigs have fewer available diversions, having no natural curiosity and evincing no interest in bridge or bowls.

Ultimately, one can no more cheer up a grieving pet than a grieving relative. There are few more debilitating emotions than grief, and no amount of buckwheat toys or tasty snacks can magic away the hours alone, the sudden stabbing moments of memory that pierce your mind when you seemed happily and otherwise occupied. We’ll be there for him all the way – well, unless we go out or there’s something good on telly – but in the end, retail therapy only gets you so far.

A rodent has to find its own reasons to live.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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