Girl Talk: The Bay Of (Guinea) Pigs

It took months of begging, pleading, bribing, and promises to convince my parents to get me my first guinea pig. We lived on a 38-acre farm with dogs, cats, and chickens, but I yearned for a pet of my very own, a pet who would entertain me and understand me, a pet who would impress my friends and make me popular at school. A guinea pig seemed like the obvious choice. When my mom finally drove my brother and I to the pet store a couple towns over, I chose a white-haired girl and named her Snowflake. My brother chose a black-haired boy. He named him Blackie.

When we got home, we carefully placed our pets in their new cage and they started squeaking excitedly. Suddenly my dad appeared in the doorway, eyes locked on the two fur balls. “Look, Dad!” we said. “This is Snowflake, and this is…”

“Guinea pigs,” he muttered. “I hate guinea pigs.” And then, like a bad omen in a horror movie, he disappeared.

After we got our new pets settled in, I found my dad splitting wood out by the barn and asked him why he felt so strongly about such a harmless and adorable creature. He set down his ax and wiped his brow. “They’re loud, they smell bad, and worst of all” — he clenched his teeth — “they’re dumb.” Now it all made sense. My dad worked as a vet tech at a primate research facility. He would come home and talk excitedly about a communication technique he’d observed in a family of macaques, or an interaction with a clever squirrel monkey. On his lunch breaks he would train crows to eat out of his hand. In both humans and animals, my dad reveres intelligence and loathes ignorance. My squeaky, vacant-eyed pet offended him.

I went inside to comfort Snowflake from the harsh judgments of my father. “Don’t worry,” I whispered, “I know you’re smart.” As if on cue, she ran directly into the wall.

A couple weeks later, as I was starting to realize that perhaps my dad was right about Snowflake (she spent most of her time eating her own poop and rarely if ever performed tricks on command), I heard my parents fighting upstairs. After a few minutes of muffled arguing my mom marched down the stairs and into the living room, jingling her car keys in front of my brothers and me. “Grab your coats,” she said. “We’re going to the pet store.”

On the way there she refused to answer any questions; she just smiled and whistled along to her favorite John Denver CD. When we arrived, she led us to the guinea pig cage. “Would you like another guinea pig?” she asked me. “Would you like one too? What about you?” she asked my brothers. Before we could answer she yelled, “We’ll take three!” to no one in particular and plunked down her credit card on the counter.

This new batch of guinea pigs was even squeakier than the last, and as soon as we opened the front door my dad, sitting at the kitchen table, dropped his fork. He walked over to us, slowly opened the box to confirm the source of the deafening squeals and whistles, calmly closing it before launching into a stream of profanity. My dad has a big voice, but his tantrum startled the guinea pigs, and he was totally drowned out by the excited squeaks of his three newest family members. I looked over at my mom. She was beaming.

I wouldn’t have known that my parents were going through a rough patch if it weren’t for the constant trips to the pet store. My brothers and I turned into well-trained Pavlovian dogs — the moment we witnessed the signs of an argument breaking out we’d put on our shoes and wait by the door. Soon my mom would emerge, grab her keys, and sigh, “Come on, let’s go.”

Within three months we had 16 guinea pigs.

Our bedrooms were filled with cages and aquariums housing our furry friends. No matter how many times my dad would walk by and grumble his disapproval, we thought our makeshift guinea pig farm was awesome. Plus, it was boosting our status at school. “How many guinea pigs do you have today?” our classmates would ask, and we would play it cool, staring into the distance and saying things like, “Today? Sixteen. Tomorrow? Who knows.” Sometimes kids would accuse us of making the whole thing up, at which point our friends would speak up with heartfelt testimonials: “I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s real. A whole army of tiny pigs!”

One morning, we woke up to find three newborn guinea piglets sleeping soundly in one of the cages. Our guinea pig population had reached critical mass. I came home from school and found my dad hammering wire dividers into a giant plastic trough in the middle of the living room. “What are you doing?” I asked. “And what is that?”

“It’s a feeding trough. For a herd of cattle. I’m solving a problem.” The trough was big enough to hold three grown men, and my dad had drawn up plans to turn it into a celibate guinea pig dormitory, with different sections for males and females, old and young. It was a wondrous achievement, really, and when it was done we all gazed upon its geometric configurations of wood and chicken wire in awe. Unfortunately, while my dad was measuring and cutting, some of our pets were gestating, and by the time we moved them all into their new living quarters we had 25 guinea pigs.

When all the dust had settled I sat on the couch and stroked the soft fur of my dear Snowflake, who was now the white-whiskered matriarch of a vast colony of cavies. Her seniority had earned her a cushy corner section of the cow trough, with fresh bedding and a private water bottle. I thought of her humble origins in the cardboard box at the rural pet store, my dad’s insistence that she was dumb. Her beady eyes hadn’t changed much, but everything else had.

“Look at you, Snowflake,” I whispered. “You outsmarted them all.”