Gerbil Rescue

My partner, J, or @Tern on Twitter, has taken up rescuing unwanted gerbils.

It’s easier than you might imagine. Essentially, she goes on Craigslist and looks to see who is desperately trying to rid themselves of gerbils. Mostly we get single gerbils, or pairs. Kids go off to college, or family schedules change, or allergies develop, and it’s just not practicable for a family to keep their pets. J contacts them and says that, if no-one else will take them, they can find a home here.

Male gerbils are among those mammals given, by evolution, enormous testicles. There is, however, an unfortunate window in gerbil development in which the male testes have not descended visibly, yet the females can get pregnant. Pet store staff are not as good at sexing juvenile gerbils as a person might hope them to be. Which is how fifteen gerbils were delivered to my house this weekend.

The owner, a teenage boy, was quite upset at parting with his pets. As you might imagine. But he kept a reasonable and rational TWO gerbils, and the rest now live with us.

This brings the total gerbil count in the house to somewhere between thirty-five and forty. I haven’t kept perfect track. They are in fifteen terrariums, fully stocked with tubes, boxes, bedding for tunnels, wheels, and water bottles. They get nutritious rodent kibble, and fresh fruits and veggies as treats every few days. When they are sick, J gives them rodent antibiotics with an eyedropper and quarantines them from the others.

The rescue gerbils almost always arrive looking faintly scruffy. Like, they are mostly fine, but not thriving. (She has gotten a couple sick ones. Those stay in quarantine longer.) After two weeks, though, all the gerbils are sleek and fat and happy. (We did have the one pair that had grown up without any bedding and did not know how to tunnel. They did know how to climb, though. We had arboreal gerbils for a month until they learned to dig.)

Here are a few things I have learned about gerbils in the last year:

1. Gerbils are social. The males really, really want to live together in bachelor packs of three or four.

2. Female gerbils are territorial, and need to be CAREFULLY introduced to each other to prevent them from killing each other. No more than two female gerbils can normally be tanked together. (The exception is mothers and daughters. You can go up to three, if they get along.)

3. Female gerbils have two litters in rapid succession. They get pregnant, bear the young, get pregnant RIGHT AWAY, and then raise the second litter with the help of the girls from the first litter.

4. Gerbils are burrowing mammals. Their ideal habitat is a tank about half-full of bedding for them to nest in. Aspen bedding is commonly sold for gerbils, but it is NOT the best. The best bedding is shredded cardboard chewed up by the gerbils. The cardboard can’t have too much tape or glue on it. It can’t have wax. (No boxes designed to go in the freezer or refrigerator.)

5. We have a vast network of gerbil-cardboard collection. J told the neighborhood email list, and now I come home from work to find random bags of cardboard recycling dumped anonymously on our front steps. I told my girlfriend, and she told her partner and coworkers, and now every week after our date I bring home a bag of cardboard recycling from her house. J puts a few boxes and tubes in the tanks every week or so, and gradually the structures are transformed into loose fluffy bedding.

6. Gerbils DO like to climb a bit, if given a log to climb on. They also like to run on wheels. Some wheels are quieter than others; this is important.

Gerbils, I have found, are clever, curious little mammals. They learn to sit on a hand, they learn to enjoy being petted. They like berries, and cucumber, and fresh toilet paper tubes. Especially if one leaves a bit of toilet paper still on the roll.

I like knowing that our house is, in a very small way, contributing to the total happiness in the world. The former owners, while sometimes sad to leave the gerbils with strangers, are happy to know that the animals are going to a good home. Their beloved pets are not feeding snakes, or being released in the Minnesota winter, or dying of pneumonia, or suffering in cramped housing. The gerbils we take are happy and sleek.

Everybody wins.

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