Monday, December 21, 2015

Bobo, The Christmas Gerbil

Like most children and almost every veterinarian (but only almost....), I was fascinated with animals from a very young age. And like most children this fascination spawned a relentless campaign to obtain a pet. My parents were, however, not "pet people". Far from it. A dog was so clearly out of the question that I never actually dared to ask and I understood that the suggestion of a cat would be received no differently than a suggestion of a warthog or a rhesus monkey. So I set my sights lower and began the work of building up the Mongolian gerbil as the ideal pet in my parents' minds.

This prolonged effort had no discernible effect whatsoever until the Christmas of 1977 when a large rectangular object covered by a decidedly non-festive grey tablecloth appeared under the tree. I had more or less given up on the gerbil campaign by that point. I was actually afraid that that large rectangular object would be a gigantic Meccano set as part of my father's own campaign to get me interested in something "practical". But no, to my astonishment, the object revealed itself to be a cage. A large cage, hand-built by my father out of heavy gauge one inch galvanized steel mesh. This cage was solid. It appeared to be designed to help its occupant withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, mortar attacks and significant civil unrest.
But there was no occupant. 
"Oh wow! Thank you, thank you! It's a... It's a... It's an empty cage..."

My parents peered closely at the cage and then looked at each other. There had been a gerbil in there just half an hour ago. Now there was no gerbil in there. My father, the physicist, expressed astonishment and disbelief that a gerbil could pop through one inch mesh. But pop through it evidently did, like a button through a button hole. The remaining gift openings and assorted Christmas rituals were abandoned and the hunt was on. Two bewildered adults and two manic children scoured the house until eventually the gerbil was found, pooping silently in a corner under a cabinet. 

Incidentally, as an aside for the uninitiated, a Mongolian gerbil is a small desert rodent (incidentally, I first wrote "dessert rodent"; good thing I reread this before posting...) with tan-coloured fur and long tail ending in a fuzzy tuft, a bit like a lion's tail. They bite a lot less than hamsters and they stink a lot less than mice. 

Back to the story though, as soon as the gerbil was captured my father set to work covering the cage in fly screen. This was effective for a day or two, but then the gerbil chewed through the fly-screen. The fly-screen was patched and patched again, but the gerbil was nothing if not relentless. What eventually put a stop to his repeated escapes were sunflower seeds. Or more precisely, the morbid obesity caused by the continuous intake of high fat sunflower seeds. He soon became unable to squeeze his bulk through that one inch mesh anymore. So he stayed in the cage, exchanging his freedom for tasty snacks. A trade-off familiar to Doritos addicts everywhere.

Over time the gerbil and I became close. Or, more accurately I should say that I became close to him, for his part I think it's safe to say that the gerbil was largely indifferent to me or really anything other than his sunflower seeds. I originally named him "Berbil", but this morphed into "Berbo" and then "Bobo", which is ultimately the version that stuck.

Eventually Bobo died and was not replaced. The cage ended up in the basement with the suitcases and old coffee makers and was forgotten until one bitterly cold January morning when my father found a pocket gopher, an essentially blind burrowing animal that should have been hibernating but was out wandering in disoriented circles on a snowy field. My father dusted off the cage and then, to our collective astonishment, walked out onto the field to scoop up the surprised rodent. Failing to recognize the good deed it bit him savagely, but my father persisted and brought him inside and placed him carefully in the cage. Ultimately over the course of the next three or four months he and the pocket gopher developed a peculiar and, it seems, mutually beneficial relationship. The gopher was released in the spring and the cage never saw use again. In my mind's eye I picture it in some deep substratum of the Saskatoon landfill, intact, unbroken, still sturdy like the day my father made it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

"Nasty Big Pointy Teeth"

The Monty Python fans among you will immediately recognize from the title that I'm going to write about rabbits today. And not just any rabbits. Not the fluffy, gentle, innocent rabbits almost everyone imagines. No, I'm going to write about the vicious ones. Vicious rabbits? How is that possible you ask? Remember this - the rabbit has no idea that he is cute and cuddly and harmless looking to a human. He may seem a nervous, timid creature much of the time because he is a prey species after all, but in an environment where he has learned to become confident, his true self may emerge.

As evidence I offer the following telephone conversation I had with a client a few years ago:

Ms. Fitzsimmons, "Dr. Schott, thank you for coming to the phone right away. I'm calling from my bedroom."
This seemed like an unnecessary detail. I became faintly alarmed.
"Yes?" I offered cautiously.
"It's Mr. Cuddles, I don't know what's wrong with him!"
Mr. Cuddles was a small floppy-eared grey rabbit that she had had for about a year.
Relieved, I asked, "what symptoms are you seeing?"
"He's gone crazy!"
"Oh? What is he doing that seems crazy?"
"My bedroom is at the end of the hall where his little house is. He won't let me past his house!"
"Won't let you past?"
"Yes! He attacks me and bites me!"
"Um... how long has this been going on?"
"All morning! He just gets madder and madder every time I try! I don't know what to do! I need to get out! What's wrong with him?"

What was wrong with Mr. Cuddles? Nothing really. He was just a highly territorial male rabbit allowed to roam free whose "lair" had been set up in the hallway. With time he became confident enough to defend his lair. I told Ms. Fitzsimmons to come out of her room holding a blanket in front of her and then to toss the blanket onto Mr. Cuddles so that she could quickly sprint past. I told her that once things settled down she should wait until he was sleeping in his house and then scoop him up with a towel, put him in a cage and bring him in to be neutered. Neutering doesn't always help, but in this case taking the testosterone out of him plus moving his house to a far corner of an unused room seemed to do the trick.

The words of Leo Tolstoy come to mind: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness."
Or, in case of killer rabbits: "It is amazing how complete is the delusion that cuteness is innocence."

For those few and misguided that have not seen 
"Monty Python and The Holy Grail", it offers a more
graphic illustration of what rabbits are capable of.