Monday, November 14, 2011

The Education of a Guinea Pig: On Love, Loss, and Pringles

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France.
When I was two years old, I stood by the front door of our house in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and watched helplessly as our dog, a small toy fox terrier named Skippy, chased after a squirrel and crossed the street as a car sped past.  He was struck and killed instantly.  I can still picture the young driver, a teenager with grease-backed hair, remorsefully carrying Skippy from the street after wrapping him in a blanket. “Car kill ‘kippy, Mommy,” I allegedly repeated for several days thereafter, too young to understand why something that I loved and cared for, a member of the family really, could be taken away from us so suddenly. It is my earliest living memory.  I discovered at a very young age the pain that comes from a willingness to love what death can quickly erase.

The next year we welcomed a new dog into our lives. Peppy was a little chubbier; a black-and-white terrier with no tail, he looked a bit like a pig with a large nose. For the next sixteen years, Peppy and I lived under the same roof. He was the first to greet me when I arrived home from school each day, and he kept me company whenever I sat in the big chair in the living room or watched television in the family room. I took him for walks, snuck food to him under the dinner table, and played tug rope with him on the kitchen floor. We understood each other and hung out together almost every day. When he died, during my freshman year in college, it was like losing a brother.

Anyone who has ever connected with and loved an animal understands the emotional bond that forms between people and their pets. Last week, Pringles, my daughter’s guinea pig, had to be put to sleep at the age of six – a good life for a guinea pig, but a difficult and sad day nonetheless. Pringles’ intestines had started to fail and, despite the best efforts of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, there was little they could do for him. Hannah and I were heartbroken. The death of a special pet is like the loss of a good friend.  In the words of Kabril Gibran, “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

As small and insignificant as it may seem to speak of a guinea pig, we loved Pringles. He was a member of the family and, while he could not communicate with the same emotional clarity as a dog, or demonstrate independence and contempt in the manner of a cat, deep down I know he loved us back. He regularly cuddled with Hannah, laying against her chest as she rubbed his chin or stroked his neck and back. He was extremely sociable and loved being with people. For the first few years of his life, we let him run around the living room floor and explore the nooks and crannies of the furniture as we talked, read, or watched television. He never ventured far from us and seemed to appreciate the freedom and trust we bestowed on him.  This past year, he slowed down considerably and became increasingly affectionate as Hannah, Andrea and I took turns holding him as he breathed contentedly and occasionally squeaked with delight.

I am convinced that Pringles was a Cardinals fan.  He was our good luck charm during the last two months of the baseball season and his presence helped jumpstart many late-inning Cardinals’ rallies.  I kid you not.  Forget the Rally Squirrel, we had the Rally Pig! Leaving nothing to chance, we ensured that Pringles was with us for several innings of Game Seven, an insurance policy against a potential Rangers comeback that paid dividends as the Cards put the final touches on their World Championship. Although I will confess that Pringles seemed a bit perplexed when I attempted to fist pump him during the post-game celebration.

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful,” said Russian born author Isaac Asimov, “It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” I do not question the necessity of our decision to let Pringles go. It was peaceful and painless and best for Pringles. And I am grateful that he was allowed to spend the final moments of his life in Hannah’s arms, happy and content. But we were unprepared for the decision. Hannah and I brought him to the veterinary hospital because we thought, we hoped, that he could be treated, perhaps given some medication or other remedy that would make him better. When confronted with the prognosis, we were caught off guard and forced to choose between the selfish desire to hold onto our friend for a little while longer and the selfless decision to let him go, in peace.

As our memories of Pringles live on, we can obtain a small degree of solace knowing that, for six full and engaging years, this small, furry rodent connected with us, and we to him. “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief,” noted teacher and author Hilary Stanton Zunin. “But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.”

Each morning this past week, upon entering the kitchen, I have experienced a void left by Pringles’ absence. Life seems a little lonelier now. He no longer greets me in the morning as if to say, “It’s about time, bud. Now what’s for breakfast?” He is no longer there to keep us company as we prepare dinner. In a small but significant way, he touched our lives, and we touched his, and each of us was made better because of it. And while I would like to believe that, in the words of Lord Alfred Tennyson, “God’s finger touched him, and he slept,” I know for certain that he will be missed.


  1. Hi, I am a senior in high school and my guinea pig passed away yesterday night. She was five years old, and she had become my best friend. She taught me that even when I had become so busy with college applications and exams, she loved me and my family unconditionally. Reading this article showed me what a loving connection we had. Even a pet as small as a guinea pig, has the power to change and reward one's life. Thank you for sharing your story, and leaving an impact on my life.

  2. I am glad that this essay touched you in a positive way, and I am very sorry that your guinea pig passed away. They really do make great pets and friends.

  3. What a well written story.
    We've had only one quinea with our family,Oscar, and I still have dreams about him.
    The quotes you interlace into the narrative are wonderfully placed.