Last Days of Chestnut, Guinea Pig

May 22

Our guinea pig, Chestnut, is dying. He will probably be dead before I finish writing this, but I am going to leave the beginning as it is. I had hopes that the antibiotics he started yesterday would do their saving work; and his eating one of his favorite delicacies—cucumber peelings—last night with a final, feeble amount of gusto gave me hope that he was bouncing back, perking up. But he has retreated inside his little plastic “igloo” inside his cage, with his back to its opening, minimizing sensory input; the equivalent of turning over to face the wall. He makes no sound, but turns away from proffered food or water as from an annoyance that belongs to the past. He has decided it is time to die. I know that he hasn’t decided anything, really; he is just too sick to stand the sight of food or drink. Yet it seems he has decided it is time to die, and he knows the right way to do it. He has decided it is time to die, and the house is heavy with his decision.

To whom shall I pose silly rhetorical questions with Chestnut gone? How long will it be before I stop adding, “Right, Chestnut?” to the end of statements. Chestnut, Chesty, Chesterfield, Lord Chesterfield, C-Field—he answered to them all the same way: with the inexpressive face of a rodent looking in your direction. “Did you mention food?” he perhaps was thinking. He loved to eat. He lived to eat. And now he turns away from food, but seems to have a certain quiet wisdom about him.

That reminds me of something our friend Carmi said when she was visiting. Being a poet with a mystical bent, Carmi often says things that stick in your mind just in her ordinary talking. She and her daughter had had a guinea pig named Oreo. Carmi was impressed that when I went out the back door, scissors in hand, to harvest some fresh grass for Chestnut, he had been so excited that he’d jumped out the open door of his cage in clear anticipation of the upcoming treat. Oreo, Carmi said, had had “ancient wisdom,” but had not been as “street smart” as Chestnut. Now Chestnut’s ancient wisdom has come to the fore.

The antibiotics and painkiller the vet gave us yesterday were just to make us all feel better that we were trying what we could think of. But Chestnut has something called bumble foot, a foot rot—maybe it’s the equivalent of gangrene, I don’t know. Anyway, for it to have affected him so severely means almost certainly that it is too late. The vet wanted to be sure that we knew it was serious, not to be surprised if he was “much worse” this morning.

Yes, there’s some guilt here. We should have noticed how bad the foot was and taken him to the vet earlier. We didn’t take him in for the foot, just for the severe overall decline, lethargy, loss of appetite, etc. Chestnut lived the life of a king from the food standpoint, but I’m afraid his long claws bear witness to a certain lack of care in other regards, including regular inspection for things such as infected feet. He had a known problem, common in older “boars,” of stool agglomeration. Instead of numerous small dry pellets, he would also produce large masses of soft fused pellets. Sometimes it would be a great effort to pass the mass of guinea pig poop. We assumed that one too big to expel was the problem that was causing his loss of appetite, which would not have been as serious.

Chestnut is my daughter’s first and only pet. Well, mammalian pet; she had some African dwarf frogs. He was a birthday present a few years ago, a reward for her agreeing to attend a summer chamber music day camp. We had taken care of a few guinea pigs for days and weeks at a time in the past, and she had been wanting one for quite some time. My wife remembered how she had lost interest in her own guinea pig as a child in a fairly short period and didn’t look forward to becoming the real guinea pig care provider. Looking farther into the future, she dreaded years more of such duty after our daughter had gone away to college. But little Chestnut, just weaned, was purchased at a local pet store, and amused us greatly with his antics, especially the “popcorning”—spastic leaps which guinea pigs engage in when they are feeling good (I guess).

We left the door of his cage open when we were home, and he would roam around the house, even follow people from room to room sometimes. He seemed to like company and play. I would put newspaper (to absorb pee) under the wicker coffee table near the chair in which I would sit reading, and Chestnut would stay under the table. Except he would venture out on a quick foray to nibble away a corner from a paper or a paperback book cover. We turned it into a game with me putting paper out for him and then gently swatting at him with a sheet of paper when he came to get it. I will think of you, Chestnut, when I see those books with the neat bites taken out of their covers. He was quick! And their teeth are so sharp.

This was all when he was young. As he matured, he stopped venturing out of his cage, even though the door was still left open. We found he had chewed on a lamp cord. Had he gotten a traumatizing shock? We couldn’t know of course, but the exposed copper made us think he was lucky to be alive. For a while I was able to lure him out by putting a newspaper near the cage door, which he couldn’t resist coming out to nibble on, but eventually he got to where he almost never came out except when it was forced on him during cage cleanings. Then, he would usually take a few laps around the cage.

My daughter cried for Chestnut last night, as is only right. Sad as it makes me to see her feel bad, I would rather have that than see her heartless and unconcerned.

We have given Chestnut his pain killer and antibiotics for the day, and then used the antibiotics mouth syringe to get some water into him. Dehydration will kill you far more quickly than starvation. He’s fat enough to miss a few meals, I imagine. The only encouraging sign is that he is now facing the entrance to his igloo so he can see out to the world.

May 23

OK, it’s now the morning of the next day. We forced some more water down him, and it must have done him good. He still wouldn’t eat until I brought him some fresh, green grass. That he munched on for quite a while, a very big improvement. Don’t know whether we should get our hopes up.

12:30 pm. Now he’s whimpering in the most pathetic way. It’s really unbearable to hear. Catatonic was better. We will have to euthanize if that doesn’t get better. When my wife gets back from the store, we’ll give him another dose of painkiller. One little rodent in agony here has more of an effect on me than the somewhat abstract knowledge of mass human suffering now occurring. I have not been watching television coverage of tragedies; perhaps I should be.

11:30 pm. My wife said that he had been whimpering that way for days, though I hadn’t heard it before. So it doesn’t signal a new stage of decline and pain, but it is still painful to hear and makes his earlier suffering seem all the worse. She went back to the vet’s because the test-tube-like container the antibiotics was in was too long for the syringe we need to use for giving Chestnut his dose. I doubt the vet thought he’d still be alive, for only now did he mention the importance of food and water. He suggested pulverizing the hay pellets he eats and mixing them with baby food carrots and water and using another bigger syringe to feed it to Chestnut. We thought we got a little into him in the afternoon.

Just before bed, all three of us—my wife, daughter, and I—tried again to get some more water and food into him. He had trouble keeping his eyes open, nothing I’d ever seen before. He didn’t drink water that was squeezed into his mouth this time, as though reflexes aren’t even working. He wasn’t interested in food and didn’t get much if any. Would not be surprised to find him dead in the morning. Glad he ate grass one last time anyway. We’ve gone from hoping for recovery to hoping for a quick end.

May 24

Chestnut greeted me with what might be described as loud whimpers when I came downstairs to start breakfast. Maybe he is doing some things automatically, like greeting, but can only make certain sounds. Hard not to take it as a plea to put him out of his misery. He turned away from his water bottle spout as from something noxious.

10:30 am. We’re now waiting for our daughter to wake up (it’s Saturday morning), so she can be in on the decision to take him to the vet to put an end to his suffering. The waiting is getting to me, since it is starting to seem urgent to put him out his misery, as I think of what he must be enduring with so many bodily systems having broken down. Hopefully the vet is open today.

11:00 am. He’s not, but the phone message gave another place to call for an emergency. My daughter is up, and she agrees it’s time.

1:30 pm. She took him out of his cage and carried him, wrapped in a towel like a baby, upstairs to her room for a long while.

My wife has been felled by the same cold I have presumably, but harder and with fever. She got the news yesterday that an old friend she hadn’t seen in years had just died. The friend’s husband called.

The only place I have found that will euthanize a guinea pig today is quite a distance away, and my wife is too sick to be left alone. She is weak, dizzy, and nauseated in addition to having a sore throat.

I go in to check on Chestnut and he is lying flat, rhythmically whimpering. When he becomes aware of my presence, his whimpers get louder, definitely an acknowledgment of some kind. Maybe a plea. The guilt I feel is heavier, the sadness more acute.

A friend is coming over. Maybe I’ll take Chestnut to the place that will end his life for a fee while she stays with my wife. We haven’t attempted forced feeding today.

5:30 pm. I’m not changing anything I wrote before. Chestnut has been buried in the back yard. My son arrived back from his ultimate frisbee tournament just in time to help his sister and me dig and cover.

I drove to Jamaica Plain to have Chestnut put to sleep. On the way there, I and drivers in the other lanes of a very busy road had to stop for some Canada geese and a passel of goslings to cross. Very slowly. First one bunch, and then another. Especially given the nature of my journey, it was a heartening sight to me, animal life and new animal life. And everyone seemed glad to stop. The geese were lucky, and I hope they don’t try it too often, for their luck must run out.

I talked to Chestnut on the way. I told him what a good pig he had been. He was in the back of the minivan in his cage, so we couldn’t see each other. I wanted to pray, but didn’t know what to pray for. I decided to pray for whatever was the best thing a guinea pig in Chestnut’s condition, about to die, could have. I put in a word for him, knowing it was superfluous, but I asked that he might have the very best the Creator still had to offer.

We arrive at the animal hospital, and I take Chestnut out of his cage and put him in a small cardboard box, just his size, along with an old teeshirt of mine. Judging by the movements of his body and head, as we enter the building, he seems to be more alert than I’ve seen him in days. What is going on? Is this a miracle starting to happen? He actually starts trying to climb out of the box!

At the intake desk, where I’ve already told them my purpose, I’m talking to him: “What are you doing, Chestnut? Are you trying to get me to take you back home?” His body feels surprisingly strong in my hands. I look at him closely, trying to discern what the change means. I say to the intake woman, who is looking at me quizzically, “He hasn’t eaten anything in days. He hasn’t moved like this in I don’t know how long.” Chestnut moves about again. And then a small popcorn! Tired out, I suppose, he relents.

I take Chestnut and the registration form that I need to fill out over to the empty “cat area.” If Chestnut’s activity resumes, I’ll have to think harder about what I’m about to do. I’ve gotten through name and address when I look in at Chestnut, who is still. I wonder. His visible eye is now wide open and clear. His body is soft and warm, but feels totally relaxed in my hand. Is he? Yes—dead.

I’m stunned, as though a lightning bolt of mystery had struck me, electrifying me with hidden meaning I can feel but not decipher. I feel a sort of joyful sadness and great relief. I stroke his beautiful white and light-chestnut coat a few times, then carry him over to the intake desk. I know he’s dead, but I say “I think he’s dead.”

A technician takes the little box with the body away to verify he has no heartbeat, free of charge and with genuine sympathy. The young woman at the desk tries to reassure me about having let his foot infection get so bad. Small animals are very fragile, so the least thing can kill them. She has canaries. Yes, I will take him home, and we will bury him in the back yard.

What was the urgency that drove Chestnut to use every last atom of his remaining strength and life in that seeming attempt to escape? As far as I know he’d never acted that way at the vet’s before, even in that same box, which came from his last trip there. He had always been quite docile the few times he’d been to the vet. But maybe he had some memory of the recent painful foot treatment associated with being in the box. Could he have had a vague premonition, which awakened a powerful desire to live, when he hadn’t been able to summon up the strength or desire to eat or drink for days? Was he trying to escape a sudden pain or fear that came with death’s arrival and which had nothing to do with the external situation? Was it something like a chicken running around with it’s head cut off? It seemed more natural than that.

I don’t know enough about physiology, guinea pig or otherwise, to venture an educated guess. None of these speculations keep me from feeling proud of Chestnut for dying such a death. The burst of activity was brief and strangely inspiring; and, for whatever reason, the timing was just right. If we hadn’t had to wait for the geese to cross… I don’t know.

Did I cry over his death? Well, rodents have never been my favorite kind of animal. They are not the most intelligent beasts. They don’t have to be, the way predators do. They eat whatever suits them with those wonderfully efficient teeth, and they survive by reproducing bountifully, so that an individual is not so precious to the species. Do you think a rational grown man would cry over the death of a mere rodent? Even over a beautiful death that spared us from having Chestnut die at the hands of a stranger and spared me from the possibility of lingering doubt about the decision? Yes, I did cry. When out in the parking lot, I even said “Thank you, Lord” out loud more than once. Superstitious, irrational, childish: call it whatever you like. I felt and feel that Chestnut’s death at just that time—and with a flashback to his former vigorous self!—was a gift, and gifts require a giver. Amen. And, Chesterfield, I have faith that you are getting or have already gotten whatever is the best a guinea pig can get.

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