Meet the Grandchillas, My Surrogate Grandkids

Grandchillas_180102My son and his wife have been together for almost eight years. For the moment, and maybe forever, they have no human kids, but they do have five chinchillas. When their winter-break sitter fell through, they asked if I would step in. And I knew: it was time to get to know my grandchillas. They can live twenty-five years. I may know them the rest of my life, and I had never really tried. Until the eleven days of sitting was over, I could only rattle off two of their names, imprecisely. Now I know names and a whole lot more. Pet sitting is over, and I miss my grandchillas already.

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 They may be the only grandchildren I will ever have.

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Chinchillas are rat-sized rodents housed in a furry cloud. Look how close together their front paws are: I presume that is because their frames are that little. They come from high altitude South America, and as such, they need temperatures that are cooler than a typical house. The kids keep them in the attached garage, but they worry when there is a heat spell because chinchillas die quickly from heatstroke.

Their dense fur does not dry well; instead, if they were to get wet, they would mold. Their adaptation for bathing is to roll in fine dust.

They are social; their groups in the wild were called “herds.” (They are close to extinction in the wild, though.) And even though they are social, most owners have to keep their herds in separate cages, one chinch to a cage. My grandchillas live in four elaborate cages of two to four storeys; two of them are from the same litter so they live together, but the others are separate.

Their teeth grow as much as twelve inches a year. For that reason, they are given apple and pear sticks—boiled, then baked dry–several of them per day. (At least this Grandma has been providing sticks for them for several years.) And also for that reason, the room they are taken to for their running and jumping has been retrofitted with cardboard covering all the moldings and electrical cords.

They don’t do well with disruptions to their regime: they get ill easily. Fur falls in clumps. Many pet chinchillas live only a few years.

And they can jump. Can they ever! My first night I took Baby to the half-bathroom because I thought that was where I was supposed to let him run around. He sprang from the floor to the counter with no run-up. He sprang from the ground to the shelf unit above the toilet. He jumped, bounced, ran, deflected. I was told that was all dangerous—see above, about how their fur does not dry so well.

So the next nights I took them to their actual rumpus room, in singles, or for the twins, in pairs. They scampered, bounded, hid, squeezed, nibbled, groomed, glanced, climbed—but mostly scampered. The times they would stand still, I would note their long, quivering whiskers, that are said to be as important to their locomotion as their eyesight.

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And over the course of eleven days in the attached garage and the rumpus room, I bonded.

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I bonded with Baby, who was the most hyperactive. He chewed newspapers, jumped onto the bed, jumped onto the windowsill, and hid in crevices. He nibbled my book, and then he would disappear. As soon as I would find him, he would be gone again. He seemed as free—and his motion as chaotic–as a leaf in a courtyard in the wind.

I bonded with Moose, the family under-chinchilla. (Every family has one?) He has enormous ears and eyes the color of ladybugs–I did “red-eye correction” on his photo to give him some dignity. His favored domain was a heavy cardboard tube. He snuffled around as if he knew how odd he was. I could see that he had soft fur, although he did not invite me to touch it: he was no cuddlemoose. But I feel for him. He was a rescue kid in that he lived six or seven years in a frenetic, exotic pet store where, probably luckily, he was always left behind. It is probably Moose who I miss the most.

I bonded with Biter. Yes, he bit me, but it was just nibbles, just him checking to see how far Grandma would go. The kids had instructed me to transport the chinchies to their rumpus room in their bathtub, which was a plastic receptacle the size of a shoebox with an eggplant-sized opening at the top. I was to put in a couple scoops of expensive dust. They would fling themselves into the tub, then flip over and over to bathe. It worked—except for Moose, who would only come to a cardboard tube. Biter and his twin, Patches, were in the receptacle, my outstretched hand was covering the opening, and I somehow had to make it out the garage through the kitchen and living room, up a slippery staircase, down a hall, and into an empty bedroom. Biter started nibbling as I crossed the kitchen. “Ow, ow,” I scolded. “Stop it now.” Biter did not take heed, but he drew no blood. I did not look forward to the return trip or to his rumpus-room tour a few days later, but at least he had behavior I could use to distinguish him. When he was biting, that is.

I bonded with Biter’s twin, Patches. Poor Patches, was like Moose in having some sort of endearing . . . defect. He had a big hair freckle, off-center, on the bridge of his nose. His nose, by the way, was much narrower than Biter’s. I am not actually sure if I bonded with Patches and Biter separately because they shared a large cage, but I saw that one would push the other aside for food and hay and sticks. Or maybe it was the other one was pushing one aside for food and hay and sticks. I could not always pick out bridges of noses and fur freckles, and I did not just stick my hand in for bites.

And I bonded with Cloud: who would not? Cloud crawled up my arms before I even had the cage door fully open. He is white and soft. He knows his effect on people. (Every family has one of them, too!) He wanted to love-nibble shoes, and backpacks, everything. He wanted to climb arms to get to shoulders. He wanted to run. He wanted to do it all again, over and over. And he greeted me the most warmly whenever I would come to visit.

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I will not tell my son and daughter-in-law, but the grandchillas are not quite as smart as kittens, as responsive as dogs, or as loving as rats, and that they seemed to want to prove a lot more than a two-year old person.

But they are good guys. They rattle around. They chew on sticks. They run in polygons. They jump. They are aware when Grandma is around. And on the grand-offspring side, I will take what I can get. I will visit often.

But I hope the other sitter does not fall through every time.

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