I have loved and cared for many rodents over the years.
I’ve had two rats, one fancy rat and one sewer rat (posing as a fancy rat).
I’ve owned the world’s most ornery guinea pig.
I’ve cared for wild mice.
And I’ve had gerbils. Lots and lots of gerbils.
I love rodents because they’re cute and small and easy to care for. They’re fun and playful and full of vim and vigor. They have big personalities.
But I think what I love the most about rodents is their intelligence. Rodents are dang smart.
Lucy, my fancy rat, figured out the latch on her cage and would explore the house whenever the mood struck her. Ethel, my sewer rat (and Lucy’s roommate), was also smart, but in a different way. When Lucy escaped, Ethel stayed put; being a sewer rat, Ethel understood the harshness of the wider world and had no desire to leave the cushy existence I had set up for her.
My childhood gerbil, Jerbs, also escaped from his cage repeatedly—not to explore and raise hell like Lucy, but just to see if he could. It was a puzzle he enjoyed solving. When I would come down to breakfast to find an empty cage, Jerbs would immediately traipse up to my side and stamp his feet boastfully as if to say, “Hey! See what I did? Awesome, right? I am so awesome!”
My guinea pig, Pigamajig, potty trained herself. This bears repeating: I did not potty train my guinea pig. She potty trained herself. Because Pigamajig was a lady, and ladies don’t just go pee-pee on the floor.
My gerbil, Salt, was observant in the way all mischievous children are, waiting for me to glance the other way before misbehaving. Salt’s buddy, Peppa, was the architect of the duo, arranging his toys and toilet paper tubes into a network of walls and tunnels that rivaled the engineering marvels of the ancient Roman aqueducts.
I could go on, but I think the point is made. Rodents are brilliant.
Well… until I got Dusty and Oreo.
Dusty and Oreo are the newest additions to my household. They’re gerbils. They’re cute. They’re friendly.
But wowza, they’re dumb.
Oreo is terrified of my presence and races behind his exercise wheel to avoid me at all costs. I understand this, of course. Rodents can be very timid and often need time to get used to someone. Despite my apparent threat level (and Oreo’s terrified squeaks of “STRANGER DANGER!”) he’ll always accept treats from me, which is something you really shouldn’t do if you think the treat offeror is an enemy.
But that’s good news, you’re thinking. The fact that Oreo is accepting food from you means that you two are establishing trust, right?
Well, no. Moments after I feed him, Oreo forgets me entirely and repeats his terror run whenever I happen to pass by.
Dusty is different. He associates me with food and races to the cage door whenever he sees me coming. Once I give him the treat, however, he decides that he doesn’t like it.
He’ll drop the delectable morsel and mope off, both disappointed in me and life in general—until I give the same treat to Oreo. Then Dusty wants it. He wants that dang treat more than anything else in the entire world.
So Dusty chases Oreo around the cage demanding the treat. Oreo, the beta male, does as Dusty commands.
Poor Oreo, I think.
So I offer Oreo a second treat. But Oreo runs behind the exercise wheel because I am an evil stranger.
It should be noted that my gerbils need these treats because they’re starving. The gerbils are starving because they can’t find their food bowl. They can’t find their food bowl because they bury their food bowl under bedding. Then they forget that the food is there.
Sometimes I think I can almost hear their anguished conversations:
I’m so hungry Dusty!
I know, my friend. I am, too.
Maybe we should look around for food?
There’s no point. Searching for food will only weaken us further.
I guess you’re right, Dusty. You’re so smart.
I know, Oreo. I know.
So every day I scoop bedding out of their food bowl and say, “Look dummies, food.”
They stare at the bowl in wonder. “FOOD!” they squeak. They scarf it down. A minute or two later, however, they begin to worry.
The Food is really important! they think.
We need to protect The Food!
We’ll protect The Food by hiding The Food!
We’ll hide The Food under the bedding!
So the gerbils bury the food bowl and, in a twinkling, forget that the food bowl is there.
I sigh. Alarmed by my sigh, Oreo hides behind the exercise wheel.
“STRANGER DANGER!” he cries.
So much dumbness.
But oh, how I love them.