Just over a year ago, one of my chinchillas passed away. Pedey (short for “Dustbath Pedroia”) was always the stubborn one of the two — the bully older sister — who thought herself some total badass, when in fact she was, well, a chinchilla. As far as we can tell, the cause of death was heatstroke — she was a little overweight from stealing her sister’s food every day, and was too stubborn to sit up on a hot day and get a drink of water.
But the saddest part about it (because to be honest, she was a pretty mean pet) was her sister who survived her. Yubnub was always the sweet one, and say what you will about animals and emotion and memory, but for a good month following the loss of sister, Yubnub was visibly depressed. I’d let her out of the cage to run around the house, and she would just sit there, not caring. She was always a little skittish when she was picked up by a human, but for that month, she had no reaction at all — and not in a good way. She hardly ate. She didn’t even get excited when she heard the crinkling of the raisin bag (a sound which otherwise inspires a Pavlovian response within her).
After about a month of caring for her (making sure she didn’t die from depression!) and letting her know confidently that I am part of her “herd” (which is what they say to do with lonely ‘chillas), Yubnub seemed fine. In the intervening year, she’s been completely normal. Maybe a little lonely sometimes without another playmate, but, well, Pedey was never very playful anyway, and usually just picked on her. While I imagine that the trauma of losing a loved one has essentially disappeared from her small chinchilla brain, I suspect that somewhere inside she still senses something missing. It might not be a conscious realization or memory, but there’s something in her muscles — she can tell that there used to be someone or something different here, and that it’s missing, but she might not know what that something is.
This week on FiveByFiveHundred.com, after spending a great deal of time with Yubnub over the weekend (there was a heatwave here in Boston, and we hid out together in the only room with air conditioning), I decided to pay homage to the departed Dustbath Pedroia. While comparing her memories to, well, poop might seem a bit insensitive, it’s really not — chinchillas (fun fact!) lack sphincter muscles, and thus have no control over their own bowel movements, which means that Yubnub just keeps dropping little tiny poops on the ground behind her without any regard for it. Chinchillas also poop out 90% of what they consume so…it’s a lot of poop for a tiny animal (and, admittedly, the biggest drawback to owning one). The ease with which she poops seemed like a fitting metaphor for the way her memory works, so I went with it.