Thursday, March 21, 2013

Animal Attachment

When I was in college, I took an elective that was a course requirement for animal behavior majors. Although I no longer remember what the class was, I know it didn't take me long to become certain that I had no desire to switch majors. I couldn't imagine ever being fascinated by the antics of beta fish and rhesus monkeys.

That was before Gerbil Man came to live with us.

Don't get me wrong - I'm still not interested in watching beta fish or rhesus monkeys - but Gerbil Man fascinates me. One of a litter born in a tank in a fifth grade classroom during the first week of school (don't ask), he came to live with us when my daughter was in middle school. He was supposed to be her pet, but if you're a parent, you know how that works. She does maintain his cage (under duress) and while I think she'll miss him when he's gone, she pays little attention to him now.

In some ways, I can't really blame her. Gerbil Man (whose given name is Silver Mist) is skittish and not terribly social. Equally skittish about him escaping into some far corner of our house, I haven't exactly encouraged the notion of releasing him from the confines of his two story home (a multi-level wire cage atop a glass aquarium), and have indeed had nightmares about chasing him around the house.

But, aren't pets supposed to be, well, petted? When I asked man at the pet store for advice, he told me that if I fed the gerbil from my hand, he might gradually be ready to be picked up and petted.

And that's when the trouble began. A couple of peanuts, and I was his friend forever.

He now knows my gait. He recognizes my voice. No, these aren't the sad delusions of a retired woman who spends too much time in a quiet house. When he hears me coming, he stops what he's doing, stands up on his rear paws and prepares for the peanut he hopes will arrive in his cage within minutes.

I have somehow managed to spoil a gerbil. Then again, he doesn't get out much.

I must admit, though, that Gerbil Man isn't at the top of my priority list, and sometimes, he goes peanut-less for days. This week was one of those weeks, so today, after I made him run up the ramp for his peanut, I dropped another one on the top landing of his cage for him to find later.

It took him less than fifteen minutes to go in search of it. I stood in the hallway outside the playroom watching him run up the ramp and around the top of the cage, trying to narrow its location. He sniffed around and got close a couple of times. Since he's not terribly bright, and I suspect he doesn't see well, either, I wasn't at all surprised when he tried everything but running up the ramp to get the peanut. He poked at it with his nose, managing to lodge it in the crack between the top of the ramp and the shelf it sat on. He contorted himself and batted at it with his paw, repeatedly trying to dislodge it from below and nearly falling over in the process. I considered putting him out of his misery, but in the end, I found myself too fascinated by his behavior to intervene.

Finally, he ran up the ramp. Within seconds, he was holding the peanut in his paws, nibbling on it. Had he just used the ramp in the first place, he'd gotten there so much faster.

But maybe, in his world, where food and water appear without the need to forage, where chewing on a paper towel tube and running up ramps is what passes for entertainment, the chase is part of the thrill.

As I watched Gerbil Man in action, I couldn't help thinking of how often we do the same thing - refusing to do things the easy way, being blind to the simple path that is right under our noses and making things more difficult than they need to be. Sometimes it's the thrill of the chase, but sometimes it's just counterproductive. Often, it's exhausting - and quite amazing what we'll do for peanuts.

Though I've never once wished I could trade in my psych degree for one in animal behavior, and I'm still not interested in either beta fish or rhesus monkeys, I could perhaps concede that animals might have something to teach us after all.

Particularly once we get attached to them.


  1. From someone who had hamsters when I was younger....this is great. I can so picture it all..and love your analogy at the end. Well done!

  2. Thanks, Christina! Never thought I'd be carrying on conversations with rodents...never say never, I guess!