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15 august 2016
I've never owned a guinea pig, but after reading Dorothy Yamamoto's book on them, I want one. Though she says you should always keep at least two, for company. Guinea pigs don't breed as fast as rabbits or rats, but they do breed apace, so my pair should be a same-sex couple, but they may be difficult to sex so I should factor in the increase-and-multiply possibility. At this point my guinea-pig dreams are becoming kind of complicated and I reckon I should abandon them.
In traditional Andean households, guinea pigs have the run of the kitchen. Special doorsills keep them safe and they thrive on dropped vegetable scraps. If this sounds idyllic for the guinea pigs, remember that they are ultimately going to end up stuffed with those vegetables and roasted on a spit.
The common guinea pig, Cavia porcellus, is a domesticated species unknown in the wild anymore except in feral populations. Like cattle or camels, guinea pigs are what humans have made of them. What they've mostly made of them is food. Guinea pigs have ritual importance, are used by traditional healers, and are of course notably pleasant to have around, but their main use in their native South America is as protein. They have approached the level of a staple food in some cultures, and efforts to foster sustainable husbandry in countries like Peru and Bolivia have centered in recent years on making every household a guinea-pig farm.
Westerners, who soon after contact adopted the little guys as pets, were less inclined to eat them. "Guinea pigs are of very little benefit to mankind," wrote Oliver Goldsmith (56). That was before they became the emblematic laboratory animal. Like humans (but few other mammals), guinea pigs cannot synthesize vitamin C. Research on guinea pigs was important in establishing this curious fact and thus led to effective prevention of scurvy. Unfortunately guinea pigs soon became of too much benefit to mankind, leading to reactions against vivisection and cosmetics testing. Most laboratory animals nowadays are rats and mice, easier to breed and smarter (for the psychologists in the academy).
Yamamoto does say that the intelligence of guinea pigs has had a bad rap. Like sheep, domesticated guinea pigs are bred for agreeability and social skills. Those are also types of intelligence, if you think about it. But compared to lean and mean lab rats, they are not great at running mazes and solving logic problems. I do not care about this. My guinea pig is going to be fat and happy and dumb as he wants to be.
Complicating the problem still further is the existence of my cat, Whisper Wilson. Yamamoto offers examples of guinea pigs who become close friends with household cats, and I think that Whisper would like somebody to play with. But watching Whisper play with a tennis ball makes me worry about FDR (that's the name of my guinea pig) even though FDR isn't even born yet.
I cannot think of any guinea pigs in highbrow fiction or poetry, though Yamamoto makes a few sightings in the works of George Eliot. Most of Yamamoto's examples are from children's books and films, from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear through Beatrix Potter to Michael Bond. She suggests that the tribbles in Star Trek are basically guinea pigs, and traces their literary lineage back through Robert Heinlein to Ellis Parker Butler. Yamamoto only refers to the original-series episode "The Trouble with Tribbles." Oddly enough, as soon as I finished reading Guinea Pig, I watched the 2013 film Star Trek into Darkness, in which Dr. McCoy uses a tribble as a lab animal. (He discovers that the blood of the superhuman Khan can revive a dead tribble, and later uses the serum to revive a dead Captain Kirk.) I am not quite sure of a couple of things about that movie: one, how Dr. McCoy has the leisure to run these basic-research studies while the Enterprise is being blasted apart by enemy phasers, and two, how he manages to have only a single tribble around. But the tribble sighting confirms Yamamoto's identification of these furry SF critters with Cavia porcellus.
Yamamoto, Dorothy. Guinea Pig. London: Reaktion, 2015.