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Gerbils in the Garage

March 19, 2012

There are gerbils in my garage – cages of them. An insane number, because I am a crazy person who loves breeding little furry creatures; I have done it for much of my life, from the age of 10.

I cannot say why small , scampering, bewhiskered, furry, nose-twitching creatures with tiny hands that grasp nuts and nibble daintily at them should be so fascinating and adorable to me, but they are.

Once I bred and exhibited hamsters, and have rosettes from those times.It was an absorbing hobby and kept me out of mischief as a teenager.

Now I have gerbils. which I do not enter in shows, but keep and breed and enjoy.

Studying their behaviour is interesting also. 

As social animals, like us, they shed some light on our own conduct. Watching the interactions between members of the groups is quite an eye opener. We are, for all our supposed sophisticated civilization, not so very different to them.

Karen Armstrong, in her book ‘Twelve Steps To A Compassionate Life’ identifies 4 basic drives common to all animals, which she calls the four F’s, and they are all linked, of course, to survival. Gerbils have no morals – they will snatch food from a baby without qualm, drive away the stranger, attack anyone who ‘smells wrong’ ( my explanation for the mystifying way in which an erstwhile peaceable group will erupt into violence, as one member suddenly seems to take a dislike to someone else who, until now, has been quite acceptable) and assert dominance over weaker individuals repeatedly. In groups where nobody is willing to concede dominance to one animal, there are constant jostlings and posturings, which rarely turn violent and usually resolve into grooming sessions. I see grooming as a sort of ‘small talk’ that oils relationships between the group members.

In these little animals I see what we once were, before our elaborate societies evolved moral codes of conduct to maximise peaceful relations between group members and ensure a co-operation that would aid survival of the tribe.

Our wars are the age old, primal urge to defend our territory and resources from the other tribes who may steal them from us; our quest for more, the instinct to gather as much as we can for our family group, our prejudices springing from ancestral suspicion of the stranger who might be an enemy and a thief of our hard won aids to survival.

I see very little empathy in gerbils, which suggests to me that this is something that exists in animals with larger and more complex brains. Other primates seem to exhibit it on occasion. I think that altruism springs from a mix of empathy ( itself a feature of imagination, most likely) and mother love ( that necessary instinct to protect and nurture young).

Gerbils make quite attentive mothers until weaning – then they seem to forget that these other small beings are their children, and take no more care of them; it is then every gerbil for itself – first one to the food bowl gets the first pick of the tastiest treats.

It is amusing to watch them at the spout of the water bottle at times. When 2 animals are each trying to get a drink, one will continually slap the other on the nose and shove it aside; then the other will push in and slap the first one aside, and so it goes on. Of course there is more than enough for both of them, but no concept of sharing exists.

75 million years ago, whilst dinosaurs still roamed the earth, there lived a tiny mammal species from which evolved all the rodents that now exist, and us, the primates.

Of course, our paths twisted down different routes and by-ways, but the blood of that ancestor is in me and my gerbils ( and the squirrel on the sill and the rat in the sewer…).

It amuses me to think of my pets as  very distant cousins. It makes the fact that I have given all of them names, less eccentric. (Though perhaps not…!)

Gerbils come from the deserts on Mongolia and live in colonies in elaborate tunnel systems beneath the sand. They are active at any hour of day or night. They are superbly adapted to desert, with their huge hind feet and slightly hopping gait (ouch, that sand is hot, man!) and their ability to reabsorb their own urine when moisture is scarce. They basically eat anything – which helps when food isn’t easy to come by.

I imagine that it is raptors and snakes which are their predators, because they take fright when shadows fall across them, seem spooked by rushing, hissing kinds of noise and have no reactions at all to huge furry creatures like dogs and cats and rabbits ( a somewhat dangerous nonchalence in the case of felines 😦

Gerbils are pretty good pets for children because they seldom bite and are very inquisitive, active little things, always busy burrowing, tunnelling, chewing, scampering, playing with their companions, standing upright like Meerkats, listening and watching for I know not what, and just being -well – dead CUTE!


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