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Ifind out we have a guinea pig when I hear The Dog bark­ing in the front room. It is Satur­day morn­ing and I am the only one up, apart from The Dog and, it turns out, the guinea pig. I go to see what has pro­voked him – it is not un­known for him to bark at flies – and there, on the floor, is a tiny cage with a small, brown guinea pig cow­er­ing in the cor­ner, while The Dog pushes his snout against the bars and, for all the world, shouts at him. I re­mem­ber then that The Boy had phoned me the pre­vi­ous night at about half past ten, while I was out, and asked if we could mind his friend’s pet while she was on hol­i­days. My con­sent, ob­vi­ously, had been merely a for­mal­ity. Clearly, at that stage, we’d al­ready started mind­ing the an­i­mal.

I put The Dog in the kitchen and re­turn to in­spect my lat­est charge. His cage is so small as to be cruel, so I gen­tly lift him out and move a ta­ble and a box around on the floor to make a de­cent run for him. He has no wa­ter bot­tle, so I will have to fig­ure that out. In the mean­time, I nip out to the dewy lawn and pick him some lovely dandelion leaves, which he de­vours like, well, a pig. I rub his soft fur and af­ter a few ten­ta­tive moments, he re­laxes into the kit­ten­ish purr these creatures make. And I am back.

I fell into breed­ing guinea pigs by ac­ci­dent. Cer­tainly, as a small child, when peo­ple asked what I was go­ing to be, I never in­cluded breed­ing 76 guinea pigs as a fu­ture am­bi­tion. But we had this guinea pig, see, and for the long­est time he was the sad­dest, loneli­est an­i­mal you’ve ever seen. So, even­tu­ally, we per­suaded my mother than he should have a friend. I was 11 years old, just the wrong side of the facts of life, and so when Miss Piggy joined our fam­ily, I took GP’s im­me­di­ate ex­cite­ment as a sort of wel­come wagon. Odd as it seems now, I’m not sure it oc­curred to even the grown-ups that a fu­ture gen­er­a­tion of guinea pigs was now in­evitable. And cer­tainly, watch­ing GP dis­grace him­self in our garage that morn­ing, I had no idea that I, the third child, would be­come the sole cus­to­dian of 76 fu­ture furry friends.

I rub his soft fur and af­ter a while he re­laxes into the kit­ten­ish purr these creatures make. And I am brought

back to 1978

The first pair ar­rived on Au­gust 6, 1978, in a house in Salthill which we were rent­ing for the hol­i­days. I re­mem­ber the date be­cause some­thing else hap­pened that day too. When we came down that morn­ing, there they were: two tiny balls of sticky fur, and a pair of proud, if bewil­dered, par­ents. The ra­dio was mum­bling in the back­ground, just loud enough to get its mes­sage across. “MISS PIGGY’S HAD HER BA­BIES!!!!,” we screamed, as we burst into our par­ents’ bed­room. “Oh, and the Pope’s dead.”

It was the next lit­ter that sealed my fate as a solo guinea pig breeder. It was just a few months later and this time, there were four of them. We’d lost poor Ginger in a bizarre gar­den­ing ac­ci­dent, so now we had seven guinea pigs, which, my par­ents de­creed, was at least four too many. So word went out and peo­ple came, and there, right in front of Lit­tle Chip’s po­ten­tial new owner, I made my an­nounce­ment. There would be no guinea pigs leav­ing this house on my watch. I would take re­spon­si­bil­ity for these and all fu­ture pigs, do­ing all their feed­ing, groom­ing, graz­ing. I didn’t men­tion that I would even­tu­ally form a choir of guinea pigs, iden­ti­fy­ing those with deeper purrs to stand at the back while I rubbed them all si­mul­ta­ne­ously, be­cause I didn’t know that yet. I also didn’t know that in fifth year, I would de­liver a bi­ol­ogy project on guinea pig ge­net­ics and ex­plain how, within four gen­er­a­tions, I had man­aged to pro­duce an al­bino and a black- eyed, black-furred spec­i­men in the same lit­ter (no, I have no idea now, but I do re­mem­ber Mrs Gal­lagher be­ing wildly im­pressed).

It was a funny thing, my guinea pig phase. I rarely think about it now, though I can see why other peo­ple think that breed­ing 76 guinea pigs was an odd way to spend my early teens. For me, it was some­thing that just hap­pened. And I know my own kids are watch­ing me han­dle this lat­est ad­di­tion and spend­ing stupid amounts of time fret­ting over his liv­ing con­di­tions and I know the ques­tion is com­ing. So no, it won’t hap­pen again.

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