One Down

Exactly how does one administer CPR to a gerbil?

Last summer, I broke a cardinal rule of parenting – never take the kids to the pet store. In some ways it’s worse than taking them into a toy store. There is just as much pleading and bargaining, but what you find yourself going home with eats, pees and stays with you sometimes long after the kids move out.

My moment of weakness came from wanting to save time and gas. The kids and I were in a store next door when I remembered I needed an aerator for the fish tank. I should have thought twice about it. For weeks, my son Brendan (who was 9 at the time) had been pleading for a pet to call his own. The dog and cat, apparently, didn’t count. They were family pets and didn’t pay much attention to him. And, adding to the pile of sibling resentment, his brother had a fish tank in his room.

The moment we crossed the threshold of the automatic doors, Brendan began arguing his case. It wasn’t fair, he moaned, that everyone else had a pet and he didn’t. His life could never be complete unless he had one, too. And what better pet, than a small one that’s easy to keep - a guinea pig. I’m normally an animal lover, but rodents were an exception for me. I just didn’t like them, and guinea pigs squeal whenever they see you. So when I found myself at the pet store with my youngest son next to the guinea pigs pleading with his big blue eyes, I put my foot down. “No guinea pig.” I declared. “How about something smaller like a gerbil?” That a girl. Way to stand your ground.

The store had two gerbils in a glass tank. One was dark brown and cute as a button. The other looked like an angry little rat. It was gray and fat with (of all things) red eyes. I was scared of the second one, so I nudged Brendan to choose the cutey pie. He named her Speedy.

The day after we got her home, the pleading started again. “I feel bad for the one we left at the store.” He whined. “She’s all by herself, and Speedy misses her.”

So I found myself back at the pet store flagging down a clerk to fish out the scary one for me. Seeing how skittish the clerk was as she tried to get the animal into the little box, I knew my instincts were right about this one. No sooner had I gotten her home, than the little ingrate clamped down on my finger. Within a couple of weeks, the little devil (who, for reasons we’ll never understand, was given the name Happy) had also bitten both of the boys. No matter. Brendan felt his life was complete.

For the next six months I had a comfortable routine taking care of “the girls,” as we called them. Once a week I cleaned out the cage. When a toilet paper or paper towel roll was emptied, we tossed it to them and watched them chew it into pulp. I even bought the girls a Christmas present - a ‘snack shack’ made of wood and filled with seeds and corn.

Happy had begun to grow on me, and even restrained herself one day when I was cleaning the cage. She put her teeth just lightly on my finger before I could pull away, but she didn’t clamp down. “Good girl,” I cooed.

Then one evening I looked in and saw Happy wobbling around with her eyes closed. I reached in to touch her and see if I could get a response. I could feel her little skeleton through her ruffled fur. She must not have eaten in a couple of days.

As I picked her up and cradled her in a towel, the boys came in the room and saw right away that something was wrong with Happy. There wasn’t much hope I could give them. “She might just be really old.” I whispered, stroking her tiny head. “They only live for a couple of years, and we don’t know how old she is.”

I took Happy downstairs and put her in an extra cage we had. I wasn’t sure what to do with her next. As I went back up to Brendan’s room to say goodnight, I could hear him muttering an earnest bedtime prayer for Happy. I knew he felt as helpless as I did, and I couldn’t bear to see him so sad. As I kissed him goodnight, I made a solemn vow that I would do whatever I could for her. At that, he gave me a sad, grateful smile.

That was how I ended up driving to the emergency vet at 10 o’clock at night. Walking into the waiting room, I could hear the barking and whining of man’s best friend. I felt a little silly carrying in a gerbil cage. Most people, I was sure, didn’t go through so much trouble for this kind of animal. But the receptionist was reassuring as she took Happy from me. She was a rat lover and told me I was doing a noble thing.

I sat down and filled out the necessary forms. Most of the questions were unanswerable: her age, vaccinations, whether she’d been spayed or neutered. An hour later, I’d finished reading all the magazines the waiting room had to offer, Cat Fancy and Lowcountry Dog (What? No Gerbil Quarterly?).

Finally, the veterinarian came to talk to me about Happy’s condition. She was not optimistic. She brought up the option of euthanasia first, which surprised me. She had little experience with such small animals and didn’t have much confidence in healing her. I wanted the doctor to tell me straight out that the animal was going to die before sun up and not to waste my time, but she didn’t.

The other option was to inject fluids and antibiotics and keep her over night. At best, they could keep her alive long enough to be taken to the exotic pet specialist across the street. I thought about my promise to Brendan. This was his pet, not mine. The last thing I would do is break my promise to him and put her to sleep.

When I told the vet my decision, she solemnly handed me one last paper to sign. It was a ‘do not resuscitate’ form. No doubt there was a puzzled look on my face. Exactly how does one administer CPR to a gerbil?

After dropping $150 for Happy’s injections and overnight stay in a warm incubator, I drove home bleary eyed. I’d told the vet not to wake me if the gerbil died. I would find out when I called in the morning. At midnight I crawled into bed with a feeling strangely like shopper’s remorse. This was an impulse purchase that would most likely leave me empty handed.

The next morning when I told Brendan I had kept my promise and that Happy was at the emergency vet, a big fat tear rolled down his cheek and he smiled. It was worth it.

Happy died early that morning. I was relieved the ordeal was over, but knew that within a year or two I’d have to do it all over again with Speedy. One down, one to go. “Please, God,” I prayed, “When it’s her turn to die, let it be while we’re out of town.”


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