Creature Comforts

When regular animal shelters can't accommodate hamsters, guinea pigs and other tiny pets, this big-hearted group comes to the rescue.

October 18, 2005|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

The plight of the piggly-wigglies -- that is to say, guinea pigs -- had gnawed at Sue Wilmot for nearly a decade. Nothing saddened her like the spectacle of the average animal shelter, where unwanted guineas inhabit cracked aquariums, in many cases denied their favorite snacks of fresh parsley and watermelon and the ping-pong balls they like to play with.

During visiting hours, children descend on them, hands grasping like talons. At night, the guineas cower beneath the slit-eyed surveillance of rows and rows of cats.

Wilmot began visiting shelters across Maryland years ago, taking along her young daughter Sophie.

"We would tour just to see the piggies," Wilmot says. "We realized that the piggies had been, had been ..."

"Forgotten," finishes Sophie.

The two grow solemn.

Their frowns don't last, though, and that's because the Wilmots are at present sipping tea in the new sun porch off the back of their lovely Mount Airy home, a glass-walled room that Wilmot's husband calls "the most expensive guinea-pig run known to man." Upward of a dozen guinea pigs gambol in spacious, hay-heaped cages on the porch floor and in the kitchen beyond. Mother and daughter take turns swaddling them in freshly washed dish towels, and cradling them like infants.

Most of these lucky little squeakers are wards of Small Angels Rescue, a rodent-only animal shelter that Wilmot helped to found two years ago, and which is the largest local rescue of its kind. Sophie, now 15, is on the board. (Her 17-year-old brother is emphatically not).

Another founding member, 33-year-old Michelle Clowe, a massage therapist, soon joins the Wilmots in the guinea run, where she is handed a rakish-looking redheaded guinea pig.

"This is Rufus," Wilmot says. "Isn't he gorgeous?"

He is, indeed, with his polished-looking brown eyes and long auburn fur. His good looks may help him find a "forever home," which is the rescuers' dearest hope for every one of their salvaged "small angels," which most people know as guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, hamsters, chinchillas and rats. Of the more than 1,200 animals the nonprofit group has saved so far, about 800 have been placed in new homes in Maryland and surrounding states.

Similar pocket-pet rescue programs operate across the country, some even more narrowly focused than Small Angels -- saving only hedgehogs, for instance. The groups -- which typically operate without traditional bricks-and-mortar shelters -- are becoming more common, largely enabled by online forums that allow rescuers to cast a wide net for new owners while caring for the delicate animals in private homes.

At Small Angels, most of the rodents are surrendered by overburdened dog-and-cat shelters that lack extensive rodent facilities, or turn away rodents altogether. Typically, the process begins with Clowe's jangling cell phone, and a short conversation like this:

"Yes. Uh-huh. Chocolate Cocoa Puff? Sure."

Finding foster homes

The Frederick County Animal Shelter has a new hamster in; from the description, Clowe guesses it's a Syrian. Later, she'll pick up the aforementioned Cocoa Puff, then try to place the animal in the Small Angels network of about two dozen foster homes, many of them species-specific (the Wilmots, for instance, handle guinea pigs exclusively). Eventually, a detailed description of the animal is posted on adoption Web sites like Petfinder.org, or, locally, Marylandpet.com. These profiles are touchingly exact, stressing the idiosyncrasies of each animal: a certain toothless teddy-bear hamster named Princess Aveena likes to nibble cooked spaghetti; Bert, a ginger-colored guinea, recently recovered from the loss of his life mate.

Interested parties e-mail or call Small Angels to arrange an appointment to visit the desired rodent, and undergo a rigorous interview process. They can also meet pets at weekly adoption booths Small Angels runs at area malls and elsewhere.

Silly as these pocket-pet rescues may seem to some, there is a huge need for them, area shelter directors said.

"These guys are great," said Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County, which last year outsourced seven chinchillas, two gerbils, 17 bunnies, five guinea pigs, eight rats, 29 mice, 27 hamsters and a hedgehog to Small Angels Rescue and similar groups.

At a traditional shelter, a mouse can expect "food and water and a clean spot," Ratliff explained. "But these groups can focus on these animals. They're like pet hotels, where they get television and everything."

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