San Mateo Guinea Pig Rescue
Center fears post-Easter pet problems
By Tiffany Maleshefski
SAN MATEOĺEaster is over.
The aluminum, multi-colored bunny wrappers have been properly recycled, the foul smell leading to the last of the unfound Easter eggs has been eradicated and dental appointments have been appropriately scheduled.
Easterís aftermath has cleaned out pet storesí floppy-eared bunnies.
And most likely, those newly adopted animals will consequently wind up at the nearest humane society, animal shelter, or in the San Mateo home of Teresa Murphy and Robert Garcia.
"Weíre expecting the pet store dropouts," said Garcia, referring to the anticipated influx of guinea pigs and rabbits that will be directed to their small-animal rescue operation, Cavy Spirit.
The couple knows too well that the holidays yield huge profits to pet stores at a cost of abandoned animals, recklessly purchased by people hoping to stay within the spirit of the holiday season.
Too many times that has led to abandoned bunnies and guinea pigs deposited in proverbial baskets at their doorstep.
Murphy explained that too many people write off small animals or rodents Ė such as guinea pigs, rabbits or rats--, as an "easy animal" to take care of.
Not realizing the temperamental nature of rabbits, nor the intense amount of attention needed to care for guinea pigs, people, especially parents, give up pretty quickly on an animal they bought on a whim.
At one time 51 guinea pigs sought refuge with Murphy and Garcia.
They estimate spending $25,000 annually, out of pocket, to pay for the care of animals Ė and vacations are few and far between.
It is a labor of love, but it is definitely taxing. It takes Murphy and Garcia about six hours to thoroughly clean all the cages once a week.
"I canít say no," said Murphy, explaining how no guinea pig is turned away. "But if I had 20 or less guinea pigs then I could have my life back, and we have average of 40."
Although they help find homes for the many rabbits that will inevitably be kicked out of homes across the country, Murphy and Garcia realized early in their quest to save animals that they could only choose one battle.
And for now that means guinea pigs.
Murphy and Garcia already house 38 guinea pigs in their pristine San Mateo home. Itís enough to make those not in the know cringe, wrinkle their noses or simply ponder, how and why?
But entering their spacious residence, the tale of five years of guinea pig rescue and adoption offers any newcomers the chance to change their mind.
Guinea pig kingdom
The guinea pig kingdom is a maze of tables and scientifically constructed cages invented by Murphy.
Kitchen Fred, a black and white American guinea pig peers out of one of the cages, squeaking to his heartís content, hoping to nab a bit of lettuce.
Buddy comes out to get a friendly scratch on the nose while his roommate Tina scampers around a soft bed.
The labyrinth of cages lined up around the room resembles a large commune of furry creatures.
Coroplast sign boards are the base of the pen, while detachable crates from the nearest office supply store make the retaining walls and the cages all sit on regular folding tables, side by side; a maximum of three to four pigs per pen.
Original and purchased guinea pig art adorns the walls.
A framed photo of the guinea pig that started it all, Babe, oversees the entire operation. Babe is credited with igniting the love Murphy and Garcia hold for the chatty animals that chirp sounds of communication to one another.
They then had two guinea pigs, which turned to eight guinea pigs, which meant additional guinea pigs when Murphy took a trip to the pet store and couldnít stomach the treatment that animals were given there.
She took matters into her own hands, converting the garage into a cage-constructing workstation and her home into an adoption rescue center.
"Weíre suckers," Garcia offers as explanation.
Guinea pigs are paired together according to how their personalities mesh. The second camp of cavies (their animal classification name) is in what used to be a ballet practice room. In a sunny back room, more guineas await adoption.
In the meantime, they avidly watch Animal Planet on the television and enjoy one anotherís companionship, thanks to Murphyís diligence.
Roommate situations at this guinea pig compound are carefully monitored.
Guinea pigs are selected to be cage-mates after being screened by Murphy and Garcia to ensure that no personality conflicts will be encountered.
They also try to find lifetime partners for the animals, mandating that any prospective adopters take two guinea pigs and one of Murphyís specially designed cages as part of the their adoption agreement.
On this particular evening they have found homes for one pair of guinea pigs, but took in four others hoping to find a future home.
Itís a grueling schedule to keep 38 guinea pigs clean, happy and loved.
But not grueling enough, Murphy and Garcia say, to persuade this couple to give their chirping treasures to just any taker.
Murphy and Garcia have developed a highly detailed screening process to find potential adopters of the guinea pigs residing in their care. It starts with an intense 30-question form that Murphy posts for potential guinea pig owners on her website.
After Murphy has screened out the weak from the strong, she then invites potential owners to select a pair of guinea pigs that must be able to live compatibly. The adopters must come back a second time to make sure they are ready to commit.
And they must abide by the rules dictated in the "guinea pig adoption contract" that stipulates they will not breed the animal, care for the guinea pig as a household pet and even invites Murphy or Garcia to make an onsite visit once a week for the first month of ownership.
Only the qualified get to go home with a guinea pig.
"Twenty-five percent [of interested adopters] end up with an animal," said Murphy.
She canít take any chances, she says, as she has been burned in the past and is trying to break a cycle of mistreatment that starts in the pet store and doesnít necessarily end in someoneís home.
"Pet stores are very hit-and-miss," said Murphy. "I have been in all the pet stores on the Peninsula and proper pet care is so lame, itís not even funny."
"There is zero motivation for a store to care about an animal. It is a total sunk cost," said Murphy. "Petco is notorious for selling animals with upper-respiratory problems."
That cycle is then further perpetuated in the home.
Parents not realizing an animal like a guinea pig can live between five and eight years find their child gets bored, or they donít want to spend the time and money on the pet they thought would be cheap and low-maintenance.
"They think they want an animal to teach their child responsibility," said Murphy. "It is just not right. Guinea pigs need to be adopted as a family pet."
And with animal service agencies overloaded with animal issues specific to more popular animals like cats and dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits are kept on the back burner of social concern.
Murphy and Garcia are just trying to pick up the slack and will do so for as long as they can.
"As long as we can continue to afford it and have our health," said Murphy. "Itís hard with two professionals with careers to do this."
From what can be observed, Kitchen Fred and the rest of the gang are most appreciative.
"[Murphy] started it and just go it all rolling," said Garcia. "It gets infectious, it gets kind of entertaining."
For more information on how you can adopt, volunteer and rescue small animals, visit Murphyís website at www.cavyspirit.com or call 650-571-1722.