Tag Archives: gerbils

In Memory of Polish and Pepper Steadman (September 2010 – 29th November and 21st May 2013)

Polish and Pepper

For the past 14 years, the Steadman house has been a temple of gerbil worship. Twelve gerbils, spanning five generations*, have been the focal point of both the lounge and family relations. They’re the everyday staple of conversation when perfunctory topics such as home and school have been exhausted, while the experience of watching television involves one eye watching the screen and the other to its left, from where sounds of scurrying emanate and furry little silhouettes ghost about in a luxurious 3-foot tank. (*None related; we stuck to same-sex pairs because baby gerbils are a whole new level of responsibility – sometimes when the mother is startled, she turns cannibal on her babies. Not nice.)

This may seem odd to an outsider; cats and dogs are usually ‘family’ pets. They’re the ones who roam freely within the house, bothering everyone, in full view even when asleep. Gerbils, as with other rodents, are more commonly the pet of an individual, hidden away in a plastic cage in a child’s bedroom. But not here. They’re primarily my dad’s responsibility: he feeds them, cleans them, coos at them loudly when I’m trying to sleep. My mum, more detached from them, is nonetheless their ambulance when a trip to the vet comes around. My brother will snatch moments of interaction with them and, when called upon, looks after them. I’m just the one who bothers them and burdens them with the minutiae of my melodramas.

All their lives have had funny, adorable, touching and heartbreaking moments. All have had little quirks only noticeable to those who study them day in, day out. All have been loved in life, and mourned in death. But Polish and Pepper, the fifth generation, were very special indeed.

Back for Christmas after my first term at uni to a gerbil-less house, following the deaths of Toffee in June and, more recently, his brothers Fudge (October) and Caramel (November), my dad and I went to the local garden centre’s pet store area, ostensibly ‘just to look at the animals’. This is like a reforming alcoholic going to the pub ‘just to look at the spirits’; he’s not going to stay reformed for long.

Inevitably, we looked at the gerbils, and the two little furballs in the middle cage caught our eye. One was black, the other dark brown. One of them – my dad insists the former, I think it was the latter – somehow managed to scramble her way up their water dispenser until she was on top of it.  This was a breathtaking feat of gerbil tekkers, something that neither I nor my dad had seen in our 11 years of gerbil-watching, and something that I still cannot comprehend the logistics of. In any case, this made our minds up once and for all, and we toddled off to my mum’s workplace guiltily, to get her assent to buy them. She gave it. It would have been futile to resist.

The pet store put them in a cardboard box with air holes, as they had done with all our gerbils. Except these two were not content to merely scamper about confusedly – instead, they scratched about as if trying to escape, and tried to nibble their way out. This was to become a lifelong habit for both of them. As soon as the lid of the tank was off, one – or, when at their most devious, both – would clamber up to the raised cardboard tubes they would play in, and peer out inquisitively. When they were in the travel tank, a small plastic cage used only for when they were being transported to my grandparents’ house for a holiday or when the main tank was being cleaned out, they would stand on top of their sleeping tube and launch themselves off it, with a view to headbutting the ‘hatch’ in the centre of the lid. They’d mischievously (and correctly) identified the hatch as the roof’s weakness, and escaping through it as their best chance of escape. People laughed when we said they were intelligent, but they really were.

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Polish prepares to try to headbutt the hatch open.

They shared other personality quirks too. Both were selective about food, and liked to kick undesirable bits of their gerbil mix out of the food bowl, before sitting in it…

Polish dives headfirst into the foodbowl.

Polish dives headfirst into the foodbowl.

…They were extremely inquisitive, and enjoyed peering out the windows in their viewing tube to see what we were doing, both individually…

Polish watches us from the viewing tube.

 …and together…

Pepper and Polish watch together. (Pepper did not have red demon eyes in reality.)

Pepper and Polish watch together. (Pepper did not have red eyes in reality. I don’t notice this bit of the picture any more but other people always do 😦 )

…They also liked their corner tube, whether standing on it…

Pepper on the upright tube.

Pepper on the upright tube.

…or hiding in it…

Polish plays Hide and Seek. She's not hiding very well.

Polish plays Hide and Seek. She’s not hiding very well.

…They liked the competition of seeing who could get to the food first, although the loser of this competition would often ruthlessly squash her sister in her quest to stuff her face…

FOOD FIGHT

FOOD FIGHT

Although I was away at uni for half their lives, I felt closer to them than any previous gerbils. Where all our previous ‘generations’ have had one outgoing gerbil and one shy one, ‘Polly’ and Pepper were equally friendly and docile, meaning we handled them more than any of the others. When I was miserably homesick in the first year at uni, and more broodingly so in the second year, my parents would send pictures and updates about ‘the little girls’, and even once a month put them in the travel tank and show them to me on Skype. This was usually reserved for days when they were being cleaned out, but occasionally happened for special occasions, including my 21st birthday. Sadly this was the last time I saw Pepper, who died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months before her third birthday and a few days before I was due to return home from uni for good. I was devastated; she had always been slightly more friendly to me than Polish had, and as such I felt slightly ‘closer’ to her.

Gerbils are extremely sociable animals – any pet store that sells them individually is doing their job wrong – but also very territorial. Putting together two adult gerbils that don’t know each other is a recipe for disaster that will often end violently. So Polish was now deprived of her sister and playmate, who she loved to play-fight with in the day but cuddle up to at night, with no hope of a new one. As a result, she became grumpy and anti-social.

Polish being sassy.

Polish being sassy.

To counteract this, my dad embarked on a mission to handle and play with her more so that she wouldn’t feel lonely. Recently reinstalled in the family home, unemployed and miserable about developments in my personal life, I found myself spending a lot of time watching her, talking to her and stroking her (far more effective and adorable than a stress ball). Over time she became even more tame than before, although no less eager to escape, and proved that you can teach an old gerbil new tricks; she is probably the only gerbil to have ever sent a text (my dad held his phone out to her, she leant her paws on it and in doing so tapped out a message of ‘Lhd D’, whose meaning has yet to be deciphered), though her attempts to escape by trying to crawl up my arm were unsuccessful. She also spent her time watching me on Countdown, coming out while my parents watched my games on TV and peering up at the screen intently, and developing a months-long obsession with apple oats (a delicacy of porridge oats mixed with apple puree).

Polly's favourite: apple oats. When she finished them, she would look meaningfully at the bowl and then watch my dad until he looked at her, before looking at the empty bowl and sitting in it as a protest. It always worked. Gerbils can be skilled manipulators.

Polly’s favourite: apple oats. When she finished them, she would look meaningfully at the empty bowl and then watch my dad until he looked at her, before sitting in the bowl as a protest. It always worked. Gerbils can be skilled manipulators.

Sadly, no good thing can last forever. Gerbils fade very quickly once they become ill: although seemingly in perfect health on Tuesday, her condition on Wednesday evening made it clear she wouldn’t be around for much longer. But this was a gerbil who in three years would not be swayed from her tendency to try and escape, no matter how many times we told her off or tried to shoo her away from sticking her nose out of the top of the tank. She would not give in.

No matter how weak she was, she kept moving around the tank, spending time in her favourite places – the apple oats bowl, the viewing window, the standing-up tube – and, while my dad and I thought that we’d seen her alive for the last time on Thursday morning, she not only made it through to the evening, but made it through to Friday morning too.

She’s at peace now, and if a Gerbil Heaven exists (and I hope it does), I hope she’s sharing the joy of apple oats with Pepper. I will choose to remember her with this image…

oh, and one more thing

…and the two of them together with this one.

Yup, the red eyed one again.

Yup, the red eyed one again.

RIP girls. You were wonderful xxx

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