Tegan Moore lets me know she has been thinking a lot about gerbils lately. Read this wonderful post and you will be thinking about them, too.
“And what’s your gerbil’s name?” asked the receptionist.
“Starsong the Unicorn,” I said. “She’s not my gerbil. She’s a work gerbil.”
“Sorry,” the receptionist said, her brows hugged together. “I don’t know what that means.”
“Right. We just have a couple of gerbils at work. They don’t really belong to anyone. They’re all of ours, I guess.” I paused. She was writing something on the entry form. “The person who normally takes care of them is out of town, and she asked me to check on them today, and of course…”
She looked up, her sympathy well-practiced. “We’ll make Starsong comfortable and the doctor will call you once she’s done the exam.”
The bill for this yet-unaccomplished exam was $75. I left Starsong the Unicorn the gerbil and drove back to the office, unable to pinpoint my emotions.
When I was five we had two gerbils in a big tank in our basement. The were disappointingly named, though I can’t remember the names themselves, and one was brown and one was black and they were very cute and fond of each other. I wasn’t supposed to take them out of their tank unsupervised because of a previous hour-long gerbil manhunt, but rules about animals were the easiest ones to ignore.
The husband-gerbil, the black one, was my favorite, and I was only playing with him on the old couch for a few moments before he escaped me and scurried beneath it. He easily evaded my short arms, and no amount of waiting (ten seconds? Twenty?) convinced him that I was gone and the coast was clear. The last thing I wanted was to solicit adult help, because that would just prove that the rule I’d broken was there for a reason.
Maybe I could lure him out. The gerbil-kibble proved ineffective, and any interesting snacks were all the way upstairs, in the kitchen with my mom and her questions, and if I actually left the room the gerbil might slip out from under the couch and go truly missing.
The only other thing I had that the husband-gerbil might want was his wife.
I climbed onto the couch with her, so he couldn’t see my feet, and held her by her tail. He could see her, but not me, but I also couldn’t see him to tell if it was working. I gave the wife-gerbil a little alluring shake.
Her tail came off. About halfway down. It tore right in half. The wife-gerbil hit the cement floor and her husband came out to meet her. They both stood, wide-eyed, waiting for me. I put them back in their tank.
I hid the half of the tail, the little wormy bit of rope, in a pile of lumber in the storage room. I don’t remember anyone every saying anything about it, though someone must have noticed. They must have.
Starsong’s exam revealed a mass in her abdomen: a tumor, possibly, or an enlarged organ. She would need tests to determine what to do next.
“They want to do diagnostics,” I told my coworker over the phone. “It could be cancer or diabetes or even pneumonia. The X-rays are a hundred-fifty, and that’s not even treatment.” I paused. “Do you want to do it?”
We do all kinds of backbends and contortions around the mortality of pets.
If she’s in pain…
She wouldn’t understand that what they were doing was supposed to help.
And there’s no guarantee she’ll recover.
She’s already pretty old. I think we need to just let her go.
She lived a good life, as though that’s justification for cutting it short. If anything, She was happy should make death all the more tragic.
It’s not that any of these thoughts are wrong, that they’re lies we say to make what we do okay. But when it comes to animals, especially little things like gerbils, we have such complete power. We get to decide how and even if they live. Nobody’s fighting for them. It becomes painfully clear: when the pauses in the conversations where the defenses might go remain unfilled, when both people are holding their breath hoping that the other one doesn’t say, “let’s do this, let’s get the quote for gerbil chemo.” Because nobody really wants to do that. It’s just a gerbil.
If there’s any animal whose suffering and death I should be hardened toward it’s domestic rodents. Obsessed with farming as a child, I bred, raised and sold hamsters. At one point there were fifty-two of them, a number I was intensely proud of. I thought of them as stock animals, but small and disposable enough that if one or two died nobody noticed besides me.
The summer was an explosion of hamster babies, the now-murderous fathers removed to improvised cages and tanks. The mothers were hardly any less bloodthirsty. Hamsters eat their young at the slightest provocation, and being in the sole care of a ten-year-old with attention deficit disorder is a powerful stressor. Cannibalism was disappointing but common. The hamsters went, forgotten about, for days without water or food. They didn’t really get held or played with; my fantasy wasn’t about having animals to love (already had those), it was about volume. Raising stock. Farming can be merciless and mercenary, even when practiced by a child.
The hamsters wintered in our basement where they were even easier to ignore. One weekend, reminded by my mother and with guilt already heavy in my guts, I went down to check on them and found that one, an adult now, had escaped and fallen into her mother’s cage. Battle ensued, and, starving and stir-crazy, the mother ate the daughter. This was too much for me, even after all the infanticide I’d cleaned up after. I cried; I told my parents. My father emerged from his office to insist, solemnly, that once a hamster tastes blood, they’re done, set irrevocably on a downward slope towards sociopathy, mayhem and violence. He said this with a straight face, and fetched the shotgun he’d gotten for Christmas a few weeks earlier. It had never been shot at anything but hay bales. He brought the offending hamster—her name was Squeak, until now a peaceful animal and not even a frequent baby-eater—outside into the snow. I hid in the basement where I couldn’t hear the shot.
The hamster farm lost a lot of its appeal after that.
“Just come get us when you’re done saying goodbye,” said the vet tech, and I almost stopped him then. I didn’t need to say goodbye; this wasn’t my pet, it was just a gerbil. But I didn’t stop him.
Starsong was ragged, weak and breathing hard. She’d never been a cuddly personality but she was too tired to escape me now, and so I pet her soft head with my finger as she waddled in laborious circles on a towel. After a respectful few minutes, the tech came back with a syringe.
I remembered the process from my childhood dog: first a sedative, and then the killing dose. The needle seemed absurdly large for tiny Starsong, but she was too sick or too stoic to react. The tech left again for the few minutes the drug needed to take effect.
There’s not much difference between a sedated gerbil and a dead gerbil. After a moment I picked her up to see if I could still feel a pulse, or breathing. If there was anything, it was too faint to detect. She didn’t blink.
I thought, this is the first time she’s ever let me hold her.
She’s really pretty.
This is her last time. Her last moment. I’m holding the last minute of this animal’s entire existence.
Is she dead?
I could still change my mind.
The tech came back.
“I think she’s under,” I said. “She’s stopped moving.”
The tech gave me a tight-lipped smile as I handed Starsong over for the final drug. Was he judging me for not being more upset?
Probably not. He saw this sort of thing all the time.
We buried Starsong on the office patio in an iPhone 5 box. I could have had her cremated but that was another $45. It was the end of the day, and so afterward I washed the dirt off of my hands and went down to my car and thought, should I be sad?
I cried for a few seconds instead about my fourteen-year-old cat, who’s still in good health, and my husband, who is young and fit. It was just a couple of tears. I wanted this to matter. Life was all that Starsong had, and I took it from her because it was inconvenient not to, and because I felt bad for her, and because I could. It was the right choice, I think, but still: I took from that creature of her one possession. I took everything she had.