Friday, September 22, 2006

Goodbye Clover

Everyone else on the Catholic Herald is thinking about the dialogue between Christianity and Islam, but my heart is too full. Clover the guinea pig died last night. She was our last guinea pig.

I recall a Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strip about the death of a guinea pig called Fred. The children ask Daddy what will happen to Fred, and he tells them about decomposition and organic decay. The children ask Mummy, and she tells them that Fred will always live in their memories.

Finally the children ask Granny what will happen to Fred, and Granny tells them that Fred will go to “guinea pig heaven”. A wonderful picture shows Fred approaching the gates of Paradise, welcomed by St Peter and a smiling host of winged guinea pigs.

In the final frame of the cartoon strip, the children agree: “We like Granny’s idea best.”

I started keeping guinea pigs to help the children learn about caring and death, and ended up being more worried about them than anyone else. I know guinea pigs are not considered to be exciting animals but you see, Clover was an unusually brave, spirited and resourceful guinea pig.

She came to us five years ago as a refugee, because her first home was overcrowded. I hate keeping animals in solitary confinement, so we bought a companion for her, a very dull little guinea pig called Porridge.

One night Clover and Porridge were left out in their run on the grass by mistake. It was past midnight when I sat up in bed, remembering them. I rushed out barefoot: as I feared, the local urban fox had got there before me. Poor dim Porridge was gone.

But Clover was still there, and unharmed. The fox must have been planning to come back for her later.

For a guinea pig to survive a fox attack is quite unusual. Guinea pigs are not brave: they are famous for dying on the spot at the slightest provocation. But Clover was undaunted. She probably fought the fox off with her bare teeth.

A week later she revealed herself to be a girl with a past, producing two dear little babies from nowhere. The babies grew up and by the time we had the elder boy “neutralised” Clover had, uncomplainingly, given birth to four children. One died, two were given away and the favourite, Harris, stayed to keep her company.

Ever since Harris died last spring I agonised about finding a new companion for Clover – at first she seemed to go into a decline, losing half her hair. Guinea pigs are martyrs to skin problems, but was she grieving as well?

I had thought a guinea pig’s memory was not up to the complexities of grief, but now I am not so sure. As I agonised, Clover suddenly grew her hair back, regained her appetite and seemed to enjoy a merry widowhood until time took its toll.

For a Christian, pet-owning should be suffused with guilt, but not so much as to cause suffering. Keeping pets should not be about keeping them alive; it should be about providing the best, which means the most natural, life for them in the brief spell they have on earth.

Nobody who puts clothes on a dog, except in exceptionally cold weather, deserves to be called an animal lover; nobody who prolongs an animal’s life with medication that causes more discomfort than it relieves is genuinely an animal lover. And however adorable new kittens may be, nobody who allows an un-neutered tomcat to roam around can call themselves an animal lover.

Pets are a luxury which I fear we have no right to. Every time I put fresh Thames Water Authority H2O into Clover’s personal drinking fountain daily, the 6,000 children who die every day because they do not have clean drinking water would cross my mind. As I paid the bill for the mange treatment, I remembered the children dying of AIDS.

The guilt of knowing pets are a luxury should be enough to prevent us from spending money on pets which should be spent elsewhere (dog fashions, for example) and from making the animal suffer simply because we cannot face up to their death. But it should not prevent us from letting them live and die as they would wish to.

Goodbye Clover. With your two lovers, four children, your refugee and fox survival experiences, not forgetting your lawn-mowing hobby, you lived as full, passionate and useful a life as a rodent can hope for. You taught us much, and we shall miss you. And yes, we do like Granny’s idea best.

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