The very first living creature for whom I ever had complete responsibility was a gerbil. His name was Elmo. He was black and white, which cost me an extra two dollars. I was thirteen and wanted to go all out. This was before the age of digital cameras so I don’t have a photo of Elmo. He looked a lot like this guy.
My younger sister also purchased a gerbil at the same time. She named him Frenchie. At the time I remember we thought these names hilarious. I can’t recall why. I can’t even recall why we wanted gerbils in the first place. Frenchie was a “non-fancy” so he was cheaper. He looked something like this guy.
Only more evil.
On average gerbils live up to three years of age. Elmo lasted about that long. Frenchie, however, lived much longer. I believe we had him for at least five and a half years. Four years too long. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My sister and I had all sorts of plans for our new rodent friends. My parents paid for the cage, bedding, exercise wheel, and food. It was our job to take care of them. Because I had a friend who had an endless succession of hamsters growing up, all the way to Fluffy IX, I figured myself the expert on gerbil rearing so I got to have them in my bedroom first. We planned on switching every other month, but as the oldest I knew I would find a way to extend my time with them when the month was up.
For the first few days everything was awesome. We got a little plastic ball we would put them in and watch them roll around the house. Again, I have no idea why we found this so amusing. Most of the time they would just stand there urinating until we took them out. Poor little souls. It was even fun cleaning their cage. We put them in a large cardboard box and took turns making sure they didn’t jump out while the other dumped the litter. I loved holding them, even when they tried to eat my fingers. Their little claws scraping at my skin for dear life made me giggle. I tried to teach them to use their exercise wheel but neither seemed all that interested. Maybe if clicker training had been more popular back then I would have had more success. For the most part all they did during the day was sleep and poop. I grew bored.
Gerbils, apparently, are nocturnal. I read this in the little booklet the pet store gave us but didn’t give it much thought. After a week, I realized what exactly this means. Though utterly dull during waking hours, at night the little jerks would come alive, squeaking on their wheel, burrowing in their bedding, scratching at the floor of their cage, and banging their water bottle against the metal bars. They made a complete mess of my bedroom carpet with the gerbil litter flying all over the place. Essentially, they drove me up the wall. With two weeks of very little sleep, it was time to call it quits.
“Hey, Joanna!” I called to my sister. “Since I am the best sister ever, I have decided to let you have Frenchie and Elmo for a little while.”
“Really??! Yay!” cried my unwitting sibling. “Thank you so much!”
Naturally, it wasn’t too long before she realized the problem with gerbils and wanted to give them back. This continued on and off for awhile. Her forcing them back on me, me forcing them back on her, each of us dreading our time with the nasty buggers. Eventually my parents had enough of our arguing and made a place for the cage in our family room.
At this point it was about a year in and we were done with finding them at all amusing. Taking care of them became just another chore. Except for routine cleanings and feedings, Frenchie and Elmo were left to their own devices. Probably the way they preferred it.
And then, tragedy struck. At about the age of three, Frenchie had had enough of his fancy friend. Maybe he was tired of Elmo eating all the food, maybe he was tired with Elmo taking up all the space in their little house, maybe he just felt like being evil. Either way, the brown gerbil decided the cage wasn’t big enough for two of them and committed rodenticide. My mother was the first one to find the body. I still don’t know what she did with him and I’d like to keep it that way. While I was a little sad that my dream of a gerbil friend had ended so violently, I don’t think I lost much sleep over it. Poor Elmo.
It was two more years before Frenchie finally passed. I can only assume it was old age. He lived quite happily alone in the mean time. All the food, bedding, and wheel time he could ever dream of, without too many grabby human hands. Since he was my sister’s gerbil, I made her do most of the work. After all, I couldn’t be expected to be nice to Elmo’s murderer.
For a little while, after they both were gone, I felt bad we hadn’t spent more time with them. Though now I think they probably preferred it that way. It was probably the secret to Frenchie’s longevity. In all those years – other than to defecate in their plastic ball – they never once got free of their cage. They never once knew what it felt like to roam free.
I don’t think I would ever get a gerbil as a pet again. They are too much work for so little reward. And if I ever have children and they decide it is what they want most in the whole world?
I will tell them to go play with the dog.