By: Karen Ann Cullotta
When I heard that a Chinese biotech firm had recently invented a genetically modified miniature pig petite enough to make the perfect pet, I knew my friend Lulu the guinea pig would be woefully unamused.
As Lulu pensively nibbled on a carrot before scurrying into her igloo for an afternoon nap, I lamented the fate of some of her kind. Despite possessing gentle and friendly demeanors and weighing only a dainty 1 or 2 pounds, many guinea pigs remain in rescue shelters, in need of loving homes.
Pondering humankind's interest in the micro pig, I can't help but wonder: Why isn't the guinea pig trending?
Long suffering the indignities of Merriam-Webster's dual definition — a small animal that is often kept as a pet and a person or thing used for testing something — the guinea pig has remained a beloved fixture in elementary school classrooms, where teachers reward well-behaved children with the privilege of bringing the "class pet" home for the weekend.
But despite its enduring popularity with kindergartners, the ever humble guinea pig — which by the way, is technically a "cavy," and not a pig — remains old school. It holds little appeal for those coveting the latest pet trend — be it a "micro pig," a "goldendoodle," or a Chihuahua tiny enough to tuck into a designer purse.
Fretting that the Chinese biotech firm's advances would prompt another bout of mini-pig fever brought back surreal memories of a cocktail party I attended in the 1990s, where the gin and tonic swilling crowd, myself included, spent the night cooing over the cage of the hostess's newly adopted Vietnamese potbellied pig.
I later learned that after the sweet, pink novelty pet had morphed into an enormous, and ever ravenous, swine, the owner — a sincere, albeit impulsive, alleged animal lover — had relinquished her pet. So too did most of those who fell prey to false claims from breeders insisting that when full-grown, the so-called "miniature pigs" would weigh no more than a medium-sized dog.
"These miniature pigs were initially sold at six weeks old for as much as $3,000," said KC Thiesen, the director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, reflecting on a pet trend she said has "ebbed and flowed" for decades.
"The pet owners were told they were buying a 'mini pig,' and that they would never weigh more than 30 pounds, but they obviously got fooled," Thiesen said.
Though Thiesen said she suspects that many of the unwanted, full-grown pigs likely ended up at farms, shelters and sanctuaries, one exception is Esther the Wonder Pig, a so-called micro pig who grew from 4 pounds, when she was adopted, to a whopping 500 pounds.
Today, Esther has her own website and a loyal Facebook following.
And consider the case of animal-loving celebrity Paris Hilton, whose trendy pet menagerie has included a pig, Princess Pigelette, as well as a purse dog, her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell — both of which likely received more care and pampering than most humans will see in a lifetime.
But of course, such is not the case for most animals that are unlucky enough to find themselves trending.
While millionaire heiress Hilton has unlimited resources to care for her many pets, Thiesen says the average prospective pet owner should do plenty of research before deciding to adopt an animal, even if it's a shelter dog or cat.
"Lots and lots of families want to share the gifting experience of a pet over the holidays," Thiesen says. "It can be hard to bring an animal into a home if the family's holidays are really chaotic. But it also can work out, as long as the pet owners are prepared and ready, and know what it means to care for an animal."
Of course, in addition to dogs and cats, local animal shelters and rescue organizations often have other animals like guinea pigs and rabbits that are available for adoption, as do retailers, like Petco, where I had the good fortune to meet Lulu.
Despite there being no shortage of adorable, baby guinea pigs for sale that day, when a Petco employee asked my daughter and I if we might be interested in holding an adult guinea pig who was available for adoption, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
So given all the joy inherent to adopting a shelter animal, be it a guinea pig, dog or cat, why are there still those burning to acquire the latest trendy pet?
"If I had the answer to that question, we could solve the problem of shelter euthanasia forever," Thiesen said, adding: "Sometimes it's about wanting a novelty, and having a pet that is different so the owner can stand out. People also can get their heartstrings pulled, and make an emotionally inspired decision to buy a pet, without considering the consequences."
Originally Published: Chicago Tribune