It’s hard to know where to start writing something like this, other than to say that everyone who has lost the companionship of a little animal friend knows exactly where I’m coming from. Some of you probably weren’t even aware I had a chinchilla, since as a cage-dwelling small pet, Willow was generally less interested in trips to the ranch or the beach than are the dogs.
In order to explain why I’m all broken up over a rodent (and they are rodents, though a family of their own within the order Rodentia), I will introduce you to chinchillas a little bit.
Chinchillas are presented at “big box” pet stores as impulse-buy pets, along with guinea pigs, rats, and hamsters. To their credit, most of these stores do have tags nearby describing a chinchilla’s needs and lifespan, but they’re not housed at the store or marketed in a way which reflects this. That sparks varying degrees of sadness and rage in me, because a chinchilla is absolutely not a good impulse pet. Not that there are any pets that are, but chins in particular have very specific food, care, and housing requirements, as well as a lifespan the same length as a cat’s. This is all even more important and meaningful to me now, because Willow was my very first commitment pet — the first long-lived, high-maintenance creature who was my responsibility and mine alone.
I had owned hamsters and fish before, and I’d wanted a chinchilla for a while. Like all kids, at first I just wanted one because they’re cute, and because they’re personable and interesting little animals. 15 years ago, they weren’t very common. But I did my pet-research homework and checked out books from the library (wow, that seems archaic), compiling copious amounts of facts and evidence to present Exhibit A, Why Meagan Should Have a Chinchilla, before the jury (my mom, Not At All Sure Meagan Should Have a Chinchilla). This went on in the background for a couple of years — hint hint, chinchillas are great, hint hint, look at this cute picture of one — but I was busy with school, and honestly had no business acquiring a new animal.
In the summer of 2000, everything changed. That’s a whole story unto itself, but the short version is that I got sick, and by fall it was clear that I was not going to get better, at least not for a long time. My life was unraveling, and all that school, homework, friendship, and extracurricular activity that kept me busy was falling apart. I was home a lot. I couldn’t do any of the things I enjoyed. At the time, I felt like my mom’s sudden approval of chinchilla acquisition was random and inexplicable, but looking back on it now, I understand that she was trying to give me something happy to help me keep my mind off what was otherwise turning out to be a very, very terrible period of my life. I’ll always be grateful to her for that. So we went to a small pet store in the mall, because big boxes didn’t sell chinchillas then and I didn’t know where else to get one, and we picked out Willow. She was around 6 – 8 months old at the time, so I estimated that she was born early in the year 2000. I remember being astounded at how incredibly soft her fur was, unlike any other creature I’d encountered, and how sweet she was when I held her. “She’s like an angel!” I said, over and over, “She’s a little angel!” My mom said, “I think you’ve named her,” and I immediately shut up because I didn’t want a pet named Angel. I liked “Jade” but my mom said that was too hard for such a nice soft critter, and we settled on Willow.
Dad was, as he’s been with all my animal acquisitions, resigned, bemused, and ultimately on board wholeheartedly. He built Willow a cage according to the specifications I’d learned in my books, and I painted her name on the front. “If you don’t like her,” he joked, “We can make earmuffs.”
My mom’s plan worked, because Willow and I spent many happy hours together, and I enjoyed caring for her and playing with her. I would sit down in the hallway outside my bedroom and let her run around, shooing her away from taking bites out of the baseboard and presenting her with a variety of cardboard boxes to savage. She would perch on my arms and legs and shoulders (see above) and hang out with me there, and if she felt particularly ambitious, would sit all the way up on my head like a little bright-eyed, precariously balanced chinchilla hat.
As an adult, I am scrupulously against young people owning chinchillas (or cats and dogs), because there does come a point when you have to go away to college or other adult life endeavors, and someone has to look after it. My parents were kind enough to watch over Willow while I was in the dorms and Australia, and as soon as I could, I brought Willow to live with me in my college apartment. I set up space for her to scurry around my kitchen, and Willow and I disagreed constantly over whether or not she should be permitted to explore the enchanting realms under and behind the refrigerator. She kept me company while I did my homework, and her quiet, soft presence was endlessly comforting as I questioned my life choices, broke up with my boyfriends, struggled with my health, and somewhere along the line, turned into a grown up.
So as much as I don’t approve of kids getting chinchillas, I wouldn’t be who I am without mine. Willow taught me long-term pet ownership and commitment I wouldn’t have learned without her. I went through several cages, foods, hay, toy types, research, research, research over the years. I learned how to learn. I learned how to be involved. I learned that pets bring joy, inconvenience, and expense. I learned that they poop a lot. I learned how to be there for something that needs me, and how rewarding that can be. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as involved with Indy and Jet as I am if I hadn’t learned through Willow that the kind of pet owner I want to be is a deeply engaged one.
And now it’s over. Willow was doing fine on Sunday; bright-eyed and bushy tailed and happy to see the kids, as always. Monday, I started noticing that she wasn’t moving around her cage anymore, and she got steadily worse hour by hour. Josh and I syringe-fed her some fluids last night, hoping she’d make it to her vet appointment today, but she didn’t. My poor Willow died peacefully in her little house sometime in the night. The picture above is me holding her in my lap last night, curled up and fading fast.
This is the last lesson about long-lived pet ownership that Willow had to teach me: how to let them go. How to do everything you can for them, how to accept when there is nothing more you can do, how to hold them when they’re dying and be thankful for the time you had and the things you learned. She was 14 and I’m 29; I’ve been caring for this little creature for fully half of my life. She’s old and it wasn’t unexpected, but it’s still just sad as hell.
Josh and I put her in a nest of fluff in a vet-wrap box (the only container we had) and buried her in the back yard. I put a flat piece of marble down for a marker and he hugged me while I cried buckets and buckets over it. I’m sad, but I am okay and will be okay. I’ll move forward into being happy with all the good memories I have from so many years.
Goodnight, sweet girl, and thank you for everything. ❤