Posted: March 20, 2012, 4:50 p.m. EDT
Courtesy Cavy Care Inc.
Ms. Moo was rescued from a reptile store where she was being offered for sale as a feeder guinea pig.
Although Shannon Cauthen currently owns only three guinea pigs, the nonprofit guinea pig shelter and rescue that she founded, Cavy Care Inc., has rescued approximately 9,000 guinea pigs since 1998, the year it started. You read that right, 9,000 guinea pigs. Estimating that a guinea pig is about 10 inches long nose to tail, that’s enough guinea pigs to stretch the height of the Empire State building a little more than five times!
“My husband will tell you that when he agreed to me doing my rescue thing with guinea pigs, he did not believe I would become the Dalai Lama of guinea pigs,” Cauthen said. Why guinea pigs? “That I cannot honestly answer you. I just love them all — big ones, fat ones, skinny ones, short ones, hairless ones; if it is a guinea pig, I just think [it is] wonderful.”
Cauthen was inspired to start Cavy Care Inc. after working with other animal rescues and seeing that many guinea pigs in local animal shelters were euthanized. “After a year of careful research,” she said, “I decided to become a licensed, private, no-kill shelter to buy time for these animals until they could find proper placement.”
Cauthen and her husband used their own money to start Cavy Care Inc., and they offer the best care possible. What matters most to her is the quality and care of her animal charges, not how many are placed. “It is our goal to be the Tiffany's of shelters not the Wal-Mart.”
By the second year, Cavy Care Inc. had 325 guinea pigs in the rescue. Cauthen admits that was a chaotic time, but it quickly passed, and weekly adoption events offsite helped many guinea pigs find homes. Cavy Care Inc. now averages 50 to 150 guinea pigs in the rescue. Sometimes it can push up to 200, but the maximum guinea pig population is usually 150.
“Up until last year we averaged more than an adoption a day,” Cauthen said. “So guinea pigs were in no way getting warehoused.” Cauthen said she adopts guinea pigs to homes where people are excited about caring for and learning about their new family member. If she gets any hint that someone believes guinea pigs aren’t worth any hassle, she doesn’t adopt to them.
Where do the guinea pigs stay while awaiting adoption to a “forever home”? Most are in the Cauthen’s 1,600-foot basement, which is incredibly organized. “We were lucky to have a client give us the funds to buy uniform cages to accommodate the guinea pigs in the right size cages,” Cauthen said. “Cages are located in the lower level unless they are guinea pigs that are boarding, and then they have one room on the main floor. We do not live around the guinea pigs but have designated areas to keep the humans and the guinea pigs harmoniously housed.”
Cavy Care Inc. also works with some foster homes, but Cauthen wishes there were more and that Cavy Care Inc. could do more. “There are so many programs we would like to further develop or offer but are short on volunteers, and we love those that we do have who volunteer because they are very dedicated and keep coming back week after week out of the love of the animal.”
Courtesy Cavy Care Inc.
This guinea pig trio arrived together and were all living in the small, dirty cage shown. They were cleaned up and soon found new homes.
Guinea Pig Surrender Trends And Observations
In 2011, Cauthen said the number of guinea pigs surrendered was the highest yet. In the past, she said the most common excuses for getting rid of a guinea pig were allergies or the children losing interest. “Last year it was foreclosure,” Cauthen said. “They were even being abandoned in homes for realtors to find &mdash or left out with the trash. It was the No. 1 reason for surrenders in 2011.”
She said that surrenders most often occur after Christmas, after sales at local pet stores, in spring when vacations are planned and the family decides it isn’t worth it to board a guinea pig and in fall when school starts.
And the type of guinea pig most often abandoned? Usually males. “They are territorial, difficult to pair and often after being paired they can have a falling out and thus must be housed as a single,” Cauthen said. “So they make it difficult to have more than one guinea pig. Neutering does nothing to improve their temperament.”
She said she’s also observed that guinea pigs live in the present. If they’re injured, they don’t realize that they could get better every day and eventually recover. “Oftentimes they just immediately give up and jump ship, so to speak.”
Courtesy Cavy Care Inc.
Blizzard is a male guinea pig that was rescued with 64 other guinea pigs from a hoarder.
Too Many Guinea Pigs
Cavy Care Inc. has been involved with a number of large-scale guinea pig rescues. And these differ greatly from the usual guinea pig surrender. Most of the cases involve hoarding, which Cauthen said is usually the result of improper sexing that resulted in a population explosion.
“We have participated in several large rescues of guinea pigs ranging from 13 all living in a 30 by 18 inch cage to as many as 65 living in a shed,” Cauthen said. “We have been the only shelter large enough to accommodate these large groups based on our caging system. The last major rescue was the hoarder from Kansas who brought us 45 guinea pigs she'd kept in a shed. They were a lot of work to get tamed down, but we worked it out thanks to our volunteers, and those who answered our call for help to deal with a fairly feral lot of guinea pigs.”
She said another rescue in North Dakota involved 65 guinea pigs taken from a hoarder. The local humane society couldn’t handle that many guinea pigs, so volunteers drove in shifts to make it from Colorado to North Dakota in a day, pick up the guinea pigs and then drove back in a day to minimize travel time for the guinea pigs.
Cauthen has nothing but praise for volunteers who help in these situations. “[The volunteers] were a godsend,” Cauthen said. “We have been lucky that way. I put out the call and luckily someone calls and says, “Hey I am moving back and happen to be driving through that town,’ or ‘Hey we'd like to do a roadtrip and have never been there so we'll go.’ Without our volunteers we would not be what we are today.”
Challenges Of Guinea Pig Rescue
Cauthen said when Cavy Care Inc. first started its main challenges were gaining credibility and acceptance. The main problems now are funding and volunteers. “We have worked very hard to get the biggest bang for our buck while using only the best for our guinea pigs,” she said. The guinea pigs are never fed scraps or leftovers from stores. Cauthen believes offering quality vegetables and fruits in the guinea pigs’ diet improves their health and reduces expensive veterinary visits. But any guinea pig that needs medical care receives it. Cauthen has built relationships with her veterinarians, who help with their fees when possible. The boarding business helps with some expenses of the shelter. Cauthen said Cavy Care Inc. mostly operates off referrals, which she believes brings the best people.
The Cauthens and their volunteers often dip into their own pockets to keep Cavy Care Inc. running. “I laugh when folks call and want to know what I make a year doing this. It's more on how much I give of my money and myself. But I wouldn't have it any other way,” she said.
Her dream is to have a separate building for the guinea pigs, which would give the guinea pigs even more space and eliminate the need to invite strangers into their home all the time to adopt or volunteer. She doesn’t see this happening, but remains optimistic.
Making A Difference For Guinea Pigs
Cauthen said that Cavy Care Inc. has shown other shelters that there is a demand for adoption of small animal pets. She said more local shelters are developing adoption programs targeting guinea pigs and other small exotics.
When Cavy Care Inc. started, it contracted with area shelters in several states — Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, etc. “As we are a contracted, licensed shelter, they would call us and give us 24 hours to pick up guinea pigs slated to be euthanized,” she said. “As our success evolved, larger shelters noticed that there was a desire to adopt these animals and now the majority of our surrenders are from private homes.”
She said that the state of Colorado has expanded its rules about sheltering small animals to include guinea pigs, rats, hamsters and more. So great progress has been made, but she believes much more can be done.
Other Small Pets In Need
Despite the demands of helping guinea pigs, Cavy Care Inc. also assists other small animal pets in need when it can. “At one shelter we were contacted to take four guinea pigs. The staff asked us to go look at two carts with crates and carriers loaded with animals for euthanasia. I didn't even look to see what was there, I told them to just load them up; we would take them all. We ended up with 12 rabbits, 8 rats, 2 gerbils, 1 hamster, 1 dwarf hamster and a sugar glider. I am happy to say they all were placed, and thanks to one benefactor all the rabbits where fixed. My daughter was with me at the time and when we got them all loaded and were driving back she said, ‘Mom, I was praying you would take them all.’ Of course I was not going to leave a soul.”
Shannon Cauthen is also the guinea pig expert on SmallAnimalChannel.com. To see her answers to guinea pig questions or to ask one, click here>>