MANHATTAN (CN) — Cute, furry and quartered indoors, guinea pigs seemed like the perfect pandemic pet for New Yorkers seeking animal companionship fit for tiny spaces. But many learned the hard way that the animals are deceptively difficult to care for, and, as Covid restrictions were lifted, decided it was time to put up their new pet pals for adoption.
The task of finding new homes for the fast-breeding rodents has fallen to animal shelters, whose staff say they are overwhelmed by the influx: Citywide, intake since May 2021 has been double its prepandemic rate.
“They simply can’t keep up, and there are not enough homes to be provided for them,” Allie Taylor, founder and president of Voters for Animal Rights, told Courthouse News.
Some owners don’t even bother to bring their unwanted pets to an adoption center. Neighborhood Facebook group posts report guinea pigs being abandoned in city parks. One segment of the Long Island Expressway has become a “known dumping ground” for the critters, who hide in brush lining the road. In September, 20 guinea pigs were left in the lobby of a Staten Island apartment building; five of them were pregnant.
Concerned for the animals’ wellbeing and looking to convert would-be buyers into adopters, advocates are pressing the New York City council to pass a bill that would ban guinea pig sales within the city.
“Pet stores like Petco and PetSmart are just trying to make a quick buck and playing off of people’s hearts, so they will sell a guinea pig to anybody,” Taylor said. “They sell them without proper pet care, without them being spayed or neutered — and then once people get them home and they start multiplying, or people are no longer interested in caring for them, the animal ends up paying the ultimate price.”
Taking the same view, dozens of advocates from shelters and the public filled the city hall’s committee chambers on Wednesday, many donning sunny yellow “I ❤️ guinea pig” T-shirts handed out by the group Voters for Animal Rights. They testified in person and via video during a three-hour hearing in front of the subcommittee on health.
Many shared stories of caring for sick and mistreated guinea pigs who had been living in excrement, their nails untrimmed, with patchy fur or bald bellies. Others spoke about the mental toll it can take on a child when they find themselves unprepared to care for their furry friends.
Numerous shelter staffers explained that it’s a lack of guinea pig know-how that often underlies the offloading. Well-meaning parents who want a “starter pet” for their kids, for instance, may learn too late that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
Grazing animals by nature, guinea pigs need a nearly constant supply of hay and fresh vegetables. The rodents can develop serious and expensive health problems like tumors and ovarian cysts, especially if they aren’t spayed or neutered. And they don’t always interact well with other pets: Just the scent of a cat or dog cat can send a guinea pig into cardiac arrest, explained Dr. Lyle Cleary, a veterinarian at Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine.
“They’re just not starter pets,” Cleary testified. “They’re animals that can be really skittish, they’re a prey species.”
Then there’s the issue of reproduction. Guinea pigs, which live five to seven years on average, can mate every two months. Spaying or neutering costs $600 to $800 per pig and, compared with the process for a dog or cat, the procedure is more complex and poses greater health risks.
“I love my job, but there are two surgeries that make me question my life choices, and one of them is guinea pig spaying,” Cleary said. “It’s not an easy outpatient surgery. … It is intensive care.”
Lyle is one of roughly 10 veterinarians across all five city boroughs who’s able to spay guinea pigs, which are considered exotic pets that can’t really be cared for by doctors who normally see cats and dogs. It would be “like them seeing a horse,” as Lyle put it.
Factor in that animals can’t be released unless they’re fixed, the guinea pig windfall has seriously drained resources, shelters say, and the numbers keep climbing. Animal Care Centers of NYC expects to see nearly 1,000 guinea pigs come in by the end of the year.
While it has not yet gone to a committee or full council vote, the majority of city council members back the bill, which would also clarify the definition of a “pet shop” within the city.
The sole person testifying on behalf of those pet shops on Wednesday was Mike Bober, president and CEO of the pet industry trade group Pet Advocacy Network. He refuted some advocates’ allegations that these stores sell pets from “mills” where they are mistreated and kept in dirty dwellings, saying that they come from breeders licensed and regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In an interview with Courthouse News following the hearing, Bober said some stores will also do spot checks, and that guinea pigs sold in pet stores are from “the most transparent sources out there.”
Bober said stores should have been included in the push to address the city’s guinea pig population boom, as he agrees that a lack of information about pet care is a significant problem. Plus, he pointed out, most pet owners will shop at a pet store at some point, at least for food and supplies.
“At this point, any activity that’s undertaken on this is done from a point that presupposes that pet stores were the bad guy,” he said of working with the city. “I don’t think it precludes it. I think it unnecessarily colors it in a negative light. That’s, to me, the missed opportunity.”
Bober also questioned the effectiveness of a 2015 bill banning the sale of rabbits in the city, which advocates have held out to be a success, saying the number of rabbits in shelters climbed between the second and third years of the pandemic.
“It is a caution to those who believe that a ban on the sale of guinea pigs in pet stores will have the desired effect,” Bober said. “This is a reaction, not a solution.”
City Council Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala, who supports the guinea pig bill, entered Wednesday’s hearing carrying a black pet carrier for an impromptu “show and tell” session in which she revealed Charlie, her own tiny white and brown puppy — not too much larger than the size of a guinea pig.
But getting a pet shouldn’t be an impromptu decision, Ayala emphasized, citing her own experience.
“Charlie is a pain in the butt,” Ayala said, noting that her dog wakes up at 3 or 4 a.m. wanting to be fed, like a human baby. The pup is also blind, adding to the care he requires.
“With the holidays coming up, I really want to caution families,” Ayala said. “Think it through. Adopt.”
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