Monday, January 14, 2013

A Viral Infection With Beady Eyes

Besides a dog and two sets of tropical fish, a contingent of gerbils adorned my childhood home. It began with a pair and grew until a sudden massacre permanently reduced the numbers. Younger brother Michael brought them in when I was going through high school. I told him they looked like mice, and the squeaking of their exercise wheel drove me nuts. That soon proved the least of the headaches.

Gerbils treat birth control like Dirty Harry treats gun control. So every few weeks, we would look inside the repurposed aquarium lined with cedar chips and find a blob of squirming matter.

"Michael," my mom would call, half exasperated. "Babies!"

"Again?" Michael answered.

Laws of mass and space eventually caught up with the growing family, and they needed a bigger home. Dad's solution was to design and build a luxury two-story gerbil enclosure, complete with a ramp upstairs, out of material bought from a Kansas City company called Fantastic Plastics. Now they had three times the space to play and reproduce.

We can tell when gerbils are getting ready to mate -- at least one of them goes into a stomping ritual with a hind leg. Sometimes we could catch it and break up the love affair, but when you have to go to work and school, it's impossible to constantly chaperone. So two gerbils begat a dozen.

Then we had to move them, all of them, while moving ourselves from Kansas City to St. Louis. Their luxury abode made the trip in the back of our stationwagon, and although two of them escaped when we opened the rear hatch, we managed to grab them. Another got out in our temporary apartment home and lived behind the refrigerator for a week.

The small white furball added to the confinement stress of Cinnamon, our Brittany Spaniel. Already deprived the free run of her homeland yard, she panted and whined at the rogue rodent and its siblings back in the plastic palace. When we moved to our new home, dog and furballs both moved to the basement for an uneasy bilaterial co-existence.

"She's gonna get those gerbils!" Mom kept telling Michael as Cinn would pant in front of the cage. I forget what defensive measures, if any, my brother took. He curtailed the breeding by giving same-sex gerbil couples to his friends, but eventually, it didn't matter.

The gerbil massacre of Four Oaks Drive happened suddenly, wiping out all but a few who managed to escape the ravages of canine teeth. I didn't look at the tipped-over cage or the crime scene, but we would never again face a population explosion.

Michael would later bring a rabbit into our home -- one rabbit.

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