Adventures in Pet Ownership


I just recently read a study that finds 70.8% of Vermont households own a pet!  That’s huge.  I’m sad to admit that our family does not fit within this large percentage. Lately we have started to think about getting a dog. However, with a new baby, who wakes up several times a night, the idea of getting up with a puppy as well (in the middle of winter) is not so appealing.

I know what you’re going to say, “But Heather, you could get a cat!” Nope. I mourned the notion of ever getting a cat when I met my husband 11 years ago. He is terribly allergic to cats. It was a sad day for me when I realized that we were never getting a cat but it was probably a sadder day for my husband when I told him that I was never going to be the cute ski bunny he had always fantasized about. I don’t ski. Ahem…

Your next line is going to be, “But Heather, if you don’t get a cat or a dog, how about a nice little guinea pig? Kids love those little buggers.”  You’re right, they do love them. My husband and I loved them too–three to be exact.  When Karl and I lived in NYC we were ready to take our relationship to the next level. The “pet-adoption” level. Nothing says I love you, but I’m just not ready to marry you, like buying a pet together.  Since we lived in a small NYC apartment we didn’t want to buy a dog and you already know that we couldn’t have a cat. So I did some thinking and found the next best thing: guinea pig adoption. Seriously. Two, 20-something young professional adults buying guinea pigs as pets, that was us.


Here’s where it gets creepy—if you already didn’t think we were creepy, you’re about to change your tune.

I didn’t want to BUY the guinea pigs at a pet store. I had done research and found that one shouldn’t support buying pets at big-box stores, instead one should adopt. Believe it or not there are guinea pig rescue organizations where you can adopt and even be a foster family for guinea pigs. Look, I’m not poking fun, I was just amazed that such a thing existed. I mean come on…when’s the last time you saw a guinea pig walking along the side of the road, all dirty and wet from the rain, looking forlorn, needing to be rescued?!

So off to New Jersey we went in a borrowed car to pick up a mother guinea pig and her baby. We named them Camilla and Wembly and they were seriously the cutest things ever. About 6 months after we had them, Wembly got sick and died. I cried like a baby. Since we lived in NYC we had no place to bury her. So we wrapped her little body up in a hand towel, put her in a Gristedes grocery bag, and headed to Central Park. And since we didn’t have any gardening tools (who the hell does, living in NYC), we used a large kitchen spoon to dig her grave. We buried her in a wooded area near the soccer fields on the upper west side. It was a shallow grave that we dug quickly because I was worried the police would wonder what two young people were doing in the woods with a spoon and a plastic bag. “Don’t mind us officer, just burying our dead guinea pig.”

After Wembly died I felt that Camilla needed a new play mate, so we headed back to another guinea pig rescue shelter. I’m not making this up. We found Beatrice at a small place in the suburbs right outside NYC. She later became known as Rattie.

The average life expectancy of a guinea pig is somewhere between 5-8 years. And this is exactly how long both of those sweet little creatures lasted. Both guinea pigs survived a cross country drive from NYC to Chicago and then two additional in-city moves. Rattie really put us thru the ringer with vet bills. Little thing got a tumor on her back that eventually ruptured. We took her to the vet, heads hung heavy knowing that we would likely have to euthanize her. Instead the vet took one look and said, “Oh yeah we see this all the time with guinea pigs. We’ll just sew her back up and she’ll be as good as new.”

Several hundred dollars later she was running around the cage, eating carrots and living the happy life with staple-stitches in her back. We called her Franken-butt for a long time. Poor Rattie died suddenly a few years ago. At this point we had Henry in the picture and he was about two and half years old. We found her lifeless in her cage, and as was the case with Wembly, I cried like a baby. This was Henry’s first experience with death, so we had this added element of mourning.  Of course Rattie chose to kick the bucket in the middle of the winter in Chicago. We got Henry dressed in his down snow-suit, piled in to the car, and drove over to the lake where there was a park area perfect for burying her. The ground was so frozen we couldn’t dig a hole. So instead we laid her down under a tree. And as you know Chicago is known as the Windy City. Right about the time we laid her down to rest, a huge gale force wind came by and picked up her little rigamortis body and she started to blow away. I was sobbing,  Karl was running after the dead guinea pig, and Henry just stood there wondering what the fuss was all about.

Camilla died about 5 months after Rattie. She lived 8 years! She was old and suffering so I took her to the vet to be euthanized. I had the option of having her buried in a cemetery called shady acres or to have her cremated. This time around I opted for the cremation. I cried like a baby, alone in the vet’s office hoping that I had made the right decision.  It was a sad day for obvious reasons but also a sad day because it was the end of another interesting chapter in our life. We won’t be getting another guinea pig anytime soon. I’ll keep you posted on what our dog-adoption process is like…when the time is right.

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Heather Polifka-Rivas
Heather is originally from upstate New York but her family returned to Vermont 4 years ago. They have lived in NYC and Chicago the past 10+ years and are happy to be back in Vermont. Heather's previous jobs as a starving actor in NYC, package design guru at Estee Lauder, and advisor to fortune 500 companies at Chicago’s top business school have not prepared her for her current job today: stay at home mom to Henry (7) and Ruby (3). A self proclaimed foodie, Heather spends her "many" hours of free time preparing elaborate meals, eating out, tending to her garden, canning it's bounty and willing her one tapped maple tree to weep more sap. She is also a mother runner.


  1. Hilarious, if a bit maudlin, Heather. The bit about the wind blowing dear Rattie around and Karl running behind is too much to bear!!

  2. Oh my goodness, Heather, I laughed out loud at this one! All I keep seeing is poor Karl running after the rigamortis guinea pig body, you crying hysterically, and Henry wondering what the heck is going on. Oh my!


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