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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Even the Smallest Creatures

My colleagues at The HSUS and HSLF have varied interests and passions when it comes to animals, both at work and “off duty.” We have a good number of dogs who clock in every day at the office, and once in a while you’ll find a foster cat in a cubicle. But some of our staff are especially dedicated to the smallest of creatures—such as guinea pigs, rats, mice, chinchillas, gerbils and hamsters—and volunteer their time to find homes for and raise awareness about these pocket pets. 

Simon/Harathi Krishnan
Small Angels Rescue finds homes and raises awareness for 
guinea pigs and other small animals.

Our blog editor, Harathi Krishnan, is especially fond of guinea pigs. Shevaun Brannigan from the HSUS membership department recently started her own guinea pig charity. And Angela Moxley, a writer and editor for HSLF’s member magazine, Humane Activist, is also the volunteer president of Small Angels Rescue, a unique organization in the Washington, D.C. area that has dedicated its efforts to small animal care and adoption. I had the opportunity to speak with Angela about the organization’s work to advocate for these animals, and wanted to share some of her thoughts with blog readers.

Michael Markarian: How did Small Angels get started?

Angela Moxley: In 2003, I was volunteering at my local shelter and began fostering hamsters, bringing them home to care for them until adoptive homes were found. At the time I was only a few years out of college and was living in a small apartment, and hamsters were one of the few pets I had room to care for.

The experiences opened my eyes to a world of need for small animals—in particular, hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, rats, and mice. The shelter always had small animals looking for homes, but few people seemed to be interested in fostering or adopting them. Due to careless breeding practices at pet stores and in people’s homes, the animals would sometimes arrive at the shelter pregnant or nursing a litter of newborns. It wasn’t long before I became a hamster “grandmother” for the first time, as one of my first foster hamsters gave birth to 14 babies; over the years, I have come to foster dozens more hamster litters.

Other animals were abandoned at the shelter when their young owners lost interest in caring for them; it was as though many of the parents didn’t try to instill any sense of responsibility—or realize they were ultimately the responsible party. And we constantly saw the effects of the inadequate care these animals received before coming to the shelter; many of them had been kept in tiny cages with a poor, uninteresting diet and little to no interaction with their owners.

I began working with the shelter’s volunteer coordinator, Michelle Clowe, to try to better promote hamster adoptions, and we teamed up to take hamsters to adoption events at the local mall. Around the same time, I met another dedicated volunteer, Sue Wilmot, who had been taking shelter guinea pigs into her home for years, not to mention tirelessly caring for the ones still at the shelter, cleaning their cages, arranging adoptions, and educating people about guinea pig care. Michelle, Sue, and I began talking about forming a rescue group so we could set our own adoption policies, expand the number of shelters we were helping, and collect donations to pay for vet care and other expenses of fostering. By the fall of 2003, we had filed for nonprofit status, and the rescue was officially born.

Over time, as word spread about our group, we attracted new volunteers and foster families and began helping even more shelters; we currently work with about a dozen in the Washington, D.C., area. We also expanded our species portfolio and began taking in chinchillas. To date, we have adopted out more than 3,000 animals. We also have an active foster care base of about 30 homes—a wonderful group of individuals who are very passionate about doing rescue for the little guys. All our success stories wouldn’t be possible without their dedication and that of our busy, and unpaid, adoption coordinators and other volunteers.

MM: What’s it like being an advocate for these animals? What are some of the struggles you face?

AM: Over the years, I’ve fostered dozens if not hundreds of hamsters and the occasional gerbil and guinea pig, and I’m constantly amazed and delighted by their unique personalities. There’s nothing like taking in an animal who was shell-shocked because of poor conditions or lack of attention in his previous home, and watching him blossom as he discovers the joys of having a roomy cage, tasty treats like vegetables, and even something as simple as a little nesting material to make a cozy bed.

Many people have misconceptions that small animals are dirty, unfriendly, and lacking the faintest trace of charisma. But their personalities and habits are actually quite expansive and fascinating, and those who are wary of people usually come around with regular socialization.

Guinea pigs have a vocabulary of 11 sounds, and they jump straight up into the air when they’re excited, a move known as “popcorning.” Many are sweet and gentle souls who will sit on your lap throughout an entire movie, purring and chattering all the while; when they hear a bag of veggies rustling, their squeaks will practically shake the house. Dwarf hamsters and mice are active little guys and intricate burrowers; their antics can be more fun to watch than TV, especially when given enough space and a wide variety of toys to explore.

Gerbils have a drive to chew rolls of cardboard that is beyond belief; they’re usually desperate to have a gerbil buddy and even their warning signals—stamping their feet—are adorable. Rats have perhaps the worst reputation as mean, filthy, aggressive creatures, but in reality, they’re quite intelligent and form deep bonds with each other and with people; many can be taught to ride around on their owners’ shoulders and to come when called.

My colleagues and I do our best to dispel people’s misconceptions about these animals, to get them to look beyond the myths to see the wonderful companions they can be.

MM: How can people help spread awareness about small animal issues and support Small Angels?

AM: People are always telling us that they had no idea that small animals end up at shelters and rescue groups just like cats and dogs; perhaps it’s unfathomable to them that an owner could give up an animal with such a relatively short lifespan. We often ask adopters to spread the word to their friends and family that you don’t need to go to a pet store to bring a small animal into the family; simply type in your zip code on a pet adoption site and you’re likely to find many in need of good homes. Even if you can’t adopt or foster yourself, one of the most important things you can do is spread the word about adoption, especially if you know of someone who is in the market for a small animal.

MM: What do you think the biggest issue is that affects these small animals?

AM: As an editor for HSLF and The HSUS, I’m constantly exposed to pervasive societal attitudes that certain animals are not worthy of protection, that it’s OK for them to suffer because they are somehow lesser beings. I see this attitude played out in my off-duty efforts for the rescue as well. Many people seem to think that small animals are disposable and less in need of loving homes than dogs or cats simply because they are smaller. But these animals still need and deserve large and interesting habitats, mental stimulation, healthy and varied diets, timely and adequate vet care, and plenty of interaction with their owners and perhaps other members of their species. They don’t deserve to languish in small cages with nothing to do—they should be integrated into families’ lives just as much as other pets.

MM: In the big picture, what does Small Angels hope to accomplish for these creatures?

AM: One of our goals is to spread the word about small animal adoption, whether it’s from our group, another rescue, or a shelter. We try to educate people about how to provide the best care for these animals so they are treated as humanely as possible. And most of all, we seek to reduce the numbers of small animals in shelters who are euthanized because there aren’t enough responsible homes for them—and we want to make sure that every animal we help makes it into a home where she is loved and happy for the rest of her life.


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