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My Pig Responsibility

CAITLIN GIBSON, legal administrator for The Post, is a writer who lives in Bethesda.
CAITLIN GIBSON, legal administrator for The Post, is a writer who lives in Bethesda. (Courtesy Author)
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By Caitlin Gibson
Sunday, August 17, 2008

I've been thinking about William Wallace lately, as the anniversary of his death approaches.

Wally, as he was more commonly addressed, was my pet guinea pig. He was 2 1/2 pounds of attitude, a greedy hoarder of fresh parsley and, most famously, a survivor of groundbreaking guinea pig ocular surgery. Groundbreaking, at least, at the emergency animal clinic where the operation was performed, because no one there had ever removed a guinea pig eyeball before.

"Most people wouldn't pay for that," the sweet veterinary technician said to me, her voice a mix of admiration and concern. At the time, I felt that the admiration was for me and the concern was for the animal, a pitiful lump of disheveled hair with a grotesquely swollen eye the size of a table grape. In hindsight, I'm thinking the admiration might in fact have been for the stoic, if unsightly, pig, and the concern for the distraught human who appeared willing to fork over hundreds of dollars to have the grape plucked out of the animal's head.

The thing is, Wally wasn't very nice. He was unpopular with my friends and boyfriends. He squealed loudly, particularly when he heard the refrigerator door open, and snatched his veggie treats with a clear sense of entitlement. Sitting in my lap while I talked on the phone, he'd quickly grow impatient with the lack of attention; once, when head-butting my hand yielded no result, he furiously gnawed a hole in my sweater. Still, I loved him all the more for his arrogance. He had no awareness of his limitations. Nothing discouraged or intimidated him, not the hallway doorstop that always tripped him with a loud twang (we often let him out to wander on the floor), not my housemate's large dog who watched him scamper about with unnerving interest. Yes, Wally was a jerk, but a rather inspiring one.

Besides, there were also fond memories from his sweet infancy, such as the many evenings when he would sleep in my lap while I read on the couch. He'd nestle into the folds of my favorite sweat shirt, cooing and nuzzling my fingers when I rustled the soft baby fur behind his ears. That tenderness evaporated once puberty hit, and his wee body was suddenly brimming with a hopeless overabundance of raw, carnal lust; but I forgave him for that. Growing up is rough.

Anyway, his past was not the point, I argued to friends who thought I was crazy for considering his surgery. Wally was, above all, my responsibility. I was in my early 20s with no husband or children, still fumbling my way into "real" life in the years after college graduation; the main demands of my adult existence were simply to pay rent on time and show up each day to a job I didn't love. At this transitional juncture in my life, Wally was the only living thing who depended completely on me. I couldn't just give up on him.

After the procedure, there were follow-up visits, medications, careful monitoring of his recovery and, ultimately, a healthy, if cranky, disfigured rodent who was destined to meander around in large clockwise circles. All of this for an animal who, in his country of origin, is essentially a walking entree. Had I lived in Peru, I could have taken the money spent on Wally's surgery and purchased an entire herd of his compatriots garnished with cherry tomatoes and peanut sauce.

Wally lived another three years and died in his sleep. After a few friends sensitively suggested that I conduct his funeral at the apartment complex dumpster, I called the one person who I knew appreciated my feelings about Wally. My mother said, Of course, I'll bury him in the back yard.

I delivered Wally to my mother in a shoe box, and we stood in the foyer of the house and reminisced for a moment. This was it, the end of the road for the first little life that was solely in my charge, and I felt somewhat proud of myself. I'd protected my pig, shielded him from the harshness of the outside world. His surgery might have been eccentric, but, in the end, I believed I did right by Wally, who was laid to rest with dignity beneath a rhododendron in the flower bed.

I'd visit him there this year to pay my respects if it were possible. But, perhaps as nature's foot-stomp response to Wally's food-chain-defying reign as a suburban rodent king with health care, a proper funeral was the last straw. He was unceremoniously exhumed the night after his burial and carried off into the woods by a skunk.

E-mail: xxfiles@washpost.com


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