My animals and other family

The furry three and me not long after I’d moved into my current flat.

It sounds like a case of spectacularly misplaced priorities now, but the first thing I thought of when my then-wife and I agreed it was best for me to move out was my guinea pigs. It was early August 2014, and I’d just returned from six weeks in Latin America with my elder son.

At that stage, and in the immediate short-term, there was no question of the kids coming with me. I’d found a tiny box of an apartment on the other side of Xinbeitou’s hot spring valley – advertised as 7 ping (a measurement used here in Taiwan that is equal to two tatami mats – 6′ x 6′) but, with en suite and balcony factored in, feeling considerably smaller. I would pay the rent on both places until the wife and kids moved back to her hometown in Miaoli a few months later.

Scuttling around the bathroom while I cleaned their cage: Caramel, at the front, Fluffy, in the middle, and Scruffy, at the back. This was shortly before Caramel suffered her first stroke.

It took me close to seven hours and three or four journeys to move my three little pigs and their cage up and down the hillsides, past the hot spring noodle shop, the Puji Temple and the old Bank of Taiwan dorm that seems destined to never be opened to the public thanks to wrangling between the bank and local government; past the distinctive “circle building” – a dilapidated block of flats that had been home to several Westerners in the decade that I had lived in the area; alongside Hell’s Valley and the distinctive blue (now, regretfully, renovated and repainted in a more “natural” brown) wooden colonial era building that hides some remarkable Cold War history; up the steep, sharply twisting lane, round the back of Xinmin Elementary and the old Japanese military hospital, where the old mutt used to rush out of a narrow passageway and snap at the ankles of anyone passing on vehicles, only to remain perfectly placid with pedestrians, his unconcerned owners loitering further up the hill outside their car on the corner, spewing wafts of ketamin infused tobacco smoke in the evening air.

While the cage (a set of rectangular metal mesh panels that I stuck together with clothes pegs and clips), food and paraphernalia was loaded up onto my bicycle rack, secured with bungee cords, for the first few trips, the last journey proceeded on foot as I carried the piggies in their original, small, enclosed cage.

Fluff up the duff at the grand old age of 6 months not long before we moved into the last house we all lived in as a family.

At the time, Fluffy and Scruffy were almost a year old and their daughter Caramel (who we were told by a dodgy vet was a boy but my not-by-that-time girlfriend later rightly concluded was a girl) roughly half their age. There had been three babies but we’d give the other two (Coffee and Cream) to the pet shop where we’d bought their parents. This first brood was to be the last as I made sure to give Scruffy the snip soon after. (Female guinea pigs can conceive again almost immediately and it’s apparently pretty dangerous for them to do so). He continued to mount mother and child for several weeks after the op but eventually lost interest. (Unlike with dogs and other animals that usually stop this behaviour immediately, guinea boars can keep it up for quite a while – partly due to dominance issues).

There was simply no space for them inside my new box-of-an-abode and they spent the next year out on my balcony. I was worried about the cold (but a friend in the UK who had had his outside the last time I had visited assured me they would be fine) and even more about the heat that summer and the next, as they really are susceptible to overheating and heatstroke. I rigged up a fan that a mate had given me and plastic sheets to cover the cage and keep the rain off them. They survived a couple of brutal plum rains and a typhoon unscathed.

Sow with pups in the last flat we lived in before my ex-wife and I separated and I moved with them into the box on the hillside. Caramel is in the middle with the white head.

When I moved to a bigger but still cramped and dark ground floor flat above Danshui Old Street for a year, the following year, I was finally able to take my cat Polly with me. She had been languishing in the kitchen of my father-in-law’s house in Toufen over the past year, a circumstance that pissed me off no end.

I don’t like to slag my ex-wife off too much, as we are actually good friends now and she helps me out quite a bit when the pressure of being a single dad builds to boiling point. She has a good heart in many respects but when it comes to animals, she really is clueless. (I notice this about quite a few Taiwanese friends, family and students. They have a superficial attraction to animals, viewing them as cute ornaments, but they soon lose interest/give up once they realise that a bit of effort might be required for their pets’ upkeep. Many of them don’t grow up with animals and are either scared of them or unsure how to handle them. Some end up owning animals later in life and still seem a bit lacking in nous about some of the basics. Of course, I know plenty of Taiwanese who do have animals and/or are perfectly at ease with them but as a general rule …)

The guineas were in a right old state when I got back from Latin America in 2014, all having lost weight and Scruff looking particularly emaciated. My ex denied she had underfed them but it was very obvious. I was incensed. I’m pretty sure she had scrimped on the veg, too, which is critical for guineas as, like humans, other primates and fish, cavies (the family to which they belong) cannot naturally synthesise ascorbic acid (vitamin C) from glucose.

The set up at Danshui before I started using cheap blankets for their bedding.

Having been confined to a single room for months on end – because my father-in-law (who is only in the country for a couple of weeks every year) would apparently go nuts at all the hair that would be left everywhere – Polly was thoroughly miserable. Again, it’s easy for anyone who has grown up with animals and paid attention to their behaviour to see when they are stressed or out of sorts.

Polly is an American Shorthair breed but, contrary to what that name suggests, these cats have fairly long, or at least fluffy hair compared to most breeds that I grew up with in the UK.

She does indeed moult vast quantities of fluff and, as she has trouble tidying herself up around her back and rear-end (partially due to scoliosis) the hair often starts to get matted during the summer months. This had already started to happen when my boys brought her up to Taipei a couple of weeks after I found her in the kitchen. Having previously mocked people who have their cats shaved in Taiwan, I had no choice but to do the same shortly after I took her back. (I did so the next summer, too, though for the last couple of years, she has been fine).

At Danshui, the guineas had a room to themselves, but it was stuffy with neither windows nor AC. Again, I feared they would suffer in the heat. I added an extra fan but Scruffy, in particular, seemed to struggle. He was very lethargic at times, and I took him to a vet who confirmed that his temperature was too high. I was genuinely worried that he might die that summer.

There wasn’t much I could do accept keep the door open to let the AC from the living room in and keep an eye on Polly (who had settled in pretty quickly) to make sure she wasn’t harassing them too much. She never jumped into the cage and, as there were three of them, and they were pretty big, seemed unsure what to make of them. In general, she just jabbed her paw through the square gaps in the cage mesh, claws retracted all the while.

Interestingly, the habitually skittish piggies rarely took flight when she did this, unlike when I approached from above. In fact, they often seemed to draw nearer to the tentatively proffered paw. I have theorised that this is because of an atavistic, instinctual sense that something coming at them from above must be hostile – raptors surely being among the main the predators of their cavy forbears in the open savannas of South America. Ground level approaches perhaps indicate another member of the herd or something of roughly the same size that doesn’t pose such a threat.

Feeding Caramel some pepper.

Unhappy with my dank, drain-fly infested hovel, in autumn 2016, I wriggled out of my contract a month early (given the serious issues with the place, the landlords couldn’t really argue) and moved again. Originally, I was meant to take over a mate’s apartment in Zhishan but when that went pear shaped because of a mentally unstable “agent” who essentially booted me out for no reason, I had to quickly find somewhere else.

After looking at a few places (and even paying part of the deposit on one only to have it returned after the landlord decided that someone else had got there first), I found the ideal place in a great neighbourhood in Shipai. A minute’s once-over was all it took for me to know that this flat was perfect.

Various circumstances – one in particular – had made it obvious to my ex and me that I needed to assume custody of the kids. Although it was a tinglou – a rooftop annex that is technically illegal – the flat was spacious with a decent size bedroom for the boys, a nice covered inside-outside type balcony area and a kitchen that, while small, I could definitely work with. But I cannot deny that, most of all, what sold it to me was the pet- friendly nature of set-up and the landlord herself.

The three of them get stuck into some orchard grass hay in their new large cage. As guinea pigs like to be able to hide away, I made lots of shelters and secluded spots for them. By the time Scruff was on his own, I had removed nearly all of them because he spent most of the day snoozing out in the open, no longer exhibiting the habitual guinea pig concern for a safe, covered corner. (I think that was because his sight and hearing had almost completely gone, so he no longer noticed me moving about or even attending to things right next to him in the cage).

Checking the listings on the 591 website, Taiwan’s main online resource for apartment rentals, had proved a boon for my Chinese reading skills, and I quickly learnt to apply filters to narrow the search down to pet friendly places with kitchens. When it became clear that the former specification was severely limiting my options, my (now ex) girlfriend advised me to uncheck the “can keep pets” box, reasoning that many of the landlords who were registered as not allowing pets would be fine once they’d met a potential tenant and discussed the issue. “They just don’t want really big dogs or anything they think will make too much mess,” she reckoned.

This reminded me of something my kids’ godfather had told me about “no smoking” signs many years ago when I expressed confusion at finding people chuffing away in locations that had such warnings on the walls.

“That’s so non-smokers will still come in,” he said with a crafty grin.

“But surely once they’re in they will notice it,” I replied.

“Yeah, but many Taiwanese will be too embarrassed to complain or leave by that time,” he said.

Fluff after a wash. I basically stopped cleaning them in the last couple of years, though I did cut and untangle Scruff’s hair every few weeks. I’m not a hundred percent sure but I think Fluffy was a teddy and Scruffy was a silky. The former breed has a more spongy, wiry coat that requires little attention but the silkies can’t get round the back to groom their hair properly, so it can get matted with poo, piss and hay. In the old days, I used to wash him and comb it out but in the end I would just cut the matted parts out. In wild cavy herds, there are apparently groomers (usually females, I think) who tidy up the mess at the backs of the other piggies. When they were younger, Fluffy seemed to exhibit signs of this behaviour, chewing away at hubby’s backside, though that could just have been another example of her greediness (as there were often bits of hay in there!) Although cross breeds, the babies took after their dad. Caramel’s coat was absolutely beautiful and, for some reason, didn’t mat quite as badly as dad’s.
In the summer months, I would give both father and daughter a proper haircut to try to keep them a bit cooler.

The girlfriend’s advice proved bang-on. From the get-go, the landlord Ms Liao was friendly and amenable to almost all my requests, which was in stark contrast to last couple of people I’d dealt with (the nutjob agent and the deposit returner, who had demanded to know how much I earned and repeatedly asked if I’d be able to afford the rent – “No, deary, I’ve decided to rent an apartment that I can’t afford and, furthermore, I’m going to admit that I can’t afford it”).

The flat having been recently renovated, there were no appliances or furnishings, but on seeing me sniffing around the kitchen, she immediately asked if I wanted a stove, which I pretty obviously did. (Since then, she’s had the electrician round to install an extractor fan and several outlets – one for my oven, which was melting my adaptors, and has repeatedly checked in with me to see if there’s anything else I need. She also regularly gives me fruit, veg and snacks, especially on national holidays, has invited me round for dinner and offered to look after the pets while I’ve been away. Most importantly, she let me use her address to set up household registration so I could transfer my kids to this address for school and other practical purposes. As I’m a foreigner, my son is the official “household head,” a circumstance which you can imagine delighted him.)

A poorly Caramel on her way to the vet.

When I broached the issue of pets, as predicted by the erstwhile gf, Ms Liao asked how big and how many. As soon as she realised they were all on the diminutive side, everything was cushty. “I used to have guinea pigs, myself,” she said. “And I’ve got dogs.” (And don’t the rest of the building know about it anytime someone calls on her. Her three long-haired dachshunds make an incredible racket whenever, come rent time, I pop over the other side of the building and ring her doorbell. They usually pipe down pretty quickly on the occasions I’ve been inside to discuss something but the younger one in particular remains giddy with excitement, jumping all over and around me on the sofa, for the duration.)

Aside from the large, wraparound balcony/hallway with windows against which I immediately planned to set up a table or ledge of some sort for Polly to gaze out of, there was more than enough space for the guineas in my room, and – the piece de resistance – a tiny yard area behind my bedroom.

Although it was a pretty meagre ping’s worth of grimy concrete, the elderly neighbours on the other side of the building had a rooftop garden there and had just started to expand it into a mini vegetable allotment. Birds – ebullient light-vented bulbuls, raucous white-vented mynas and diffident doves, spotted and red collared, that sip languidly from water-logged plant holders – were flitting around the vegetation. I knew it would be lovely to set up a desk and work here with the door open when the weather was nice.

Mother and daughter feasting on corn husks in the tiny yard area behind my room as I clean their cage indoors. I’m guessing dad was in the dumpling box that I put in there for them to play with/hide in. In the bottom left-hand corner, you can see the mosquito-netted sliding panel from a window, which I’ve used to block up the gap under the fence that Polly slips under to explore the rooftop garden next door.

But, more than that, two things that immediately occurred to me when Ms Liao opened the door onto this space were that the sunlight, breeze and fresh air would be directly on the place I intended to set up the guinea cage and that Polly would be able to slip under a gap at the bottom of the corrugated fibreglass fencing to explore the adjoining garden. (Edit: I would later keep a stray quail that I found in the street out in this space in a makeshift coop. Victoria, as my younger son named her, escaped from my shoddily designed enclosure while I was on my annual hols in Spain in 2019. My mate had seen her just the day before I got back, so she must have got out just before we got home. One of the rooftop oldsters confirmed seeing her flapping about on the roof but I never did find her. She laid an egg, which I stuck in a cobbled-together shoebox incubator. We were stunned when it hatched. Unfortunately, the chick, who we dubbed “Larry Bird,” was born with a condition known as wry neck and, despite attempted treatment, died 10 days later in my gf’s care the night before we flew out. I blogged about this experience just after he hatched, here.)

Admittedly, I was nervous about letting Polly wander off in the open, out of sight, as she had been a house cat all her life, and I worried that she might just be clueless enough to fall off the roof. But I’d given her a taste of the outside at the Danshui hovel, where she explored the alley that led my place, and she’d exhibited the kind of caution that made me fairly confident that she would be all right. Plus, she always came back when I called or ushered her in.

Scruffy, left, and Fluffy, being tempted back indoors with a trail of their favourite green peppers. The day before he died, he made one last half-hearted attempt to nibble some, along with the pellets in his feeding tray. That was the first time he’d really tried to eat in a couple of days and, even at that late stage, it gave me a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t to be.

She’s rewarded my faith and I let her out pretty regularly, especially during the warmer months. These days, I don’t even bother calling her back, unless I haven’t seen her for a bit too long or I have to go out. Often the bulbuls send her packing, especially during nesting season when they don’t hesitate to tag-team divebomb her. Retreating indoors with a pitiful whimper, she follows her hovering avian tormentors with wildly darting eyes from behind the door’s mosquito net.

Meanwhile, I also stopped shutting the door to my bedroom when I wasn’t around as it became clear that she wasn’t going to attack the beasties. In fact, as you can see in the video I’ve posted below, it got to the stage where I could let her interact with them without any concern.

In that vid, she dabs the paw at old Scruff, as ever, with her claws retracted (often quite far from where he is, holding or twitching it in the same position, seemingly confused about what to do). A minute after that video was shot, he hid behind some cardboard at the back of the bookshelf that formed the end of his cage, and she could see the card moving as he rustled around. When he suddenly poked his head out, she literally jumped back and fled the room! Terrified of birds and rodents: talk about a pussy. (In fairness to my flat-faced mog, I should add that earlier last year, we were stunned to return home after a weekend in Taichung and find five dead mice scattered around three rooms. We hear them scuttling around in the partition between the ceiling and the roof now and then but have been told there’s not much we can do about it. Polly took matters into her own paws – a most welcome development!)

Alas, just 10 days after I filmed that amusing interaction between cat and rodent, Scruffy was dead. It happened so quickly that it was quite hard to process.

His missus, who following his castration, had essentially assumed the dominant role among the trio (thanks to her rotundity, deceptive speed and the gluttony that, along with her pup-bearing, contributed to her ever-increasing girth), had died quite suddenly in May. (It took almost a day for her to breath her last but there were no prior signs of illness – guinea pigs are notoriously adept at hiding this: another atavistic trait designed to mask vulnerability.)

Always the most nervy and fragile of the three, their daughter Caramel had succumbed to (what I believe was) heatstroke, a stroke or a combination of the two shortly after our return from an extended Trans-Siberian trip to Europe in 2018. It had seemed like she was getting better before another stroke completely crippled her to the point where she was almost paralysed and flailing about helplessly. This happened at night when I was unable or, I must admit, unwilling to take a cab across town to the only vet I knew of that was open 24/7. She was dead in the early hours of the morning. It was sad to see the young’un go at just 4-1/2 years old.

Caramel at a few days old.

Last week, Scruffy finally joined his wife and daughter. Just a couple of days after that video with Polly was filmed, he started wheezing quite badly. As with Caramel, I should have moved quicker, but as he’d been sniffly on and off for the last couple of years, I foolishly didn’t think much of it. By the time I reacted, it seemed like he was definitely on the way out, lying on his side, seemingly paralysed. But when I tried supporting him to get him back on his feet, to my surprise he perked up.  I took him to the vet, where I’d had him checked up just after the old sow had left him a widower, and my suspicions were confirmed: pneumonia.

The vet gave him three injections, which included antibiotics and Lasix, a diuretic to clear the pulmonary oedema (basically the gunk clogging up his lungs), and his breathing did improve. But then he just stopped eating. I took him in again a couple of days later for some more jabs, including some nutrition this time. It was pretty traumatizing for the poor little fellow, and the next couple of days of force-feeding him every few hours with a syringe were really horrible.

He’d always been the best-natured and most affectionate of the three and for that reason was my favourite. He enjoyed being petted and even turned on his back for a tummy rub (see the first vid above), which is very rare. To see him squirming and squeaking in discomfort, and the liquid food dribbling out of his mouth as he became increasingly listless was harrowing. As his temperature was dangerously low, I bought a small heater for him and kept him wrapped up in some old clothes.

Scruff with some carrot, during the weekly clean-out.

The fact that none of this made any difference in the end is what has really wounded me: I feel racked with guilt about putting him through all that in his last couple of days. Of course, as everyone has reassured me, I was doing what I thought was best and, without eating, he would have died anyway. Still, that doesn’t make it easier to dispel the images of his miserable last hours.

I buried him up near his missus in the foothills of Yangmingshan close to where I’d first lived with them when I moved out. (You can see her resting place, in front of the wall, in the video below. I had actually had the park where I was to bury him in mind for her but was pretty drunk and lost my bearings when I went up there with my old pal Strawbree, who actually laid her down. We settled on this place which was a great spot anyway. I managed to lose my wallet during that first burial, which gave me an excuse to go up there again a couple of days later, retracing my steps to no avail. The wallet got handed in a month later, by which time I’d replaced all my cards. Still, you nearly always get your shit back in Taiwan. Since then I’ve been up there twice, including stopping there on the way to bury Scruff last week. With the running spring water in the background and the benches, it’s a nice spot to sit, read and contemplate.)

Although we weren’t at the box with the balcony that long, it felt like this was the formative period of our relationship. It was a very trying period of my life and they helped get me through it (as, I must say, did the warmth and kindness of the ex-gf). Broke as I was in those days and eating very little (I lost almost 20kg in less than six months after I moved out), I used to gather wild grasses during my long mountain rides – for them to be clear!  I continued to do that intermittently up until Scruffy died.

 

Scruff at the first of two visits to the vet over the last couple of weeks of his life.

Online forums are full of warnings about items that could potentially poison your pets, but in my experience, animals are much smarter than humans in this respect. I gave them all kinds of greenery over the years and they knew what was what. Though all of Scruffy’s faculties began to fade over the last year or so, guineas have an outstanding sense of smell, and they all just left anything they didn’t like the whiff of.

I also used to blag free hay from the groundsman at a local stable before the manager caught us at it and put a stop to it. A few years later, an ex-student who works as a farrier at the same stable, among other locations, slipped me the occasional bag, too. (Pro tip: corn husks are a big fave and can be had free by the bag load at any local market. You’ll get those vendors who don’t know you and resident busybodying biddies telling you that you “can’t eat the leaves” or simply gaping, aghast at the barbarous laowai rifling through the boxes of cast-offs, but it’s fun keeping the locals guessing and, if you’re of such a bent, cultivating an image of eccentricity.)

One of the last photos of the lad hours before he died on May 13. 🙁

Scruffy was 7-1/2 – pretty good going for a guinea pig. It’s just a shame that I didn’t move quicker, as I think he could have definitely gone on a good while longer. I don’t think I will be getting any more pets, at least not for the foreseeable future. My younger son is canine crazy but given the lack of effort both of my lads made with the guineas once they didn’t seem so cute anymore or interactive (which was just weeks after we’d got ‘em) and the fact that we travel abroad almost every year, COVID notwithstanding, and for extended trips every second year, I just don’t think it would be fair. Even though I have good friends who are always willing to help out, leaving Polly largely alone for weeks is obviously not ideal. And dogs are an entirely different kettle of fish.

It will sound ridiculous to some, especially after the year the world has just had, but the death of this old rodent hit me hard. I suppose it was partly because it signified an end to a period of my life in which I had experienced more dramatic change, heartache and stress than perhaps any other.

It took me a while to pick out, and it’s barely visible without clicking on this pic and expanding it, but the balcony where the piggies lived for a year is behind the tiny set of railings between the much wider set of white ones in the top left-hand corner and the pillar running all the way down the building. Note the odd external staircases that wind around the pillar and reach to the apartments. The top set of steps came almost up to my balcony but there was no real way of accessing it (though I was able to remove a section of the bars and did think about climbing down a couple of times). When I passed by, a woman was attending to the plants on the lowest set of steps.

I’m probably in a better place now mentally than I have been for quite some time, and (once I get over a nagging injury) will be back on track physically following my annual festive period of insobriety. I’ve made an important work-related decision, which is exciting but at the same time daunting. There’s never a good time for this stuff to happen but when it does, it invariably feels like a bad time.

For the couple of days after he died, I felt pretty low and very emotional. I couldn’t bring myself to mention it on a Facebook thread where so many people had been supportive and offered their best wishes. I’m feeling a lot better now I’ve had a chance to reflect on the bigger pictue. I took a friend’s advice and dismantled their cage and cleared up the area where it had been for the past four years, keeping a couple of mementoes. I’ve moved my electronic drum kit into the space, which was definitely a good idea. It’s nice to have something enjoyable to do there and feels like something of a tribute (my woeful, arrhythmic bashing aside).

On the selfish side: I feel relief. If he had made it through to summer, I don’t think I could have gone abroad. Now, depending on the state of the pandemic, I might be able to reschedule a trip overland through Central Asia that the boys and I were meant to do last summer. I’m also free to get on my bicycle and head wherever in Taiwan for a week-plus over Lunar New Year, providing this injury heals sufficiently in time.

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On the way to the burial site, I passed by my old box and went round the back to have a look up at the balcony where I’d housed Scruffy, Fluffy and Caramel for a year. A 20-something guy working on a neighbouring construction site for a block of flats that was just getting going when I lived there (over six years ago) approached and we struck up a brief conversation.

His English was excellent, and I told him so. “Yes I know,” he said, with a refreshing self-confidence uncharacteristic of most young Taiwanese.  Attempting to follow my gaze, he asked if I was interested in the staircases on the building next door (which, as you can see in the photo, are indeed interesting).

“Actually …”

He saw my hesitation and tried again: “Or, maybe … something else?”

“Yeah,” I said, trying, as if by force of will, to penetrate the steel bars and the dusty shadows beyond that obscured the blue-tiled floor upon which my three little pigs had braved the elements for a year.

“Something else.”

Dusk had fully enveloped the park by the time I finished filling in the grave. I had to keep stopping as dogs and, to a lesser extent, their owners, showed interest in the foreigner loitering under a tree in the twilight.
Scruffy is buried just to the left of my backpack there, in the shade of the tree.

 

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