If all cats have Asperger Syndrome then all Guinea Pigs have autism, and like autism some are more affected by it than others.
We have been keeping Guinea Pigs for 11 years now. During the last 11 years we have had the honour of sharing our home with 9 Guinea Pigs altogether.
We very quickly learned that Guinea Pigs are not just small furry animals who sit in a cage and squeak, without exception all of our pigs have known and responded to their name, and so much more.
We had one pig who could take the stairs faster than we could. He would sit outside of the bathroom and wait for you to come out. We had one who helped our youngest to recover from his appendicitis operation. She was so calm that she allowed us to wrap her in a pillowcase and spent hours lying next to our son on his bed. We had one who liked to be wrapped up tightly and carried around in my peg apron while I was hanging the clothes out, and we had a Mother and Daughter who liked to play with a toy fort. They could actually lower and raise the drawbridge between them.
Then we had Fluffy – or Willow as my middle son insists on calling her. Fluffy-Willow was more often as not referred to as ‘we’re all going to die’ Because that was pretty much the only clear communication that Fluffy was able to make. She was terrified of us.
If we took one step towards the cage Fluffy frozen for a split second before she bolted into her igloo. In that split second you could see a look of sheer terror in her eyes. We did try with Fluffy, but if I am being honest not hard enough. We took the easy option and let Fluff’s sister Poppy and our cool, calm and collected pig Pepper, deal with and keep Fluffy company.
When Pepper died at the great age of 8, Fluffy lost all of her hair. She was bald for quite some time
(a bit ironic given her name) The vet said it was probably a mixture of anxiety and a change in her living arrangements that caused all of her hair to fall out. Guinea Pigs are generally very anxious little creatures.
Guinea Pigs don’t do change either. They thrive on routine. My husband was convinced that they could all see the clock at the end of our hall. He was also convinced that they could all tell the time. At 6 pm on the dot they wheeked for food. But never Fluffy. Fluffy never wheeked for anything, she just looked at us as if we were going to have her for dinner.
Our pigs never did visitors. They would hide in their igloos until the house was back to normal. They were only ever sociable with people they knew well and felt comfortable with. But not Fluffy. She never felt comfortable with any of us.
If a Guinea Pig closes its eyes to sleep then you can be sure that they feel totally safe in your company. Fluffy never closed her eyes to sleep ever.
Just before Christmas last year we found Poppy dead in the cage. We were devastated. She had not even been ill. She was 4 years old. That left Fluffy all alone. He who must be obeyed said “NO MORE PIGS!” He felt that 11 years of caring for these small furry animals and cleaning out their cages was enough.
We did worry about Fluffy and thought that her hair might fall out again. But it did not. She was never as fond of Poppy as she was of Pepper. We kept a close eye on her for days and she appeared to be fine. Fine but very isolated and the look of 'we're all going to die' was replaced by a look of loneliness I decided to take action. Fluffy was going to be socialised even if she did not want to be.
I started to lift Fluffy out of her cage for 10 minutes at a time. I thought that she would freeze and hate every second of it, but she did neither. Ten minutes became twenty and then became half an hour. Fluffy sat on my chest and did nothing. But she sat there.
This went on for a couple of months and then one night (I tend to always spend half an hour with Fluffy before I go to bed) Fluffy decided to explore my face. It turns out that behind my ears must be filthy. My Mother will be happy to hear that they are now as clean as a whistle. Fluffy spends about ten minutes cleaning each ear. Exploration over the next few weeks continued. Put it this way I will never need to pluck my eye brows again! Fluffy had decided to bond with me and keep me spick and span at the same time. She’s still not been able to remove all of the stubble from my eldest's chin but she does keep trying.
Fluffy wheeks now. We open our back door and she wheeks for grass, her favourite food. She bangs her dry food blow when she thinks she needs more dry food in it, and she rattles her water bottle against the cage bars when she either needs more water, or the water in the bottle is not cool enough for her liking.
Guinea Pigs can’t sweat. I never knew that until my eldest told me. The hot weather has made Fluffy restless and uncomfortable. So Fluff and I have taken to find as cool as spot as possible in the garden where we often share 40 winks together.
Fluffy likes the garden and she especially likes it when it is dark. For the last two weeks we have been sitting in the garden in the early hours of the morning, Fluffy sniffing in the cool air and me watching the stars.
While I was watching the stars last week I saw something moving across the sky. It wasn't an airplane, it was probably a satellite, but I lent my head right back to have a good look at whatever it was anyway. When I stopped looking up at the sky I realised that Fluffy was looking up too. I thought it was a coincidence but ten minutes later I looked up again, keeping one eye on Fluffy, she looked up too. Fluffy was copying me. Within 24 hours I knew that there was more to it than that.
Sunday early evening Fluffy and I took to the garden. It was very humid and I must have drifted off to sleep. I was woken up by a little head, butting my chin. I opened my eyes and a big drop of rain plopped into my eye. I looked at Fluffy and she had lifted her head right back and was looking at the sky, she butted me again. I copied her and said it’s raining on us Fluff. Fluffy had shared a meaningful communication with me, she knew that too, she yawned cleaned her face and closed her eyes and settled back down to nap. She was not in the slightest bit stressed out by the rain; she just wanted me to share the moment with her.
It has taken four and a half years to get to know Fluffy and for her to find her voice. It does not matter that she cannot talk, she does now have a voice. Fluffy is turning out to be quite a character and she probably always has been.
When we took our boys out of school to educate them at home, the one thing that I always believed was the most important to aim for with them both, was 'shared meanings and understandings’
I have never been one for ticking a box that was not full. There is very little point being able to read a book if you don't understand what you have just read. So working towards shared meanings and understanding has always been one of our goals.
I have also never believed that not being able to speak is the same as not having anything to say. If a child or adult is non verbal it simply means we have to find the right way to communicate with them. That is why I hate the words low functioning so much. How on earth do we know how someone if functioning if we have yet to find the right way to communicate with them? This apparently holds true even for a Guinea Pig.
Fluffy now has a voice. Even though she cannot speak my language and I cannot speak hers, Fluffy and have found a way to have shared meanings and understandings. We have found a way to communicate with each other.