How to exhume a gerbil; and other notes relating to pet mortality

A week ago had you told me I was going to see my beloved amputee gerbil get sick, die, get buried, and then exhumed, well I would have told you that’s a bunch of baloney!

Well, it’s all true this week.

Jerry was a special gerbil.  Not that my other two aren’t special, because like any pet-mother, I love all my pet-babies equally because they’re my little wards.

Jerry, my little agouti friend.

But I brought Jerry home because he was the Other Gerbil.  I saw him running on his wheel minus a tail, and sporting a stump that peeked out of a naked behind because the fur was all gone except for a few white tufts.  Likely from what the vet later recorded as a “tragic accident.”  Jerry also had a scar under his eye that made him look like the victim of a bar fight.  And on his scent gland was a tumour.

But like all black-eyed gerbils, Jerry had big bright eyes and long lashes, along with a sweet personality that made him absolutely adorable.

I asked the gals at the pet store about the little gerbil with no tail.

He’s been out back, they said, probably two and a half years.  He used to be in the office.  It was his Christmas present to go out front with the other gerbils.

The other gerbils were in a gerbil pile in the corner, sleeping, and Jerry was running around them, trying to wake them up while they slumbered on.  When they didn’t pay him any attention,  he went back to running on his wheel in solitude.  He was an outsider.

This was last May.  For five months he had been out looking at the public who were passing this little doe-eyed critter up.

I had to take him.  Of course, you knew that, right?

I tried to room Jerry with my two brothers Oscar and Willis, but they chased him around and sniffed at his fur-less, stumpy bum.  Eventually, they all tussled.  And when gerbils tussle enough, they kill each other to get rid of the intruder (who in the wild would normally run away.)

So Jerry was installed in his new cage.  His own cage.  No other gerbils ignoring him: just him and his cage.  When I finally got him his own special wheel that was safe (probably how he lost his tail in the first place) he was in absolute heaven.  You could see it on his face.  Eventually he performed for you: the more you cheered him on, the harder he would run.  Make the mistake of turning away from him and he would stop and look at you indignantly as if to say, I’m performing here, you know.

Jerry with a wee widdle foot on his bathtub (gerbils need sand to bath, like chinchillas.)

Because one of the women at the pet store shared her office and lunch salads with him, he enjoyed fruits and vegetables.  Like a squirrel, he hoarded most things… but not his fruit.  His seeds and nuts were socked away in his little pod (Jerry never planned on going hungry) but fruit went to his lips instantly.  There’d be lots of winks.  Gerbils wink, it’s thought, when they are happy and content, and this is usually when it comes to great food.  Jerry winked a lot.

Jerry never did get used to being handled, probably because he spent two and a half years at the store, and those are the formative years for a gerbil.  After all that time not being held, he preferred to enjoy me from the comfort of his cage.  I also thought that maybe his stump had nerve endings, or his tumour ached a bit.  So I usually visited him through the cage door.

When I took Jerry to the vet to see if his tumour was cancer, the veterinarian told me it looked fairly benign, and that he might not survive the anesthetic if he had the surgery to remove it.  We adopted a watch and wait approach; if it grew bigger we would have to go from there.

But Jerry thrived.  Jerry even learned to chewy-chewy like my other boys, working through toilet paper rolls like a professional.  And he gave such wonderful kisses.

“Kissy, kissy,” I would say, and he would come to the cage door and smell my lips, kind of like a gerbil Eskimo kiss (gerbils like to smell other gerbils’ saliva as a way of recognition, or handshake.)

When I talked to him, he would pop out of the fluff of his nest and wink.

You could tell he was in gerbil heaven.

Jerry with the gerbil ball (one they couldn't sink their chompers into) though nothing replaced the wheel. He was a gerbil in motion.

All this time, I knew he was growing older.  He slowed down.  Slept more.  When I changed his cage and he went through the stress of making sure his wheel and food were in the same place as always, he would go to sleep long before the other gerbils were done rebuilding.  He was getting more tired.

As you know, good things always come to an end.

Recently I noticed his tumour was bigger, and he was chewing and digging at it.  Maybe it had grown a bit inside, or maybe something inside was irritating him.

Last week, he dug it open hard enough that it bled, making quite a mess in his cage.  After that, he didn’t perk up, but started going downhill.  By Thursday night, I knew it was coming.  Death.

He just didn’t have the energy to run.  He always had energy to run.

His appetite seemed off.  He always delighted in new food the way gerbils do.

And his breathing seemed laboured, his sides heaving.

I called to check on him all day Friday, and Friday evening, I stayed by his bedside.  Mom suggested putting a table next to my bed so that he would be close by, so we moved him by my bed.  I kept the lamp on so I could monitor his breathing.  I was scared it would stop.

In the morning, he was still in the same shape, so I stayed with him.  I spent all day in bed, only getting out for a break to bath, then came straight back to be his palliative care nurse.  Sometimes Jerry stayed in his cage.  Sometimes he let me hold him on my chest so I could brush him.  He was too weak to even move.

Never have I seen such a sad little sight as my Jer-Bear, sitting on my chest, one eye gummed shut, fur looking flattened, ears laying down, and heaving.  I ached.  I knew it was coming.  As the day wore on, I realized he wasn’t completing bodily functions including eating, and it was only a matter of time.  I kept an eye dropper of water at my side, and every time he seemed to smack his lips, I offered him a drop.

Jerry in action on his first wheel (yes, he went through two, he ran so much.)

All day, he sat on my chest, me stroking his head.  He was content enough that he winked with each pat.

There we sat.  We sat and we waited for death.

Shortly after 9:45, Jerry became a bit panicked, trying to get off my chest.  He had done this before, and actually rolled over because he was so weak.  So before he fell and hurt himself, I put him back in his cage.

He started racing around, then I knew.  He began coding in his cage, so I pulled him back out, held him, rocked him, and death came.

It came too fast and yet not soon enough for the little suffering guy.

After Mom and I held him, and I snipped a little lock of fur to keep (I do this for all my pets as a memento mori) I put him in a little box so we could bury him in the morning.

Saturday evening, Mom had dug a hole by the new hydrangea bush that was to become Jerry’s bush.  Sunday, we had him wrapped in a couple of blankets which we placed in a beautiful purse, then committed him.  We placed bricks on top of him, followed by rocks, then flowers.

It rained Sunday afternoon as I moped from my loss and tiredness.  No more kisses.  No more runny-runnies on the wheel.  No more winks.

It’s only a gerbil, some wags might say.  He was my surrogate child, I would say back.  My baby.  Dependant on me for life.  And that life was gone.

The rain poured from the sky.  I was so scared he’d get wet.  Silly.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

The feelings inside grew worse though.  I accepted his death, but I ached to know he was in the ground.  What if someone dug up the lawn in the future?  Would they think anything of the little bag?  Would they throw it away?  And would the worms have… and would there be flies?  Maybe I was just watching too many CSI shows.

Monday, driving home from work, I was ready for a change.

I had read on the internet that gerbils had been cremated before.  And South Shore Pet Crematorium had done Tillie and provided us with Tillie’s remains in a dignified way… even picked her up and brought her home.

Though I was horrified at what I was proposing, Mom got her sneakers and shovel, and we dug Jerry from the cold wet ground when I got home from work.

The moral of this story is: know what kind of services you need for the future, even if they are for a pet.  Because the wrong decision can make grieving even harder.  You don’t want to be thinking that your loved one is with worms (or conversely, being burned) if that makes you feel the wrong way.  Of course we have to morally follow wishes; pets, of course, cannot tell us their wishes unless they run away to die.

Some people believe in burial.  Some in cremation.  It’s important to know which is important to you… and to make those wishes known.  I have always wanted my remains to be cremated… now I know it’s essential.  I suppose it’s because there’s something more romantic about ashes being tossed in the wind.  And because I feel there’s no dignity in decomposition.  In fact, CSI and all the roadkill I see on my two hour commute, reminds me that is rather a messy, gross business.

So last night after work, I found on the doorstep the little container I sent off with Jerry.  And the certificate in an envelope.  All so dignified.  And such a tiny little package.  Bless his heart, even with a blanket and boxes, he made so few ashes.

It was the best decision I had made since I decided to spend his last day with him.  Ever since freeing him from the ground, I felt more airy and light despite the loss.  And when I held his little impromptu urn, I felt peace.  This was dignity for Jerry.  His poor tumour and worn little body would never rot… he had been transformed into a little dish that can travel with me forever.  Maybe he will be finally put in with my other boys when death comes for them.  And maybe he will end up with me.  We don’t always know when death will come, but knowing what we will do when our number’s up, and what will bring peace in the midst of loss, is something we should never neglect to do.  Luckily for me, I could rectify my mistake; with humans, that’s next to impossible.  And had I repressed my feelings, I would have missed out on bringing Jerry home to the bedroom he called heaven for a year and a half.

So know he’s in my dresser, safe, and not out in the rain.  It relieves me immensely, even as I miss him.

RIP little bud.

Jerry peeking out of the cage, even though he was one gerbil who loved to stay in his cage, his refuge, with his wheel.
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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Julie Veinot says:

    I must say that I’ve had a few odd looks when I told people I cremated little Jerry, rest his soul. I suppose it’s the same as when they melted Michael Jackson?

    1. Eduardo says:

      It really sucks that your gerbil died . My hamster died recent and iam still sad . Teddy only stayed with me 5 month

      1. Julie says:

        RIP Teddy 😦

        I love little critters so much, but I haven’t had any since my last gerbil died, because it’s hard to have furry friends with such short lives. I need to get me one of those turtles that live for a hundred years!

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