When people ask me to describe a chinchilla, the best response I have to sum up this crazy little creature is that it’s like a live-action Disney animated fluffy forest thing.
In 2008, I’d just moved from 425 square feet in L.A. to 1,260 square feet in Denver, where I was online opinion editor at the Rocky Mountain News. So I went down to the animal shelter — the Dumb Friends League — to add perhaps a guinea pig (I didn’t add the caucus until moving to D.C.). The staff steered me toward a chinchilla after I’d rattled off some nerdy factoids about their origin and care — I’d always been curious about them, but being close to the coast in L.A. I had no air conditioning other than the Pacific, which means a keep-it-68-degrees creature was out of the question.
The chinchilla had been purchased at a PetSmart and then turned into the shelter by the family. This wasn’t surprising as they’re not kids’ pets: they’re exceptionally soft and cuddly but don’t like to be cuddled, they’re strong and amazing jumpers but have a delicate bone structure that means you can’t squeeze or drop them, and they’re up at night. The shelter staff took us into one of those “get acquainted” rooms, and let the chinchilla out of the carrier. She began zipping circles around the room, ricocheting off walls and making everyone dizzy trying to catch her. I finally cornered the chinchilla under a table with the help of another staffer, and reached out to gently pet her nose. After acting zen for a few moments, she leaped between us but I caught her against my shoulder and held her there. She came home with me. I named her Chinderella because she was clearly a total diva.
And the chinchilla adventure began. First thing I learned is they’re wonderfully clean pets with no smell, droppings the size of hamster poo, and they can’t wait for a dust bath (it’s all good if you don’t mind sweeping up a bit of ash — off counters, baseboards, everything). They need regular playtime outside of the cage and lots of things to chew on, like mega willow sticks from the pet store (I’m wary of grabbing any outside sticks that might have pesticides on them). The temperature in my casa is always 68 degrees — they can’t sweat and can easily overheat. In case she gets too warm, there’s a granite slab for her to chill on, though recently she dragged a small throw into the cage and has made a nest of sorts out of that. They don’t get fleas because of the fur density, and you can’t get them wet (yep, like Gremlins) because the fur can mold.
If the chinchilla doesn’t have a little friend — and this one is way too dominant to throw another one in there — they bond to their human. When I let her out of the cage to run around, she first jumps up on my shoulder and hangs there a bit while I pet her. If I sit on the floor during playtime, she climbs on me like a jungle gym. If she wants me to get down lower, she’ll stand on her hind feet and tap me on the leg. She knows the drill of when to get back in her cage (and occasionally avoids it for an extra hour or so, to my frustration). The ultimate sign of trust is when she touches her nose to mine.
For rodent-lovers, chinchillas are especially fantastic because of their 15-20-year lifespan. Unlike Syrian hamsters, though, they’re not for beginners. They have extremely delicate digestive systems that can’t tolerate many of the fruity-pebble feed mixes sold; I’ve found only one food, Mazuri, to be good. She gets hay every day, but it better be orchard grass; if I give her timothy hay, she takes a bite, stares at me, and throws it to the side. Treats are limited to a few bits of dried fruit — papaya being especially good for their digestive health — per week. They have natural defense systems: Chinchillas can detach that squirrel-like tail at will, though it won’t regrow and if you’re the one to pull the tail you won’t get trusted again. They can detach a clump of fur at will if it’s being grabbed. If she hears something strange with her human-grade hearing at night, she yelps like a monkey (THAT didn’t startle me the first time).
They have amazing personalities and intelligence. Mine loves to watch TV, but hates commercial interruptions. She’ll dance around the guinea pigs’ cage and tease them. When I come up and scratch behind her ears, she stands up and both ears slowly drop to the side by 90 degrees.
Here, she checks to make sure my slipper isn’t a relative.
In Denver, she was a bit of a celebrity. When the Rocky decided not to endorse a presidential candidate in 2008, we joked about a Chinchilla for President campaign around the newsroom: Hope and Hay. So even though her official name is Chinderella, I began calling her Chinchilla — as in The One, The Ultimate chinchilla. When the Rocky was going to close and I accepted a job at The Hill in D.C., I was really worried about the road trip as I read online about how stressful moving can be on chinchillas. No worries about the heat as it was the end of January — and I had to reroute through the south because of an ice storm — but for proper ventilation I bought her a guinea pig starter cage that would fit nicely on the back seat. And she was the best traveler of all, getting to stretch with a bit of playtime in hotel bathrooms at night.
Here, she saw the hotel mirror and tried to see her reflection.
A chinchilla, by the way, guarantees friendly entry into most hotels — at one in Mississippi, the desk clerk wanted to carry Chinchilla’s cage to the room. After I arrived in D.C., I crashed at a Hilton and ordered room service. The waiter saw the cage on the sofa, though she was in her hidey-house at the time, and asked, “What is that, a rabbit?” When I told him it was a chinchilla, he beamed ear-to-ear and exclaimed, “That’s my country!”
“Peru?” I responded. “Yes!” he said happily.
“So you know each other then,” I said.
“Yes, we’re old friends!” the waiter responded. I jotted a good tip onto the room service bill. It’s all about Chinchilla.
She’s settled nicely into earning her keep:
I have no doubt that, if left to her own devices, Chinchilla would embark on a campaign of total world domination. I only half-joke that each year at Halloween she’s the rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But she’s also taught me a thing or two, besides patience when she schemes to avoid ending playtime: I won’t buy fur now, knowing that ranchers break the necks of these little creatures or electrocute them to put 100 pelts into a full-length coat (they’re now rare in the wild after decades of hunting, as well). I’d love to know what God was thinking when He brilliantly created these funny little Andes mountain dwellers with the back feet of a rabbit, the tail of a squirrel, the whiskers of a cat, tiny little hands, lots of love, and a big bundle of attitude.
All I know is it takes a chinchilla owner to really get the Vegas tourism board Chinchilli Day commercial.