- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - March is “adopt a rescue guinea pig month,” and a Salem woman has opened a sanctuary for the fuzzy rodents just in time.

Kristina Francis started Apollo Cavy Sanctuary last month, fulfilling a dream she has held since age 15. Cavy is the Latin name for the genus of rodents that includes the pets more commonly known as guinea pigs.

The local rescue, the only one of its kind in the Mid-Valley, is named for a black guinea pig Francis owned as a teen.

“I got him when I was 13,” she recalled, adding that the family also had dogs, rabbits, horses and other animals. “He was so sweet. I had never had a rodent pet before, and I was not expecting him to be so social, so snuggly. He really fostered my love for guinea pigs.”

Since then, Francis has never been without at least one pet guinea pig. Today, though, it’s gone beyond that.

One room in her home is devoted to a collection of 17 of the critters, housed in cages that line the walls. Fluffy or smooth, black, brown, white or multi-colored, each of the pigs has distinct personality and most have Disney-themed names. They greet Francis — and the sound of a rustling plastic grocery sack — with chirps and tweeting noises.

“They want interaction,” she said. “They don’t jump on you or wag their tail like a dog, but they want to be with you. They like to just be on you, sit on your lap. They are very calming. If you’re stressed out, they will just sit and let you hold them, pet them.”

One of her pets, Rusty, even goes for rides in the car, she said. They are tame enough that Francis can brush them, and trim their toenails. One that came into rescue needed a tooth trimmed, she said, and she was able to do that. “It was a two-person job,” she added.

Francis says it’s easy to find homes for baby guinea pigs, but it’s harder to rehome adults. Many people get the cute little babies, not realizing the animals can live 5 to 7 years. “I had one that lived 10 years,” she said.

Males can be especially hard to find homes for, she said, because they most often have to be housed individually as they may fight.

“You can’t have two boars together, unless they are a bonded pair,” she said. But the animals are social, and a single guinea pig needs lots of attention. She solves the problem by housing males in a large cage with a divider, so they can see each other but not quarrel. The females, called sows, are more genial and can live together.

Though Francis has long wanted to open a rescue for guinea pigs — her parents vetoed the idea when she first brought it up — she was moved to open hers last month after a friend found two of the rodents abandoned by a dumpster at an apartment complex.

“I knew the time was right,” she said. “If the rescue flourishes, I hope to be able to expand it,” Francis said. “This is something I have wanted to do since I was 15.”

Many guinea pigs, bought on impulse as children’s pets, are given up after the kids get bored with them. Others are surrendered because of allergies to the hay they eat, or to the shavings used to line their cages. She says many people first try to sell the animals, but turn to rescue after realizing no one will pay enough to cover their investment in cage, toys, shelters, food and the pets themselves.

“I understand they want to recoup their losses,” Francis said. “But no one will pay that. I offer them a safe place for their pets. I can’t pay — it’s a nonprofit — but they know the pigs are going to be safe.”

Two brother guinea pigs recently adopted though Apollo went for $20 for the pair, she said. “Obviously it doesn’t cover my expenses, but they are going to a good home, that’s what matters to me.”

The animals mostly eat hay, which helps wear down their teeth. Like most rodents, their teeth continue to grow throughout their lives and hard food helps keep the teeth in check. They also get an eighth of a cup of pellets and a cup of vegetables per day. They weigh between 1.5 and 3 pounds, an ideal size for an apartment pet.

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