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Friday, March 2, 2012

Hugh and Mabel: A Tudor Romance

 The following story, one shared with me for my book-in-progress about rescued animals, Bebe & Friends, is told by my sisterwriter with All Things That Matter Press, M.J.Neary.  She has written two novels about the Irish Uprising of 1916, Brendan Malone and Martyrs and Traitors, as well as other historical novels.  This story will go in my book:

I have always been partial to adopting older animals. When my husband and I got married, we were 21 and 31, both working crazy hours and trying to make most of the flourishing economy under Clinton, in hopes of building a financial fund for the future baby.  After a long discussion, we realized that the most we could handle in the case of offspring would be a guinea pig.  We went to a local family-run pet shop to look at some babies, but it was not the babies that caught our attention.  In the corner we saw a giant black two-year old boar (the designation for male guinea pigs), perfectly healthy, free to a good home.  As it turns out, the original owner had lost interest in keeping him and put the pet up for adoption.  To us it was a no-brainer.  We brought him home the same night and did everything to ensure his comfort.  He turned out to be extremely active and affectionate, grunting and squeaking in delight.

Among guinea pig breeders, it's customary to name their pets after various Shakespearean characters.  I have always been fascinated by Irish history, so I named the new guinea pig Hugh, after Hugh O'Neill, Ulster's legendary chieftain, the Earl of Tyrone, who defied Queen Elizabeth.  Naturally, every earl needs his countess, so we started looking for a suitable bride for Hugh.  The trick was to find a female who had already given birth by the age of six months.  If a female has not been bred by then, it's better not to breed her at all, as her hip joints become stiff, and it may be hard for her to give birth.

Hugh's bride was also a rescue pet. We saw her at another pet store where she was kept with her two grown children. Apparently, their claws were never clipped, so they continued rough-housing with their mom, leaving scratches on her belly.  When we picked her up, her underside was covered in scabs.  The store manager gave her to us for $10. We took her home, gave her a time to heal and placed her into the male's cage.  You should have seen his reaction!  He started purring, vibrating, huffing and puffing at the sight of a beautiful female of childbearing age.  He spent the whole night chasing her around the cage.  In the morning we found them snuggled contently under the log.  We named Hugh's mate Mabel, after Mabel Bagenal, O'Neill's hapless child-bride, wife #3.  According to Sean O'Faolain, O'Neill's biographer, "women married early, and men married early and often."  So we had a great Tudor-era romance under our roof. 

Just a few weeks after bringing Mabel home, we noticed that she started expanding horizontally.  Soon we were able to feel little kicks and twitches through the thin walls of her stomach.  I used to flip her on her back and rub my nose against her warm belly filled with babies.  For those of you who don't know, guinea pigs are born fully formed and fairly independent, like miniature adults. They are not pink, blind and helpless.  Far from it.  They eat solid food and run around.  When we came to check on Mabel in the morning, we found her surrounded by her newly born children scurrying all over her.  She looked tired, and Hugh looked mildly annoyed, as he was not used to little ones crawling over his back and sniffing him. 

The thing about guinea pigs is that the females ovulate an hour within giving birth.  So by the time we removed the father from the cage, Mabel was pregnant again.  Apparently, they had mated in that brief segment of time.  Before we knew it, Mabel was expanding again.  We had no trouble placing the little ones.  She had four in the first litter with Hugh.  Two went to a pet store, the same one that let us adopt Hugh, and the other two were placed with a family.  Mabel's subsequent litter was huge.  Out of six babies, one died.  Still, five  surviving pups is an impressive litter.  This time we gave them away to various Catholic schools in Pennsylvania as classroom pets. Two of them went to stay with one of the students for the summer, and the girl fell in love with them so deeply that she refused to return them at the end of the summer.  They stayed with her as house pets. 

In the summer of 2001 we decided that Mabel deserved to retire.  I knew a friend of mine in Philadelphia who was looking for a pet, so I decided that Mabel would be perfect for her.  Before handing Mabel over, I kissed her tummy one last time and asked her to wish me luck in getting pregnant.  I was already 22, with a steady job and enough in my savings account to support a baby, and to me Mabel represented motherhood and fertility.  A few months later I was pregnant!  That was not the end of Mabel's work as a fertility lucky charm.  She had helped two other women get pregnant.  Both had struggled with infertility, but after coming in contact with Mabel, after stroking her fuzzy sides and her belly that had produced so many babies, they ended up having babies of their own!  The gentle piggy was humorously canonized as St. Mother Mabel.

She died peacefully of old age on Easter in 2006.  There is only one place she can be, and that's on the lap of St. Francis in heaven.  Her legacy of gentle love and maternal joy continues on.

(Then there was also the legendary Sooty, who escaped from his cage and impregnated 23 females, who all gave birth at the same time.)

Marina Julia Neary         Stamford, CT                                                        
              Mabel’s Babies