Will You Be My Guinea Pig

A model organism for scientists and food enthusiasts. Or just another pet-pal.



Now it’s time to talk about guinea-pigs, because why not? Who among you would be foolhardy enough to claim guinea pigs an unworthy subject for literature? There’s more to all this than meets the eye, so get ready for a tale of worlds colliding, oceans crossed by these fuzzy squeakers, which are according to some, always a satisfaction for the stomach. Prepare yourselves to hear marvels!

The cavia porcellus is an animal domesticated by the Andean ancients. Known to scientific folk and pet owners as the guinea pig, breeders and others (who are more technically right about these things) call them cavies. In the Spanish of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru they are called cuyes, singular cuy.

They belong to the genus cavia in the family of the caviidae which also includes that most regal of rodents, the giant Capybara.

The Capybara is the world’s largest rodent, also from South America. Perfectly majestic.

Despite being called GUINEA PIG, it neither comes from Guinea nor is it a pig. ORDER: Rodentia. The pig label is surprisingly persistent. In German they are called Meerschweinchen, or “little sea pigs;” in Russian морская свинка (morskaya svinka) is cognate. The female’s called a sow, and the male’s a boar; the little ones depart from the porcine terminology by being named pups.

A sow and her pups?

Although they don’t burrow for themselves, wild species of cavies related to the common guinea pig are habitual squatters, taking over the underground lairs of other animals. Hanging up Home Sweet Home plaques and all. Or am I thinking of another kind of domestication?

Traditional cultures in the Andes retain great stores of lore regarding these cutsey rodents, so tender and succulent. They are given as gifts on propitious occasions; expressions and proverbs surrounding them abound in the indigenous languages. We even have one in English: will you be my guinea pig?

They are also used in folk medicine. The doctor takes a live cuy and rubs it all over the patient’s body. Then the cuy is cut open, and its insides examined to provide diagnosis.

The Cuy in Andean Medicine: Edmundo Morales

Therefore, before we get too attached, let’s remember that the guinea pig is a staple of the Andean diet to this day. It was first selectively bred to be especially scrumptious as early as 5000 B.C.E, somewhere in the region of what would be modern day Ecuador, Bolivia, or Peru. Kept as “micro-livestock” just as bees are. It is a regional delicacy (the cavies not the bees), and people from there–who would certainly know–have told me it’s quite tasty!

Roast guinea pig with all the trimmings from a diner in Cuzco, Peru.

Fun fact for shouting from the rooftops (if you’re into that sort of thing): the Cathedral of Cuzco in Peru boasts a very interesting interpretation of The Last Supper. All questions of the quality of the painting aside, guess what ol’ Hey-Zeus is there eating with his disciples for that fateful final feast?

Did they eat cavies in ancient Judea? Of course they did!

They say it’s like rabbit, only juicier. Maybe it’s better to feed than to eat?

Because, in stark contrast to this, there are rabid guinea pig enthusiasts who create all sorts of spectacular veggie platters to delight the palettes of their pampered pet cavies. E.g.

Isn’t that just adorable? Like a Christmas Wreath.

Cavies (or guinea pigs if we must call them that, continuing this porcine farce) are a popular choice for a pet, due to their ease of care and docile nature. Nevertheless, when a rare instance of a cavy attack occurs, their brutality and savagery is unmatched. I will not show a picture of the grisly results.

Instead, we should discuss Guinea Pigs on the High Seas. This is one of my favorite subjects I’ve never considered before today (Guinea Pigs on the High Seas should be the title of a book, although probably isn’t).

When discovered in the age of exploration, large numbers of guinea pigs were shipped about the world on great galleys. Spanish, Dutch, and English traders brought them over to Europe, where they became the beloved pets to royals, mostly. Queen Elizabeth I herself is said to have owned a guinea pig, but I cannot for the life of me find out what its name was in all the historical record. I like to think it was Chuffy.

Elizabethan era children with pets, including a guinea pig.

Another example of guinea pigs in European art, although they have to share the stage with larger animals:

Garden of Eden with cavies? Of course!

Guinea pigs are pretty noisy lil beasts and make a number of vocalizations including wheeks, purrs, chuts, chatters, cheeps, and chirps; alas, you really have to have cavy vocal chords to sing that song.

Example of cavies wheeking and squeaking:

May as well get the gross part over with now. Cavies are coprophagous, which means that they consume their own feces. This is not just some sick habit, but necessary to the health of the animal, providing its digestive system with vital probiotics. Just like yogurt and kombucha! Mice do this as well.

Of course, the contributions that our friend and main course the CAVIA PORCELLUS has made in a lab setting are also inestimable. Just like the White Lab Rat, and the mysterious limb-regenerating Axolotl, it is a model organism for science. Hence the expression, “to be someone’s guinea pig” means to be subject to their experimentation or tests.

Experimental guinea-pigs in an old-timey lab. Getting awfully familiar with the books. Maybe they will learn to read, and one day take over the world.

Cavy clubs for these guinea pig enthusiasts have been established worldwide; it’s undeniable that the guinea pig takeover is imminent, a great replacement the likes of which has never been experienced by humanity. All mammals are descended from strange rodent-like creatures, that once scampered around the colossal feet of the dinosaurs they would one day replace. Maybe it is fitting that things come full circle. What creature would be more fit to inherit the earth than this meek and docile animal? We could say they breed like rabbits, but it’s even faster. Due to their high rate of reproduction, we can not possibly eat enough of them (mouthwatering as they are) to make a dent in the burgeoning population. So, like Bugs Bunny used to say: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

So if ever life gets you down, take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. Imagine to the utmost vividness within your inner theater a fluffy white guinea pig letting out a mighty bout of wheeking and squeaking. Then try and stay depressed!

Many thanks for agreeing to be my guinea pig and seeing this through to the end.

A little cartoon to unwind if you care to:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *