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July 5, 2011

She's Got Cavy Spirit: Teresa Murphy Goes to Bat for Guinea Pigs

Her mission: Better treatment for guinea pigs

All Animals magazine

  • Sue DuHamel/Cavy House Guinea Pig Rescue

by Ruthanne Johnson

It wasn’t the new boyfriend who changed Teresa Murphy’s life so much as the guinea pig he brought to the relationship.

In fact, Babe ended up moving into her San Mateo, Calif., home before the boyfriend did—but only after Murphy laid down the law: “I told him, ‘We just can’t be spending this kind of time together and have you ignoring your guinea pig.’ ”

At the time, Babe lived in a small wire cage with toxic wood shavings and ate an unvaried diet of carrots and pellets. Though Murphy knew little about the species at the time, it didn’t “seem quite right,” she says. The realization launched her on a journey from naïve pet owner to dedicated rescuer and recognized authority on guinea pig care.

The journey began with some missteps. After discovering that guinea pigs need companions of their own kind, she bought Big Lucy from a pet store. Babe’s new friend taught her to wheek, or happily squeal, at the sound of the fridge door opening. But Big Lucy, who was pregnant when Murphy purchased her, became pregnant again when Murphy didn’t separate her from her male offspring.

With her guinea pig numbers in the double digits, Murphy got serious about learning as much as she could about these domestic cousins of the wild Andean cavy. She discovered that male guinea pigs can be neutered, and she read about the horrors of the small animal breeding industry and the large numbers of guinea pigs who are abandoned or surrendered to shelters. “I went to my local shelter, and sure enough, there was a whole room full of small animals.”

In 1999, she founded the Cavy Spirit rescue group, began offering help to local shelters, and taught herself website development. At first the website simply showcased piggies in need of homes. But “pretty soon, I had more to say about guinea pig issues,” she says.

One of those issues was the inadequacy of commercial cages made for guinea pigs. Even the largest are little more than “glorified litter boxes,” Murphy says. She tried jerry-rigging cages to create more space; for a while, she had two kiddie pools side by side on her dining room table. “I would go to bed at night thinking about how I could make a better cage.”

Her persistence paid off. Using wire cubes, like those sold at office supply stores, and corrugated plastic, Murphy created the Cubes & Coroplast (C&C) habitat, a design that is now used by rescuers and savvy owners around the world.

Close to home, Murphy has helped place more than 2,000 guinea pigs. And she keeps her eye on the big picture. “You can’t possibly take in all the guinea pigs who need homes,” she says. “… You’ve really got to educate and qualify the people who are adopting.”

In 2002, she successfully lobbied for a California law requiring that a standardized care sheet be given to people buying pet guinea pigs. Her website, which offers detailed information on diet, vet care, cages, handling, cleaning, and environmental enrichment, gets more than 200,000 visits a day.

Over the years, Murphy estimates that she’s spent well over $100,000 of her own money on her rescue and education work. But the hard work and expense have been worth it. “Once you have a couple of guinea pigs, you realize they are amazing little animals,” she says. “… When you look into their eyes, it’s easy to have a connection.”

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