2018-06-21 / Neighbors

Tiny mammal turns into big deal for pet lovers

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


During the 17th New England Gerbil Show, held at the Double Tree by Hilton in South Portland Saturday, June 9, the Wengland family of Saco, including mom Sharoo, center, daughter Rayne, 15, left, and son Ebbin, 11, right, watch as a pair of Mongolian gerbils nominally charged with racing to see which could chew up a toilet paper roll the fastest. (Duke Harrington photo) During the 17th New England Gerbil Show, held at the Double Tree by Hilton in South Portland Saturday, June 9, the Wengland family of Saco, including mom Sharoo, center, daughter Rayne, 15, left, and son Ebbin, 11, right, watch as a pair of Mongolian gerbils nominally charged with racing to see which could chew up a toilet paper roll the fastest. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — From dog training to horse racing, to all manner of livestock on display at county fairs, Maine has no lack of love for all kinds of creatures, great and small. But this past weekend, South Portland hosted an animal show unlike anything seen before in state history.

On Saturday, June 9, more than a dozen breeders from as far away as Ohio and Florida gathered at the Double Tree by Hilton hotel for the New England Gerbil show.

A production of the American Gerbil Society, the New England show is billed as “the longest-running gathering of gerbil breeders and enthusiasts in North America.” This was the first stop in Maine for the event in its 17-year history.


Gerbil enthusiast Jennifer Bell of Springfield, Massachusetts, with a pair of furry friends during the 17th New England Gerbil Show show. (Duke Harrington photo) Gerbil enthusiast Jennifer Bell of Springfield, Massachusetts, with a pair of furry friends during the 17th New England Gerbil Show show. (Duke Harrington photo) Thanks for that goes to Cynthia Kurtz of Scarborough.

“It was no trick,” she said with a laugh, as she offered a tour among more than 200 gerbil cages, unmarked and randomly numbered for unbiased judging.

“As the show coordinator this year, I got to pick the location,” she said. “So, naturally I chose someplace that’s about a 10-minute drive from my home.”

While it may seem odd to some that anyone would have enough interest in gerbils to hop several state lines just to hobnob with fellow owners, Kurtz says society members are a breed unto themselves, perfectly content with and at home in their hobby.

“People say, ‘A gerbil show?’ and, I always answer that, yes, it is a real thing,” Kurtz said.

Although nearly ubiquitous today as a classroom pet, gerbils are a relatively recent transport to American soil. Once known as “desert rats” for the arid environments they hail from in Africa, India and China, the hardy and gentle Mongolian breed was first brought from China to Paris in the 19th century, and then to the U.S. in 1954 by a Dr. Victor Schwentker, for use in medical research.

The American Gerbil Society (agsgerbils.org), founded in 1999 to promote humane treatment of the animal, has members nationwide, but not so much in California, where it’s illegal to keep gerbils as pets.

That’s another reason the society was formed, to help educated breeders and potential gerbil owners to avoid the kind of rodent apocalypse so feared by Californian animal control officers. After all, one breeding pair of gerbils can produce as many as 96 pups per year, which puts a premium on responsible ownership.

“We all take it very serious, because it is a serious hobby, and we are all very dedicated to the health of our animals, and there’s a lot of work and research that goes into putting together breeding pairs and getting gerbils ready for a show, but at the same time we’re a big group of friends and we’re all well aware of the kind of outlandish nature of gerbil shows.

“And we own it,” Kurtz said. “We own the ‘gerbil crazy.’”

“It’s a real community. It’s a family, really” said Nick Araujo of Boston, one of the few male members of the society.

“I’m actually kind of anti-social outside of these events,” he said. “I don’t like to talk to people, really. I kind of keep to myself and, because I’m a big guy, some people say I’m intimidating. Some have even called me ‘menacing.’ But when it comes to gerbils, I really open up. And it helps that everyone here is so accepting, so non-judgmental.”

If there was a common theme among vendors and enthusiasts at Saturday’s big show, it was that of the young mother who got suckered into buying a gerbil or three for her kids only to fall under the spell of the curious critters which, unlike hamsters, are instinctively social by nature.

“That’s how it was for me,” said Shereen Lehman of Bridgeport, Connecticut. “My daughter was in sixth grade at the time and wanted a hamster. So, we went to the pet store and I said, ‘Why don’t you get a gerbil?’ just because they were cheaper and I was thinking, “They’re just going to die in a month anyway.’ But I found out they really have quite wonderful personalities after all, which amazed me.

“My daughter is 23 now and lives in Norway,” Lehman said. “But in the meantime I became really quite devoted to these little guys. So, today it’s my husband who puts up with by gerbil obsession. I have 10.”

“I’m not even sure how many I have, honestly,” said Libby Hanna of Clermont, Florida, one of several show judges, who spent much of the day handling and examining dozens of gerbils. “I have eight tanks with 16 to 20, maybe. But I’ve had as many as 75 or 80.”

And as with Lehman, Hanna began with kids who wanted a pet they could take care of themselves. When two of the three they had died, the family went to a gerbil show to find companions for the one that remained, and, “right in that moment, when we walked in the door,” Hanna recalled, “that was it for me. I knew this was something I’d be doing for a long time.

“Today, my kids are grown and couldn’t even care about gerbils. They just humor me,” Hanna joked.

But Araujo, with his tattoos and nose ring, seemed to come from an entirely different mold. And yet, it didn’t matter, as he mingled with his fellow enthusiasts, sagely accepting bon mottes as “the gerbil whisperer,” renowned for an ability to coax to active health from even the scrawniest, most sickly runts in a litter.

“I don’t look at all like someone who might necessarily be into gerbils, but I have 26 right now,” he said. “And all of us here, we come from all different walks of life, but we all have this in common. It’s a genuine bond among us.

“And me, I was gone with my first gerbil,” Araujo said, explaining his passion. “I’ve had dogs but it’s hard to have a dog in the city. But gerbils, they’re fun. They’re lovable. They’re clean – as a desert animal they don’t drink a lot of water, so they don’t mess their cages as often – so they don’t require a lot of work taking care of them. And, unlike hamsters, they don’t sleep all day and only get active at night.”

South Portland native Kaitlyn Cepeda, now a Bath resident, says she used to stand in the window of the old Pet Menagerie in the Maine Mall for hours on end, watching the gerbils.

“I’ve always just loved any cute little furry animal,” she said. “I actually was not allowed to have them as a kid, because we had cats and dogs, so I got into gerbils big time as soon as I got out on my own.”

That was seven years ago, and these days Cepeda is an active breeder and adopter of gerbils rescued from homes where the animal’s short mating cycle quickly got out of control for inexperienced owners.

“I just love how sweet and gentle and curious gerbils are,” Cepeda said. “They don’t demand a lot, but they really give a lot.”

It was Cepeda who got Kurtz hooked on the hobby. Kurtz was 16 and working at the Animal Welfare Society when she felt sorry for and adopted a sad, three-legged gerbil.

“I named her Dorothy Bubbles and we went everywhere together,” Kurtz said. “We went to camp together. We went to McDonald’s together. We got kicked out of McDonald’s together.”

But it was when she was working at a local pet store that Kurtz met Cepeda, a regular customer, who clued the younger gerbil fan into the existence of the American Gerbil Society. Through the society and its associated Facebook page, Kurtz and Cepeda soon became what they term, “gerbil besties,” with Cepeda sending care packages to Kurtz’ pets while she was in college.

“That was hilarious, because my parents didn’t even send me care packages,” Kurtz said.

Gerbils, unfortunately only live two to three years. These days, Kurtz’ favorite is named H. H. Unicorn, and, yes, she claims, it actually recognizes and responds to the sound of its name.

In addition to vying for Best in Show, based on color, body shape and temperament, among other characteristics, the various breeders at Saturday’s show – along with attendees who came to gawk and, occasionally, to buy – spent time putting their favored gerbils to the test in agility courses, maze runs and chewing races.

“Gerbils like to chew,” Kurtz said. “We go through a lot of cardboard, and a ton of toilet paper tubes.”

But most of all, Saturday’s gathering was simply a chance – in one of four similar shows staged each year across the county – for gerbil owners to swap stories and share their love for these furry friends.

And to make new ones, like Sharoo Wengland of Saco, who attended with daughter Rayne, 15, and son Ebbin, 11.

“We just thought this would be a fun event to come to,” she said.

“I think this is awesome,” said Ebbin, who after soaking up all he could learn about gerbils from every society member he could find, spent the balance of the afternoon trying to convince her mother how desperately the family needed a gerbil, given a rule against dogs at their apartment.

They left with three.

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