Rosemary Bradshaw knows a lot about guinea pigs. She ought to. The 58-year-old woman, who lives just north of Gloversville on Bleecker Mountain, has been raising guinea pigs since she was a child.
As an adult, she began selling them to buyers, some of whom drive 6 hours to see her stock, which numbers in the hundreds.
Most buyers, however, are coming with a child in tow to choose a first pet or two. Bradshaw likes to sell her docile guinea pigs in pairs because they like company. There are buyers, however, who eye the different breeds she raises with the intention of entering them in competitions. These buyers are looking for a certain shaped head, a particular coat texture or a specialized breed.
In the 1990s, science began to question whether guinea pigs were rodents based on scientific studies of amino acid sequence data of protein samples. The jury is still out and for the time being they are classified as belonging to the family Caviidae and the genus cavia.
Pets for Sailors
Native to South America, it is believed that sailors stowed them aboard ships and kept the easy-going critters as pets. The guinea pig has been a popular pet since the 1600s. While the truth about how they got their name is lost to history, one theory is that they were called guinea pigs because sailors sold them for a guinea and they make a pig-like squeal.
Over time, breeding and selection created specialized breeds: some with short, glossy coats, others with rough swirls — called rosettes — in their coats and still others have long silky coats that make it difficult to tell one end of the guinea pig from the other.
Bradshaw has quite a variety. She lives in a quiet area, off a dead-end dirt road. Near the driveway is an old trailer and further back a horse barn that have been converted to house guinea pigs in stalls, cages and tubs. The animated blue-eyed Bradshaw lifts one guinea pig after another and describes the characteristics of the different breeds.
The most common guinea pig seen in pet stores has a short coat. In her menagerie, Bradshaw has silkies with long straight coats, texels with crinkly coats and ringlets, teddys with soft spiked coats, and satin Himalayans with an ivory body and dark ears, feet and nose that are reminiscent of the coloration of a Siamese cat. She picks up a scruffy Peruvian guinea pig that is cream colored with a mop of fur hanging over his black face. “The hair will get very long in time. People have to brush and brush to show them. It is a lot of work,” Bradshaw said.
In total there are 13 breeds now recognized in America. Bradshaw doesn’t show them herself. It’s enough work to keep them tended, she joked. She estimated she spends about four hours a day feeding them and cleaning the cages. The guinea pigs eat about 150 pounds of grain a week in addition to discarded produce that Bradshaw and her husband, Jay, collect from area markets.
“They need vitamin C from vegetables,” she noted. As a pet, guinea pigs are easy to care for and genuinely seem to enjoy being handled as one after the other nuzzled into Bradshaw’s familiar arms.
“They make a good first pet. Kids want something to hold and love,” she said. In addition, “children learn responsibility” through caring for the animal. Bradshaw sells a pair including everything a pet owner will initially need — cage, shavings and food — for $100. “I meet expenses and a little more. But if I figured out how much I make per hour, it would be pennies. I don’t do it for the money,” she noted.