Anyone who follows me on Instagram will no doubt have seen many, many photos of my beloved gerbils, Basil and Sage (#HerbGerbs!). These small creatures are a big part of my life, as were Thor and Loki before them (the OGs -Original Gerbils).
More through chance than design in the first instance. My partner and I rent, and our landlord wouldn’t allow us to have a larger pet like a cat or dog, but were OK with a small animal who lives mostly in a cage, like a hamster for instance. Initially we were planning on getting mice, but a trip to the pet shop meant we got to see gerbils (who would go on to be Thor and Loki) and we fell in love instantly. After Thor and Loki passed away, we decided after a while to get more gerbils to fill our lives, and so we brought Basil and Sage home.
Having pets is wonderful. Whether large or small, there is a magic in sharing your home and life with other-than-human persons. My experience with gerbils has shown me that even though they are often overlooked and sometimes derisively seen as not a “real” pet compared with a dog, for instance, they are highly intelligent and each with their own very unique personality. Basil and Sage are very different from each other, and both are different again from Thor and Loki.
This should come as no surprise, from an animist perspective, of course each creature is individual and unique, but society as a whole treats other-than-human animals, especially small animals, as interchangeable and somehow “less than” others.
But all animals are, as we are, evolved creatures of the earth. Each one a manifestation of the stuff of life, each one like none before. I’m not going to get into the “do animals have souls?” debate – either every living being does, or none do. I personally belive in an enspirited universe, so the same force that animates me animates the gerbils, the trees and the earth itself.
Sharing space with gerbils, like any animal, means adjusting your life around them. Your priorities shift to make their health, wellbeing and happiness high up on the list. We must have spent so much time (and money) on gerbil habitats, treats, food, toys – and it is all worth it to see a happy little fluffy face chewing or digging or just dozing away.
These small creatures are higly sensitive and full of love. And no, not just love of snacks and treats. They comfort each other with grooming and cuddles, and if I’m having a bad mental health day, they do the same for me. Basil even “groomed” my arm so much one day he yanked out some of the tiny hairs growing there, but it was obviously meant with love – I’ve been bitten by a grumpy gerbil and this was not that.
It’s important in a relationship with other-than-human animals that things happen on their terms, not on ours. The gerbs will let me know when they want to come out to play, by coming up to the door of their gerbilarium and sniffing up at me. They will equally let me know when they’re done, with a small “wurble” noise or gentle nibble.
Living with gerbils has helped me open my heart and taught me patience and understanding. They bring joy even on the gloomiest of days and make a house feel like a home.
Within communities that stand apart from the main stream of society, such as the Pagan or Queer community, you will often hear about the importance of “chosen family”. For many, their birth family is a source of pain and tension, so close friends, local groups, sports teams, networks, become a chosen family with bonds of love far stronger than bonds of blood.
There is, of course, no reason why this chosen family should be limited to humans. Pets are most definitely a chosen family and the relationship shared with them is as real and meaningful as any other. If anyone ever says “it’s just a pet”, they are ignorant of this.
The Herb Gerbs are friends and family. They can be happy or grumpy, gregarious or quiet, attention-seeking or happy to be left alone. Just like any of us from one day to the next. And though they are small, they take up a lot of room in my life and my heart.
If you’re at all interested in having gerbils, I’d highly recommend them. Do some research first of course – the RSPCA have a great guide to get you started, and I’m always happy to answer gerb-related questions. I’d also like to give a quick shout-out to The Gerbil Blog, who are great.
Do you have any pets? Are other-than-human beings part of your chosen family? Let me know in the comments!