Beyond the usual choices of cats and dogs, there are other mammals that can be kept as household companions.
However, exotic pets are not for everyone. Be aware that the less domesticated animals are often more work, require special food, habitats, and other necessities, and are generally not quite as accustomed to humans and not as cuddly.
However, if you’re willing to expend extra effort and want an animal that will set you apart, you might consider a ferret, hedgehog, or even a chinchilla. There are Vineyarders who are the proud owners of each of these critters and they shared with The Times some of the pros and cons of unusual pet ownership.
Chrysal Parrot of Vineyard Haven adopted a domesticated chinchilla named Django (after blues musician Django Reinhardt) earlier this year. Chinchillas, prized for their ultra soft fur, are rodents native to South America. They look like a large, chubby mouse with a squirrel’s bushy tail and come in a variety of colors. They are extremely soft but, much as their plush coat invites petting, they are nervous animals that take time to win over.
“A chinchilla is not an appropriate pet for a small child,” says Ms. Parrot. “He takes patience and coaxing. You can’t squeeze him and grab him. You have to court him.” Django is technically Mr. Parrot’s daughter’s pet. Nine-year-old Emmanuelle is an exceptionally responsible little girl and an avid animal lover.
Django came from Little Leona’s Pet Shop in West Tisbury, where another customer had returned him. “He was very nervous,” says Ms. Parrot. “Bit by bit he has been tamed.”
Django spends his time between two custom made cages – one in Emmanuelle’s bedroom and one in the studio where Ms. Parrot works. He enjoys family time in the evening. “We let him out on romps,” says Ms. Parrot. “We bring him into the bedroom where he watches TV. He comes up on the bed and lets you scratch him under the chin.”
Emmanuelle has been very persistent in her efforts with Django. “She will put him in her jacket and carry him around all day,” says Ms. Parrot. “They like to be inside clothing.” What Django doesn’t like is any change in his environment, sudden loud noises, and other animals. “He’s hardwired to think of any kind of carnivore as a predator,” says Ms. Parrot. “He’s sensitive and easily stressed out. They’re high strung.”
Chinchillas also require special care. They are prone to overheating and can easily succumb to hypothermia if they get wet. They have sensitive stomachs and require a specialized diet that includes hamster food, timothy hay, and occasionally dried corn and raisins. Like all rodents, they have to gnaw and there is a danger that they will chew on electrical cords if they have access to them.
Chinchillas take dust baths in special dust, which, like all of the necessary supplies, can be purchased at Little Leona’s. “They’re very neat, clean animals,” says Ms. Parrot. She cleans Django’s cage about once a month. “They don’t smell bad. I’ve never encountered another rodent that didn’t smell.”
Ferrets, unlike chinchillas, are far from shy. They’re curious creatures, related to weasels and polecats that have become popular as pets. Beth Kaeka of West Tisbury has two – one albino female who is deaf, and a larger multi-colored male. The two critters don’t get along so they are kept in separate cages.
Of the two, the male, Bandit, is far more outgoing. “He’s into everything,” says Ms. Kaeka. “Wherever he can squeeze himself he’ll crawl into and explore. If you call him he’ll get up on the couch.” Pesky, the female, is more cautious. “She’s a hoarder,” says Ms. Kaeka. “She goes to the dog bowl and steals food and hides it.”
Bandit and Pesky both get time out of their cages everyday, separately. They love to run around and play. When in their cages, they need something to occupy them. “They need toys,” says Ms. Kaeka. When loose in the house they can easily disappear into a pile of clothes or under a towel, so Ms. Kaeka has learned to keep the bedroom and bathroom doors closed when her pets are out for their exercise.
Ferrets have a strong smell. “The males are muskier,” says Ms. Kaeka. She bathes her pets once a week and trims their nails regularly. Bandit and Pesky are not aggressive towards humans. “They don’t bite,” says Ms. Kaeka. “But if you pick them up too quickly they nip.”
Ms. Kaeka also has two cats and two dogs. “The ferrets like to play with everybody,” she says. “Bandit will crawl right over the dog but he generally ignores them.” The cats, on the other hand, head straight out the back door when they see the ferrets on the loose.
Pesky and Bandit are fine with older kids if they handle them cautiously but Ms. Kaeka says, “Some of my adult friends are scared to death of them.” According to Ms. Kaeka, ferrets learn to recognize people by their scent and they are very open to being handled by people they know. However, they are not very good cuddlers since they can’t seem to stay still for very long.
Ms. Kaeka also adopted her pets from Little Leona’s, where she also buys food and supplies, including special bedding with odor control. She says that, because of the amount of special treatment, ferrets are not great pets for small children.
As cute as they are, hedgehogs are not the critters for someone who enjoys the therapeutic benefits of stroking a pet. Megan Vieira of Edgartown has a two-year-old African pygmy hedgehog that she bought her daughter Annabelle about two years ago. Pickles was special ordered as a baby from Little Leona’s. “He’s very prickly, not very snuggly,” says Ms. Vieira.
Pickles is unusually sociable for a hedgehog. Still, at times, he will blow himself up into a “death ball” particularly when he’s frightened, such as when a cat attempted to play with him. You can get pretty badly stuck by the prickers, according to Ms. Vieira.
However, Pickles enjoys family activities. He sleeps in Annabelle’s bed, hangs out on the couch, and sits on the table at mealtimes. He is also treated to regular outings in the yard, and likes to swim at the beach.
When in his cage, he spends a lot of time running on his wheel or nestled into his bed of woodchips or a blanket. Hedgehogs are nocturnal. “They don’t see well at all. They rely on scent,” says Ms. Vieira. “In the wild they will live in one hole and stay in it a lot of the time.” Pickles likes to burrow into the woodchips or hang out in his plastic igloo.
Since he is social, Pickles can be handled by outsiders and doesn’t bite. He eats hedgehog food, crickets, and meal worms, all of which are available here. He gets a bath about once a week. According to Ms. Vieira, hedgehogs are very climate sensitive, “Heat has to be no lower than 70 degrees. Otherwise he can go into hibernation, which can be fatal.”
The three animals discussed above are all domesticated species and are legal in Massachusetts. However, wild animals are forbidden as pets by law in this state. Gus Ben David, owner of World of Reptile and Birds in Edgartown, cautions that one should never attempt to raise a wild animal at home. An animal accustomed to humans can be a danger or a serious nuisance once released. The pet owner will be legally liable incase of a bite or attack.
“There are very strict laws in Massachusetts,” says Mr. Ben David. “You cannot keep any native mammal other than a rat.” This includes squirrels, mice, raccoons, and skunks – even skunks purchased in a pet shop.