The RSPCA Loses Its Way Over Keeping Chinchillas As Pets
1. RSPCA Animal Life magazine is running a series of features looking at responsible pet ownership. We would like more concern, as we emphasized as the Animal Welfare Act 2006 was being completed, for more stringent training, licensing and control over ownership, handling, and keeping of animals and the means of inspection of premises and environments at consistently high levels for whatever purposes the animals were being owned, confined and bred. Artificial environments and exotic species need special care and set special responsibilities; and keeping such livestock should be discouraged unless standards could be assured for animals under competent care in well-managed sanctuaries for recovery from injury or disease and being readied for return to the wild. Keeping of animals for “sport” or as freaks of breeding and for fighting and hunting “sports” and game, and farming adjuncts such as petting zoos is activity that has to occupy animal welfarists, but reluctantly, in attempts at establishing a respect for all animal life and well-being.
2. That is why we have reservations over the RSPCA’s involvements with many aspects of pet keeping and “living toys” and shows of animals bred as freaks (as at Crufts). While the RSPCA’s magazine devotes 2 pages to keeping chinchillas in the U.K, we must draw attention to the upheaval suffered in the forced migration. In the wild chinchillas inhabit the barren areas of the northern Chilean Andes Mountains of South America, often in large colonies living at altitudes much higher than in the British Isles and latitudes much lower. They are “medium-sized rodents, with long, strong, hind legs, large ears and a tail one-third of their body length”; they are known for “their dense, soft fur, an adaptation to the cold temperatures of their native environment.”
3. The RSPCA’s Animal Care advice in its Winter 2009 issue states that there are 2 species: Chinchilla laniger, which is “kept for fur production, laboratory research and recently established as a pet animal; and Chinchilla chinchilla, much larger with a shorter tail and smaller ears, which has been hunted almost to extinction.” All domestic chinchillas are descended from 13 individuals bred for their fur, which were imported into the USA in the 1920s. The populations of both species are decreasing and both are listed on the IUCN Red List (www.iucnredlist.org) as critically endangered.
4. Many colour mutations have occurred in captive-bred chinchillas, including white, sapphire, beige, ebony and charcoal. The coat colour is connected to the colour of their eyes, which can be a pinkie-red colour or black. Their long whiskers are used as sensory organs and help them to navigate in the dark. In captivity chinchillas live for around 12 to 15 years, although some animals are reported to have lived for more than 20. The average bodyweight is 400 to 600 gm, females being larger than males. Females have a gestation period of 111 days, with the breeding season being from November to May in the northern hemisphere. Baby chinchillas (kits) are well developed at birth, when they weigh about 35gm, have a full coat of fur, are active and born with their eyes open. Sexual maturity is reached at about 8 months.
5. Chinchillas do not burrow but live in rock crevices or holes on mountainous terrain. Their footpads allow agility on rock surfaces. Chinchillas are very active, acrobatic animals; they enjoy climbing and jumping and require lots of space. They need a spacious, interesting multilevel cage or enclosure with places to explore climb, jump and hide,” states the RSPCA’s guidance. Most enclosures are made from unpainted welded wire mesh, as chinchillas will gnaw through wood. “The size of the mesh openings should not exceed 15mm x 15mm to prevent the risk of any foot or limb injuries. To prevent damages to their feet, “it’s also important that some of the floor is solid. Clean the housing and toilet areas regularly but try to minimise the level of disturbance this causes to your chinchillas,” advises the RSPCA.
6. The cage should be kept in a quiet environment, as chinchillas sleep through the day – this, together with the fact that they require gentle handling, makes them unsuitable pets for young children. Although they are tolerant to cold, chinchillas are extremely sensitive to heat – they need a constant temperature of 18 to 22° and to be kept out of direct sunlight and away from hot radiators and draughts. “The humidity level should be 40 to 50%. Your chinchillas need safe-hiding places for when they feel afraid and to escape from each other. Suitable refuges include wooden boxes and PVC pipe,” states the RSPCA.
7. It is important that chinchillas are allowed to exercise outside their cage on a regular basis. This should always be supervised and in a secure environment, where the chinchilla cannot harm itself, for example, by chewing electrical cables. Chinchillas need regular access to a dust bath to remove excess oil and moisture from their fur. The dust bath should be large enough to allow the chinchilla to roll around in it. Chinchillas must never be bathed in water. Without the correct diet, chinchillas are susceptible to dental and digestive problems. They should be given constant access to good-quality hay, which has nutritional benefits and also helps to wear down their continually growing teeth. They also need a small amount of specialist chinchilla pellets each day. Small quantities of suitable vegetables and fruit can also be provided. "Ensure clean water is always available,” declares the RSPCA.
8. The RSPCA ends on a note of general significance. “Do not make any sudden changes to your chinchilla’s diet, as this could make it very ill. If your chinchilla’s eating or drinking habits change or the number of droppings decreases or stops, talk to your vet straight away. Chinchillas are social creatures and are best suited to being housed with other friendly chinchillas in either pairs or groups. Introduction when young or gradual introduction when older reduces the risk of aggression. If chinchillas of different sexes are to be kept together, they should be neutered to prevent unwanted babies. Ask your vet for advice;” best before you even contemplate keeping the animals, we advise – s/he may have no experience with these animals, and the RSPCA’s notes may be found wanting.
9. Chinchillas, states the RSPCA, “must be handled gently and lifted slowly with their weight supported. Never shout at or punish your chinchilla, as it is unlikely to understand and can become nervous or scared. Healthy chinchillas are alert and curious and have bright, clear eyes; clear ears without any excess wax or redness; noses clear of discharge; sleek, well-groomed fur; a clear rear end and a clean curled tail that is carried high. Check your chinchilla daily for signs of illness or injury. Always consult a vet if you are concerned about your chinchilla’s health or changes in its behaviour and get regular, at least annual, check ups.”
10. Everything suggests that breeding and keeping lone chinchillas for the pleasure and amusement of human families in countries such as the UK is wrong. The RSPCA’s notes are comprehensive but misdirected. Recovery and sanctuary of animals rescued from experiments in labs or in measures to save species heading for extinction are specialist jobs. Animal “lovers” must first do no harm and show respect for the animal’s lifestyle, unmasked by human ignorance. These animals, born unequal in strange and inhospitable circumstances, many being exposed without the full nurture of their mothers’ care and protection, are sensitive beings deserving great respect: they deserve a life of happiness and companionship built on kinship and independence. What a contrast that the RSPCA connives at putting a near-wild animal into a wire cage when it really needs “lots of space” and absence of something to gnaw on for the good of its teeth but also to express in its stereotypy its boredom and frustration. Free range and the 5 Freedoms don’t shine in this version of welfare and well-being.