The Malicious Chinchilla; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Exotic Varmints

Will Palmer ‘21
Guest Contributor

On a blustery Tuesday in March of 2014, I was returning to my undergraduate campus from a quick trip to Joe Canal’s Discount Liquor Outlet when I noticed a strip mall PetSmart on the side of the highway. I can’t explain with any certainty why I decided to investigate. My university had a rather strict policy on pets, meaning that the purchase of anything but a fish would lead to unnecessary “complications” in my living situation. Fish give me the willies, so getting a university-approved pet was off the table. I suppose, if anything, that I wanted to cheer myself up during the March doldrums by seeing some cute animals.

Brutus. Photo courtesy Will Palmer.

Brutus. Photo courtesy Will Palmer.

            After a few minutes of aimless wandering, I found myself in the “Small Pets” section of the store. The stacks of gleaming plastic enclosures contained an array of critters, all of whom appeared to be in a state of severe existential malaise. I guess I would be too if I lived in a PetSmart in [state redacted]. I observed a pair of “Fancy Rats” that were engaged in some decidedly non-fancy activities, a guinea pig with a lazy eye, and a hamster that looked like it hung out at truck stops to pick fights for fun. Above them was a seemingly empty enclosure, labeled “Chinchilla,” containing an opaque plastic hutch. I tapped on the wall in a halfhearted attempt to rouse any hidden residents. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to do that. I apologize on my younger self’s behalf.

            A furry, gray head, blunt-nosed, with long whiskers and perky ears, appeared in the hutch’s entrance––the first chinchilla I’d ever seen. Glimmering black eyes looked me up and down searchingly. I felt a sudden chill in the air and shivered. The chinchilla seemed to make up its mind on something and, instead of retreating inside its lair, hopped to the side of the enclosure closest to me and pressed a paw against the plastic wall. In retrospect, this was clearly a calculated ploy to tug at my heartstrings––but hey, it worked, and I’ve got to respect the hustle. At this point, a helpful PetSmart employee (who we’ll call Dennis), approached and inquired as to whether I was “interested in the chinchilla.” He (the rodent, not Dennis) continued to stare, evaluating me like a dad who’s probably going to be disappointed in your life choices.

            I weighed the options presented by my spontaneous foray into the pet store. Should I follow the time-honored traditions and bylaws of the esteemed institution of higher learning that I attended, or allow myself to be swayed by the vaguely unnerving stare of an odd-looking but cute rodent I’d just been introduced to? The title probably spoiled that one for you.

            The licensing fee was pretty cheap, considering that the paperwork I signed said “Critically Endangered Exotic” in large print (I skipped reading the rest of it, as one does). Word, I thought. Critically Endangered? I can swing that. After purchasing a cage, food, and the other necessaries, I left the store a proud new pet owner. The only thing I knew about chinchillas was that I was apparently now in charge of the survival of the species. Either Dennis is quite the salesman or I’m easily manipulated by adorable critters with haunting gazes. In my defense, I thought getting a chinchilla would be kind of funny. “Kind of funny” sometimes outweighs time-honored school traditions, especially when those traditions implicitly prohibit exotic-animal-based hijinks.

            Upon returning to campus, I set up the cage under my bed and opened the carrier to release my new sidekick into his Batcave. A gray blur sped into the cage, coming to a stop next to the bowl of food I’d left out. He sniffed at it, then picked up a kibble in his paw and took a dainty bite. His nose wrinkled and he dropped the kibble like it had personally insulted several generations of his ancestors. My ward then hopped on top of his bowl and, while making full eye contact with me, took a prolific dump on his food. I addressed him: “So it’s going to be like that, huh?” He said nothing. “Fine,” I responded, “be that way.” He glared back from the darkness, clearly plotting something.

            The next day, I returned from class to find that he had crafted a miniature ballista out of balsa wood, rubber bands, and toothpicks. Later that afternoon, while I was getting measurements taken for my new glass eye, I decided on a name for him that has proven to be an apt moniker in the years since: Brutus.