SIDNEY – Marianne Sansouci’s interest in chinchillas began, oddly enough, with guinea pigs.
“My daughter’s friend had guinea pigs, and she talked about them and was just in love with them. I couldn’t stand the idea, ”Sansouci said, recalling the moment in 2008. She went looking for alternatives, before finally settling on a chinchilla. He died two months later.
Driven by curiosity and perhaps some guilt, Sansouci began to research what was wrong. “I had no information about it,” she said. “I fed him what the previous owner fed him and it was off.”
For Kate Spicer, a biologist working with Sansouci, it was when her daughter asked her for a tarantula in 2017.
“My daughter wanted a tarantula, which at the time in Maine was a dual license species (requiring two licenses to own), and I was working on my thesis and I said ‘I don’t want to mess with paperwork anymore. , thank you. My husband also said that if (my daughter) caught a tarantula, “I get a shotgun, and these things are related” then that was out.
“I printed out a list of pets allowed here in Maine and she said ‘Ooh chinchillas!’ and I was like ‘What ?! What is a chinchilla? ‘ No way to find that in Maine. (But) it was 20 minutes away. We came to Marianne and started to learn about chinchillas. The first time (Marianne) held one by the tail, I had a kitten.
After learning to love the animal, Spicer, who also has a background in ecology, became interested in finding out more about them.
Today, Sansouci and Spicer form a team in lab coats that make up the Maine Chinchilla Ranch and Shelter. Located in the garage of Sansouci’s home in Sidney, colony-style cages span almost the entire space, organized like shelves with aisles in between.
Each cage is large enough for several chinchillas and filled with hay and pumice dust, which they bathe in regularly.
Chinchillas are mammals native to the Andes mountains, exclusive to countries like Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile. Wood-boring mammals are crepuscular, which makes them most active at dawn and dusk, and their diet consists primarily of hay and hay-based pellets; their digestive system being the closest to that of a horse.
These are the wild animals of the village which do not need a lot of space; in fact, they are happier in smaller, more claustrophobic environments.
Because they are used to an arid, desert-like climate and lack the ability to sweat through their thick fur, the garage is kept at 70 degrees or less so the chinchillas do not overheat.
The ranch focuses on professional breeding and research, while housing pets and providing adoption services. The goal of Sansouci and Spicer is to reproduce the undesirable qualities of the species.
“We are trying to tackle some genetic issues,” Spicer said. “They are such a small gene pool because all of the millions of chinchillas around the world are descended from 12 individuals almost 99 years ago in captivity.”
In 1923, American engineer Mathias Chapman brought 12 chinchillas from Chile to California with the intention of raising them for their fur, creating the first chinchilla farm in the United States. Almost all American chinchillas originate from this stock.
The chinchillas raised at the ranch are of show quality.
According to Sansouci, the “tangled”, failed-looking fur of some chinchillas can be reproduced by selecting those with smoother, darker coats. Likewise, each female’s pelvis is measured prior to breeding, as smaller and narrower pelvis can put offspring and mother at risk during birth.
But the chosen animals are rare. “We breed, but it is very low (in number), females never more than twice a year, and really, it is a question of science, it is a question of benefiting from animals of better quality”, Spicer said.
Funding for the Ranch comes mostly from donations and sales, Sansouci said, of chinchillas and related items such as food and toys. Patrons and former clients can donate through the Chinchilla Shelter Veterinary Fund.
Due to overhunting for their fur, wild chinchillas are almost extinct, although domesticated chinchillas are still bred for their fur. There are two variations of chinchillas: short tailed and long tailed. The former was the predominant species hunted for its fur to near extinction. The latter are most often found as pets and, aside from the length of their tails, differ from their cousins in that they have a slimmer body and larger ears.
What most people don’t realize when getting a chinchilla is how much knowledge it takes to properly care for it, the two experts said.
According to Spicer, the Maine Chinchilla Ranch is leading the way in education around the world, providing new and relevant information to animal owners, vets and scientists in France, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and besides who asked for help.
“There’s always a little something with nutrition or behavior,” said Sansouci, who is the ranch’s animal care and adoption specialist.
In addition to offering classes, the ranch offers a rescue service for chinchillas that can no longer be taken care of or need temporary shelter.
“When we get chins that are returned, we quarantine them,” Sansouci said. “After a month or two they can come out, when they’ve calmed down and they’ve been tested and cleared of Giardia, strep, and staph, whatever can be contagious to humans, and after we know they’re healthy and they are ready to be a good pet, because some of them come in and are afraid of everyone, so we help them calm down. We teach them that there is no of danger in being with humans and that humans are good.
Spicer’s research on malocclusion – when teeth are misaligned, resulting in incorrect positioning of the jaws – has been a notable aspect of the ranch’s research. They collect skulls of malocclused animals to determine significant characteristics. Drooling is usually a sign of a genetic malocclusion problem.
Most often, chinchillas diagnosed with a malocclusion will need to be slaughtered.
“It’s the human thing to do,” Sansouci said. “We get about six to eight a year that are handed in for euthanasia. This statistic also includes pets that fell ill or suffered serious injuries.
Chinchillas are generally sensitive. If they fall from chest height, they could dislocate a bone or break a tooth or be fatally injured.
As pets, chinchillas are known to be sociable and calm, albeit with proper training. “They are very gentle pets,” Sansouci said.
“My personal theory is that there is no such thing as a fatal chin,” Spicer said. “They can be slow if they’re not well socialized. You have to be patient with them. This is why we often say that if you want to have an animal, especially a chinchilla, come see someone like us. You can come here and ask anytime where this animal is, or “what is this animal like?” So I can tell you that, because we interact with them, we hold them, we make sure that they are well taken care of.
For more information on the Maine Chinchilla Ranch and Shelter, visit www.mainechinchillaranch.com/ or the Sansouci Facebook page: www.facebook.com/MaineChinchillas.
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