Guinea pigs can learn people’s voices. That’s why every time Elizabeth Mack goes downstairs and says good morning, she’s greeted by a high-pitched chorus of squeaks.
The squeaks continue whenever Mack retrieves some lettuce from the fridge next to her dining room, which she converted into a sanctuary for the 24 little rodents — 31 if Mack’s own seven are taken into account. Large, topless cages sit on and underneath several tables, each one housing usually two or three guinea pigs.
Then there are the two, free-roaming lop-eared rabbits that Mack said act as the guinea pigs’ guardians.
Mack is the president of Austin Guinea Pig Rescue, an organization that’s been around for 17 years. But in just the past few months, Mack has faced a hefty challenge: There’s apparently a breeder dumping dozens of guinea pigs along Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard and in park bathrooms.
Many of these guinea pigs came to Mack pregnant or with health problems such as satin syndrome, which causes skull deformity and bone decalcification.
“The reason why this person is offloading pregnant animals and (satin syndrome guinea pigs) is this is what happens, and they get sick, and they die horribly,” Mack said. “We knew it was a breeder because let’s just say in an average year, we get maybe one or two satins. We’re up to 22.”
The dumping started in August in Northeast Austin. Since then, it has grown more frequent. Mack keeps track of the abandoned guinea pigs’ locations, and she said the breeder never reuses a spot.
“In August, I got a phone call about two pigs in the park, and some lady brought them to my house, and they were satins,” Mack said. “And I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ Then a week later, the shelter said someone had dropped off guinea pigs found in the woods. And I was like park, woods, interesting.”
Mack said she’s speaking out about the dumpings now because she needs fosters and adopters for the increasing number of guinea pigs — and their soon-to-arrive babies.
“We think (the breeder is) getting more desperate because the number of pregnant females they’re dumping, which is the breeder stock, pretty much every female we’re picking up, they’re all pregnant,” Mack said.
In one particular rescue, Mack said she took an entire deck apart “in the pitch-black dark” to reach a guinea pig.
“It was going below freezing, and they can’t survive freezing temps,” Mack said. “And the city of Cedar Park was so wonderful because it took me 3½ hours to get the whole deck a part, get the guinea pig and then we had hours putting it back together. And, of course, we didn’t do it perfect, and they were really sweet about it.”
Mack said she hopes to eventually build intake centers for rescued guinea pigs, but in the meantime, she needs help finding homes for the current ones. Practically all of them, she said, love affection such as scratches and cuddles.
“Guinea pigs are born loving and gentle. Abuse makes them mean. They’re literally born absolutely gentle and docile, … which is why they make really good pets.”
Those interested in fostering or adopting as well as volunteering or donating can visit austinguineapigrescue.com for information and application forms. The organization provides fosters with all needed supplies, Mack said. If at any point a foster or adopter can no longer take care of their guinea pig, they can return the animal to Austin Guinea Pig Rescue.
Guinea pigs with satin syndrome will not be available for adoption. They will become what Mack called sanctuary pigs and go to special foster homes that handle their medical needs until the end of their lives.
Mack wants to offer amnesty to the breeder for the sake of the guinea pigs’ health and safety.
“Look, no questions asked. We understand you got over your head,” Mack said. “Please just surrender so we don’t have to lose any more of these animals.”