Attention, code breakers: “9uyu8y12111111111111111111111111111111$eaz =-\.”
That’s a message from the chinchilla on my laptop.
It’s not a metaphor. The birds, the bees, the cats and the dogs tend to get a little friskier this time of the year, and no one knows that better than the Gastineau Humane Society, which takes in Juneau’s unwanted pets.
The shelter is run on a private, nonprofit basis, which means it depends on volunteers — people like Vicky Malley.
Malley has been volunteering at the shelter for about two months. She started by coming to pet cats a few hours a week. That pleasant job is necessary to socialize the cats that come into the shelter and get them used to human contact. It’s also good for the animals’ well-being.
Shelter employees noticed her enthusiasm and showed her how to interact with some of the smaller animals. Now, those small animals are the ones she loves the most. She spends time with them in a room, petting them, three days a week.
“I love the animals with a passion,” she said. ”Socializing and petting little animals is everything to me.”
Malley, who suffers from high stress levels, said the time she spends with the animals is therapeutic.
She should know. She also volunteered at Wildflower Court, Juneau’s long-term care center, where she brought one of her two Shih-Tzu mixes. The dog, Betty, is disabled, with her lower body paralyzed. Residents loved Betty, she said.
“I don’t know what life would be without them,” she said of her two dogs.
When she started volunteering at the shelter, Malley was used to animals, but not little ones. She hadn’t been around rabbits or guinea pigs since she was a child. She’d never been around chinchillas. Now, a chinchilla named “Dad” (he and Mom were put in the same cage and went about earning their names) is one of her favorite animals.
“That’s been a new experience,” Malley said of chinchillas. “I’ve come to find that they’re very interactive and very loving.”
Interactive they are. During the hour-long interview, Dad typed several encoded messages on my keyboard, tried unsuccessfully to make friends with Emma the rabbit and Sears the guinea pig, investigated the tastiness of my computer cord, pooped in my hand, bounced off the walls — literally — and completely won me over.
“Chinchillas are really funny,” Malley said. “They’re just a blast.”
When he wasn’t trying unsuccessfully to communicate via keyboard, Dad enjoyed getting petted. Chinchillas are extremely soft (there’s a reason a market exists for their fur) and get “dust baths” with finely-grained powder every day, to mimic the volcanic dust in their natural environment.
Malley likes bringing several small animals into the room together to help them socialize, something that’s important for when they’re eventually adopted by local families.
She’s gotten to know the animals, and their quirks, quite well. Emma (the rabbit) likes her cage a certain way. If Malley doesn’t put it back exactly right after cleaning it, she’ll drag things into place until she has things where she wants them.
Sears, the guinea pig, is curious about drinks. Malley can’t leave her coffee out around him.
Chinchillas, she said, will nip without breaking the skin, but it’s not necessarily aggressive. Rather, it’s their way of interacting. Once, Mom nipped her when she was paying too much attention to a different animal.
Malley said she liked the other places she volunteered — when she went to Wildflower Court, she found herself making friends with residents and wanting to spend time with them instead of doing chores at home — but working with small animals is her passion.
The shelter has almost a dozen guinea pigs right now, something the employees can trace to the arrival of Petco. While the opening of the store resulted in more guinea pigs, chinchillas and ferrets at the shelter, the increase in homeless animals was “not as much as my nightmares told me,” said volunteer coordinator Miranda Holland.
Holland said the shelter needs help in all areas, but right now, it especially needs in-shelter help — help with dog walking, kennel cleaning and other tasks.
“It’s just so soothing and calming for me,” Malley said. “And all the staff is just so outstanding to work with. … They make me feel good about coming here, even for the little bit that I do, they really appreciate it. And I guess petting the animals and socializing them is not really a small thing.”
Dad’s response: “56723333333332222211.”
• Mary Catharine Martin is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly and can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.