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Broken Circuit

by Courtney Capone 2 days ago in exotic pets

The True Story Of A Chinchilla, A Freezer And A Hot Night In Florida

Welcome to my nightmare.

If I can stay awake long enough to tell the story of the last 24 hours it will be a true testament to my insomnia.

Or my ever unravelling last shred of (in)sanity.

Either way, if by the end you're thinking, she has got to be kidding with this, you will be where I was at about 7:30 P.M. last night.

And again at 8:00 P.M.

And again at 1:15 A.M. (Also pretty much every half hour on the half hour in between).

And again at 3:00 A.M.

And again at 1:30 P.M.

But first... a prequel! Sit back, this is a bumpy ride.

So... you don't have a chinchilla? Cool. You're not a slave to a tiny ball of fluff that has more rules and restrictions than a Mogwai.

They only have three. Was that really so hard? I mean... really? Come on now!

Chinchillas have about 164 rules. I won't go into all of them but let's say this... the list of things that they CAN eat is FAR shorter than the list of the things that they CAN'T. They have extremely strict temperature requirements. They eat and chew everything so their habitat must be painstakingly crafted, monitored and kept safe from their teeth; which never stop growing making them prone to a fatal disease called Malocclusion (or Malo for short). You can not get them wet (like Mogwais but that's really the only place they intersect) and they take baths in dust made of ground pumice. Their bones are the size of toothpicks so they're super fragile but they're also insanely fast runners and amazing hoppers, having the capability of jumping SIX FEET directly in the air.

Sound like fun? I forgot to mention they have the same average lifespan as an indoor cat. One of the longest lived members of the rodent family, chinchillas can live upwards of 20 years or more. So this exotic, high maintenance pet is a long term commitment.

And they might not even like you! They're moody little things and tend to only truly bond with one person. They will somewhat tolerate others on a limited basis but for the most part, they generally want the human race to die and are plotting to rise up any day now.

Sounds like I hate them, right? I don't. I just don't recommend them as pets to anyone that isn't willing to put in a lot of time and even more effort into their care. So I tell it like it is. I didn't even mention the fact that they poop on average 200 times a day each, pee bright red (which is utterly terrifying if you don't know to expect it ahead of time) and can't be exposed to direct sunlight.

My husband and I rescued our twin chinchillas, Ash and Smokey in 2018. They were going to be made into a coat. Well, two one-hundredths of a coat to be more precise. It takes 100 chinchillas to make an average sized coat.

CRUELTY IS NOT A FASHION STATEMENT.

Their twin pelts had a hefty price tag but we gladly paid it to save their little lives. We had NO clue what we were getting into, we just wanted them to live. Our lives were turned completely upside down. We live in South Florida. A place where at the peak of it's hottest season, there are hurricanes that can knock out your electric for days or even weeks at a time. Here's where their temperature requirements come into play.

Remember this, it's important to the story.

Chinchilla must be kept between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't ask me what that is in Celsius, I have no idea. Anything below 50 is too cold for them. Anything above 75, you start running the risk that they will die. At 80 degrees, they will die in under 15 minutes.

Chinchillas are the second furriest animal on earth. (The first is the River Otter but that has nothing to do with anything except I like to show off that I know that.) They're from a remote desert region high in the Andes Mountains and they're crepuscular (most active at dusk and dawn with periods of sleep and awake throughout both the day and night). When exposed to direct sunlight, their thick fur absorbs it and they can overheat and die, even in an air conditioned room.

Alright, now you've all been given a lesson in Chinchilla 101.

Skip ahead to early summer last year. Smokey was diagnosed with severe Malo. He lived (on a lot of medication and only being able to be syringe fed) until April 9th of this year when we sadly could no longer control his pain and we had to put him down. Ash, has never been the same since.

Ash and Smokey

Since we lost Smokey, I've been doing everything I possibly can to keep Ash's life as stress-free as possible. Chinchillas, or any small animals really, have a very low tolerance for stress.

Now I would like to pause for a moment so you can applaud my remembering all of that chinchilla trivia while being completely exhausted but frankly, I won't hear you and you don't know why I'm exhausted yet.

Cut to yesterday. A completely normal, uneventful day in the heat and humidity of horrible-should-break-off-and-float-away-why-do-we-let-it-be-a-state Florida.

I DO hate Florida. I am also trying to dissuade you from moving here. See how nicely that works out? Moving on.

We feed six of our seven pets at 6:00 P.M. Ash eats later because he's a chinchilla and is usually asleep at six. They eat before we do so at around 7 is when my husband starts making dinner.

Yup, he cooks. I got a good one!

7:30 P.M.

He makes dinner and we're just about to sit down to eat, I'm flipping the television channels so that we can watch Jeopardy! and BOOM. Power goes out.

It wasn't even raining or windy so we figured it would come right back on. It did not. This happened once before so my husband goes out to the main circuit breaker thingy to our apartment (the fact that I call it a "circuit breaker thingy" is why he went and not me) and flips it off and on again. Power comes back.

Except... not all of it.

We didn't even realize it at first but any time we have a power outage, even if it's only for a moment, the first thing I do when it comes back is I go and check on Ash. Ash lives in our bedroom which is barricaded off from the rest of the house (and our dog and five cats who would love to hunt him). I go into the bedroom and flip the light switch. It came on... but barely. It was SUPER dim. I was confused. We JUST changed that lightbulb.

I approach Ash's cage and he's fine but I realize no air is coming from the AC vent above him. And the dehumidifiers are off. What the hell is going on?? I yell to my husband what I've realized and he responds back that there is no AC coming out ANYWHERE in the apartment.

That's when the power in the bedroom (and only the bedroom) went out completely.

He hit the circuit thingy again. Nope. Still only have half power. No AC. No power to the bedroom.

Flip it again. Still not working.

We try JUST the circuits breakers to the AC and the bedroom. Nope and Nope.

SHIT.

We keep our house at 68 degrees for Ash. We also have a portable AC unit in the bedroom and at night, our bedroom is 64 degrees. The temperature on the wall thingy that controls the AC (I'm a technology wizard, can't ya tell?) starts going up.

This is bad. I tell my husband to call our landlord and I text my friend Alexis.

Alexis is our hurricane plan for Ash. She has a generator in her house so if we lose power, she will still have AC. Hurricanes we get warnings about and can get Ash to safety BEFORE we have to. This, we had no warning for. I had no idea if she was home, on vacation, eating dinner, doing something with her kids... I just texted and hoped.

Meanwhile, for some reason our landlord can not hear my husband. He tried calling three times and would just hear "hello?... Hello?... Hello?" click. So I call from my cell phone. He could hear me.

I explain what's going on and he asks me if we paid our electric bill.

Seriously?

No, we didn't pay it and they punished us by turning off HALF of our power because the electric company got bored and decided THAT might be a fun little game. I do not have time for this... yes, yes we paid it.

He tells me he's going to call an electrician and will call me back.

I check my phone, no answer from Alexis. My stomach is knotting. The temperature is slowly rising and I have nowhere to bring Ash.

The landlord calls me back and says because of the hour (it's now about 8:00 P.M.) he can't get an electrician to us but we have to call the power company first and make sure we're getting 220 volts. That's very important. We NEED to be getting at least 220 volts because if we're not, they have to fix it.

Okay. We call the power company and they tell us they will send someone out. They should be there by... 12:30.

I'm sorry, what?

A tiny life hangs in the balance! They are unconcerned but say they will send the next available crew. I go check on Ash again. So far.. he's fine.

Here's what I didn't mention in Chinchilla 101. Chinchillas have this handy little feature in their ears. Their ears are basically a thermometer. If they turn red, the chinchilla is overheating. That is very useful for situations like this. I wake Ash and push him out of his tunnel bridge and he kecks at me (a keck is chinchilla for "I hope you die") and smacks me with his tiny little hands. But his ears are normal color so I apologize to his liege and go back to check my phone to see if Alexis has answered.

She did, but before I could check my text messages I realize I have a missed call from an 800 number and a voicemail. My phone number was the one given to the power company so I check that first hoping against hope, they're calling to say they're on their way.

NOPE.

It was an automated recording that they've remotely checked and our power is on and they have therefore cancelled our ticket for service.

WHAT?!!?

We TOLD them it was a PARTIAL outage!

Son of a...

My husband calls them back and let's them know and they apologize and say they will send the next available crew. Probably by 12:45.

She's lucky she was talking to him and not me. He's a lot nicer.

Alexis had apologized for the delayed response but she was having her car towed and her husband had to go get her from the side of the road but she was home now and I could bring Ash over if the power was still out.

Now I don't know what to do. I don't want to stress Ash out and with my luck, by the time I get him there, I will get a text from my husband that the power company showed up and it's back on and I will have put Ash in a car (which he HATES) for nothing. But if I DON'T take him there and they really come that late and can't fix it, it will be too late to bring him to Alexis's house because her family will be sleeping.

I decide to stay. A decision I will later greatly regret.

I check on Ash every time the temperature reader goes up another degree. By 76 degrees his ears were pink. I wasn't waiting for red.

I scooped him out and took him to the kitchen. The kitchen still had power but we had since learned, the stove did not.

When ya don't pay your electric bill, they really mess with you.

Seriously, did you pay your bill was a REAL question?

Florida.

Anyway, I take Ash over to the fridge and open the door. I stand there with him a while and let him walk on the shelves, careful not to let him chew anything, but I started to worry about condensation (can't get them wet, you will remember) so I told my husband to keep an eye on him (Ash hates ALL men, including my husband. They bond with one person and will SOMETIMES vaguely tolerate others) so as quickly as I can, I get a fleece liner for one of our cat carriers and put it, and Ash, inside. I stand the carrier on another cat carrier and prop open the door to the freezer. I pushed Ash right in front of it so the cold air was hitting him but he couldn't chew anything and he couldn't get wet from anything.

Not a great solution, but it was peace of mind for now. I hoped the power company would come soon.

The hours passed by like days. Everything in my freezer was thawing and with every passing minute we were risking blowing the motor on it by keeping the door open.

Not as important as Ash's life, but we live paycheck to paycheck, so a concern for sure.

A bad feeling was forming in the pit of my stomach. It was getting later and later and what if the power company couldn't fix it? What would we do to keep Ash cool until the landlord was awake and could get an electrician to us? The only thing keeping US cool was our ceiling fan and the fact that it was night time but I knew that once the sun came up, it would be boiling hot in the apartment and Ash would definitely not survive.

Power company man arrived at 1:15 A.M. He spent exactly 4 minutes here.

Our apartment was getting full power, we needed an electrician.

SHIT.

I texted Alexis. The power company can't fix it, are you awake? Can't be fixed until at least tomorrow, super hot in here, please be awake!

Nothing.

As a vet tech at a local animal hospital, I know every 24 hour animal ER in town. I start making phone calls asking them to PLEASE do me a professional courtesy and take Ash for the night.

Time and again I was met with "we don't treat chinchillas".

Cool, he doesn't need treatment he needs air conditioning. We will pay a boarding fee.

Hold please.

Nope, we don't treat chinchillas.

Insert internal screaming here.

This is when the freezer clicked off.

The apartment was nearing 80 degrees and our only way of keeping him cool was gone and we had nowhere to take him.

I sat on my couch utterly defeated. Overheating is a HORRIBLE way to die. I had to do something, but what? I seriously considered breaking into the animal hospital I work for and begging the police to please let me leave my chinchilla there before they took me to jail.

I needed to still have a job in the morning though so that wasn't my best ever idea, but I was really hot and tired.

Since we still had internet access, I started looking up hotels and motels in the area. I didn't care if it was the most foul place on earth as long as it had air conditioning and I could somehow sneak Ash inside. Amazingly, there was nothing truly cheap but if we were willing to pay boarding overnight at an animal ER (also not cheap), we would pay a hotel rate. By check out time, my hospital would be open and I could bring him there. If it still wasn't fixed by the time we close (6:00 P.M.), I could bring him to Alexis's house. We settled on a hotel, I called to make sure they had a room available and I began running around the house gathering food for Ash, his water bottle, and any essentials I would need for the night and morning. I told my husband to go out to our driveway and turn on my car and blast the AC so it would be cool enough for him when I was ready to go.

I forgot so many things but none of them mattered. Ash was starting to overheat again.

The motor to the fridge and freezer miraculously came back on when we shut the door.

Small victories were not to be celebrated though, it was nearly 2:30 A.M and I needed to get him OUT.

The hotel wasn't far away. I left my car running as I checked in and was relieved to see the rooms had external entrances. I didn't have to attempt to hide him as I walked through a lobby. The guy at the front desk gave me the room key and explained how to get to the room and $132 later I was back in the car.

Here's where I tell you, I'm horrible with directions. I could get lost in my own driveway if I had to leave it a different way than how I'd entered.

It didn't help that my windows were totally fogged from the severe difference between the heat outside and the blasted AC inside the car. I circled the hotel FOUR times before I found the staircase he told me would lead me to my room.

I left all my stuff inside my car and RAN Ash through the heat and humidity to the room, unlocked the door and stepped inside. The room smelled horrible but the AC was on. I noticed it was set to 68, I immediately lowered it to 64, put Ash on the table and left him to go get my things from the car.

3:00 A.M.

Inside the room, I notice I'm not cooling down. I hit the display button on the AC and it shows the room temperature to be 72. It was set to 68 when I came in and lowered it so this made no sense. I lowered it to 62, then to 60, expecting to hear it start blowing harder. It did not.

SERIOUSLY?

Whatever, Ash can live at 72 degrees and I was exhausted. I gave him the food and hay that I brought for him and spent a good half an hour attempting to rig his water bottle to the far-too-small-for-it cat carrier.

Once he was set for the night, I set up my laptop (I can't fall asleep without noise so I use it to watch television. The fact that the hotel room had a TV never entered my mind) and I posted an update on Facebook that Ash and I were in a hotel for the night. He was safe.

I didn't sleep much. I'm used to sleeping at 64 degrees so 72 was uncomfortable for me. I'm also used to my husband's white noise machine, the steady buzz of the portable AC, and my husband beside me. The only thing I had that was what I was used to, was my true crime documentaries on Hulu that I fall asleep to.

I'm not normal. You get used to it.

I woke up around 7 in the morning and checked my phone. My husband had spoken to our landlord and he was working on getting an electrician to come.

Back to restless sleep.

Woke up again at 11 to a text from my husband that no one had come and no word from the landlord. I text the landlord myself and ask what's going on, this needs to be fixed.

What I did NOT say: In Florida, AC is a RIGHT. It is ILLEGAL for a landlord to allow their tenants not to have AC.

Good to know your renter's rights. A tip from me to you. I had that in my back pocket in case I needed to use it.

He responded that he knew, he had spoken to two electricians and was hoping for the afternoon. He was on top of it.

HOPING? There's no hoping! There's no hoping in air conditioning!

A League of Their Own. You're welcome.

Whatever, I didn't respond because I didn't want to piss him off and at this point I'm a ball of sleep-deprived and uncomfortable sweaty rage. But Ash is alive.

This is when the things that I forgot to bring to the hotel make me wish I had put more thought into my packing process. I had not brought a change of clothes. I had not brought hair gel nor a headband. I was about to bring Ash to my place of work looking like a homeless person. My hair was a frizzy nightmare and my pajamas didn't even match! But now, it's day time. Ash can not wait in the car in the sunlight for me to make myself presentable.

To work I went, looks be damned.

1:30 P.M.

I arrived during lunch break. I walked straight back into the treatment area and almost knocked over one of my coworkers. She sees the carrier in my hand and informs me that the only vet on today is on lunch. I lifted the carrier and said 'not a patient'. My hospital only treats dogs and cats.

My PM (practice manager) sees me and waves me over to her desk and asks what's going on. I fill her in on the chaos of the night.

This is when she informs me that their AC is on the fritz and it's been getting warmer back there all day.

SERIOUSLY? DOES NOWHERE IN FLORIDA HAVE PROPERLY WORKING AIR CONDITIONING?!?

Luckily, the hospital that I work for is located inside of a PetSmart. Their AC was working just fine. I left Ash with my receptionists behind the front desk in our "lobby" (i.e: the back of PetSmart) with strict instruction not to open the carrier. If he escaped, he could take out the entire building if he found enough cords to chew. And. He. Would.

I call him Ash-Hole.

There's a reason.

I hadn't had any caffeine. I hadn't eaten since lunch yesterday which was just a bowl of cereal. I hadn't slept well. I looked a mess. I was NOT looking forward to going back to what I was sure was now an oven of an apartment.

I check my phone and my husband had texted to let me know that the electrician had arrived and then left to go to Home Depot to pick up the part necessary to fix the problem.

Sigh of relief. I'd have to be hot for a bit, but hopefully not for long, and Ash was safe.

I went to Starbucks. I gave up Starbucks due to expense and unnecessary calories but I needed an iced white mocha with four shots of espresso STAT.

The electrician took two hours to return from Home Depot. It's ten minutes from our house so I have no idea what he was doing but there was thunder cracking the air and storm clouds foretelling impending doom. He needed to get back. He was NOT getting a rain delay.

When he finally returned, he had to turn off our electricity completely to work. Goodbye ceiling fan that was keeping it slightly more bearable in my sweltering apartment.

Two hours of sweating and discomfort later, the apartment roared to life. AC and bedroom included. It was fixed.

By now it was about 88 degrees in the apartment with 85% humidity (when you own a chinchilla, an indoor thermometer that reads temp AND humidity is necessary) and a little after 4:00 P.M. I had just under two hours to let the apartment cool down to safe numbers for Ash to come home to.

The general rule with chinchillas is that if the humidity and temperature added together are less than 150, it's safe for them.

This is a GENERAL rule. Over 80 degrees, even if the humidity is low enough to not reach the 150 total, they can still die. The apartment needed to cool down.

My three older cats and my dog were lethargic but no one was panting. They were sleeping. Surviving the heat. Our kittens, who we rescued from Kuwait didn't really seem to notice. They set off hunting the fly that had gotten inside while my husband was talking to the electrician while I stood directly under the AC vent, basking in the cool air.

It was 75 degrees with 50% humidity when I had no choice but to go get Ash. TECHNICALLY I know where the keys to the hospital are and PetSmart is open later but since he'd have been left in the treatment area so as not to be stolen, and the AC in there wasn't at full capacity, I wasn't leaving him in the empty hospital where no one would notice if he was too warm. The numbers in my house weren't IDEAL but they were steadily declining and they were at a safe level.

I brought Ash home.

He took his time rolling in his much needed dust bath. He'd spent nearly 24 hours in the cat carrier. Four of those hours, essentially inside a freezer, then multiple car rides, a hotel that smelled awful and an animal hospital full of barking dogs. By the time I'd picked him up he was laying still in the carrier, angry, over it, and needing to be home.

I put him back in his cage and watched him for quite a while. I made sure his ears did not turn pink. They didn't.

Our house is now at 68 again and the portable in the bedroom is making it the lovely 64 I'm used to sleeping in.

It was a chaotic adventure that I NEVER want to relive.

The lengths we go to for our fur babies.

The hotel bill is coming out of next month's rent.

Ash's favorite place to sit. On top of my head.

And SCENE.

exotic pets
Courtney Capone
Courtney Capone
Read next: Calling All Wannabe Pet Owners
Courtney Capone

A veterinary technician, writer and animal advocate from New York. Currently living in South Florida and desperately trying to escape. Runs on Starbucks and the love of her husband and 7 rescue animals.

See all posts by Courtney Capone

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