Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Legend Of...

The Black Gerbil

Whenever I would play around sparring with my friend's kids, usually little boys, I would adopt the Kung-fu name "The Black Gerbil". I would say things like "No one defeats the Black Gerbil!", "The Black Gerbil always triumphs!", "Come to my Exercise Wheel of Death!" and stuff like that. Being "The Black Gerbil" was sort of an alter ego of mine with these kids.

Then, about two years ago, I was giving a T'ai-Chi lesson out at the Lithia Park Bandshell in Ashland where I teach, and for some reason I just felt the urge to turn around and there, right behind me on the bandshell, was an actual little black gerbil! I couldn't believe my eyes. I've had gerbils for pets since the very first ones that were imported from Asia back in the late 60's, so I knew right away what he was. I figured, since it was the Tuesday after Easter, that perhaps a kid had brought his pet to the park that Sunday and it had escaped. I still have no idea how long he was out there, what kind of adventures he had, or how old he was at the time.

I tried but couldn't catch him, he was too fast and vanished into a hole in the bandshell building, but soon, with the help of a little Have-a-Heart trap and a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, the black gerbil was my prisoner! We brought him home and set up a little terrarium for him with some of the usual rodent supplies, but very soon my wife's maternal instincts kicked in and before too long the little guy was more her's than mine. We named him "Hay Lao Shoo", which means more or less "The Black Gerbil" in Chinese.

He turned out to be a pretty lucky little gerbil. Not only would he have been almost certainly eaten or worse out in the park, but within months he was living in a huge 55 gallon aquarium with a maze of plastic tubes, cardboard boxes and platforms to play around on and in. He also was fed a gourmet diet of organic seeds, cereals and veggies. Gerbils are generally social animals but introducing a new playmate to a solitary male is a bit tricky as they have a certain scent and they attack new additions with a different scent. The process of acclimating a new gerbil to ours was too time and energy intensive for us to pursue. Plus, he had a kind of ear infection thing that left him more or less blind in one eye and in general a bit on the weak side so we feared what would happen if we got another gerbil who was stronger.

Anyway, he lived his life as a bachelor. In spite of his infirmities, he gave his life everything he had and was really a wonderful pet. Probably my favorite pet ever. He had many delightful quirks and routines that brought us endless laughs and inspiration. Yes, inspiration. He had an amazingly cheerful and curious disposition and loved to work at chewing up things like toilet paper tubes, corn silk and egg cartons. He had a little cardboard platform that he used to sit on. We'd give him a flake of his favorite cereal (organic, nothing but the best!) and he would reach up, grab it quickly and run off to a special place to eat it. Other things he'd just eat where we gave it to him, but for cereal flakes and almonds he felt the need to rush off to a safer place. This would crack us up several times every day. We'd also put him in a plastic exercise ball and let him run around our apartment. He got very good at navigating his way around in that thing.

Occasionally, his ear thing would flair up, sometimes effecting his balance, but he always did his best to work around whatever was wrong and keep on his routine of working and resting and eating. He learned to tip his head to one side in order to see better and adopted many interesting little strategies to compensate for his handicap. It was really inspiring to watch his tiny brain learning to adapt to whatever was going on with his strength and balance. Recently, he began to take a turn for the worse and then suddenly it looked like he might have had a stroke. He was partially paralyzed and we wondered if we'd have to "put him to sleep", but somehow he worked it out to crawl and wiggle around. He even chewed up a tube or two and took a few flakes from our hands which he ate just as zealously as ever.

I half expected him to recover and just go on to yet another phase of his little life, but before long it became obvious that he was not going to make it. He stopped eating and seemed to shrink inwards as his body prepared to shut down. He did not seem to be in any pain so we decided to let Nature take its course. This morning, more than two years after we found him, the Black Gerbil finally passed away, curled up peacefully in his nest.

Rest In Peace little guy. You were a great pet, a lot of fun and you taught us a lot about life, work, rest, play, and how to deal with adversity. Plus, you were incredibly cute.


  1. Love is a strange thing, or who and what we will or wont let ourselves love is maybe the stranger thing. Its interesting to feel so much tenderness and admiration for a little rodent! and to think there are probably billions of such cheerfully industrious little creatures in the world, making the best of every difficulty, possibly hundreds in my own neighborhood...

  2. I just happened on your blog while doing one of my frequent searches for blogs mentioning or discussing Taoist principles. I'm glad I stayed and read this post. It brought tears to my eyes.

  3. I'm smiling as I read all these little quirks of your friend who has moved on...thanks for writing this and for sending the link, Gene. I remember seeing his groovy amazingly large setup there in your living room. Farewell, Black Gerbil...on to your next highest level of evolution!

  4. Beautiful story! What a great life your little Black Gerbil had:)

    One of those incredible "soul" stories. No coincidence you met him in the park...his little soul was meant to meet yours and your wife's:)

    As said above, love is a strange soulmate was a disabled squirrel I shared my life with for 3 years:)