SALISBURY — It’s quiet here in this small, nondescript office space, tucked off Route 1 in the Ring’s Island part of town.
That’s surprising, because the two-room workspace is crowded from floor to ceiling with stacks of cages, each one a temporary home to a guinea pig or two. Kim Smothermon’s Guinea Pig Sanctuary, one of just a handful of rescue services in the country dedicated to the chubby rodents, is currently housing more than 400 of them.
They’re not making much noise, explains Angela Smith, one of the sanctuary’s busiest volunteers, “because you haven’t opened a bag of carrots.”
When that happens, she jokes, “it’s like a horror movie, but in a happy tone.” Sure enough, as soon as another volunteer tears open a bag of greens, the squealing begins in earnest.
Guinea pigs make wonderful pets, says Smothermon. But they’re social beings, and they need more attention than some people are willing to give. Too many humans decide after adopting that they don’t have the time or inclination to care for their pet, she says.
So the Guinea Pig Sanctuary welcomes “surrenders.” They rehome as many of the pets as they can, and they find foster families for others. To cover the bills — food and supplies for the animals, as well as the cost of the facility — they take in boarders, just as you might board your dog in a kennel during a family vacation.
Some of the “piggies,” as the volunteers invariably call them, are in rough shape when they’re surrendered. One pair of brothers was left on the doorstep in a Huggies box on a rainy day this summer. One of them couldn’t be saved.
“You’ve got to do a lot to make me cry,” says Smothermon.
She has managed the sanctuary since the day her grandson, then 13 years old, announced they were starting a guinea pig rescue. Alex, now grown, has had health problems since an accident when he was a toddler left him with severe burns over much of his body.
Unable to have a pet that could transmit bacteria, Alex came home from a pet store with a guinea pig that another customer had just surrendered. He also brought home the idea for the sanctuary.
Living in Hampton, N.H., at the time, the family ran the rescue out of their house until a devastating fire burned it down in 2019. Smothermon lost a 7-year-old grandson, as well as two dogs and 32 guinea pigs.
That just made her more determined than ever to keep Alex’s dream alive. Since finding the space in Salisbury, she and her team of volunteers have secured their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
“We’ve had people drive from as far away as Texas to surrender,” she says.
The domestic guinea pig, also known as the cavy, originated in South America but has been a popular house pet in the United States for a few hundred years. The basic version is called an American guinea pig, but the sanctuary has all kinds, including long-haired Peruvians, cowlicky Abyssinians, and Texels, which look like little yaks. These days Pongo, a Texel mix, is one of the house favorites.
Guinea pigs typically live from four to eight years. As Smith shows a visitor around the facility, she holds an old piggy in her arms, wrapped in a towel. He’s dying. It’s the house rule that someone will hold an expiring guinea pig until it draws its last breath.
“That was originally Alex’s rule,” says Smothermon. “We wrap ‘em up like a burrito.”
At the sanctuary, those pets nearing the end are known as the “rainbow” piggies. Smothermon has built up a large network of caregivers willing to take in an old guinea pig that needs some TLC over its final weeks or months.
“I feel bad for the old ones,” says Haley Pearson, a 15-year-old from Danville, N.H., who volunteers whenever she can get a ride. “I take them in and give them as much love as I can in a happy, safe environment.”
For many in the sanctuary’s extended community, these pets quickly become more than just a hobby. Jackie Ranger began volunteering after adopting. Now she organizes veterinary care for the animals that need it, working with VCA Wakefield Animal Hospital, Putnam Veterinary Clinic in Topsfield, and others to make appointments and arrange transportation.
She’s the right person for the job, Ranger says: “I’m a registered nurse.”
Brianna McGee of Hudson, N.H., stumbled on a TikTok post about the guinea pigs that got left on the doorstep. She called immediately and adopted Theo, the one that survived.
“They’re obviously prone to depression when they lose a cage mate,” she says. She and her husband, Jesse, already had a “herd” of seven guinea pigs at home, four of them males. Theo is now thriving.
“They have play dates outside. He’s loving having his new brothers around,” she says.
Nicole Scotina and her daughter, Julie, of North Reading, first heard about the sanctuary after bringing home two guinea pigs from a pet store, one of which turned out to have a respiratory infection.
After visiting the sanctuary, she soon began fostering “rainbow” piggies and others in need of special medical attention. One had an abscess on its neck that required daily treatment.
“It was a good experience,” she says. “You just don’t know how well they’re going to do, but you hope the care and love you give to this little animal will make them big and strong again.” The piggy with the abscess, named Gloria, is now doing great, Scotina is happy to report.
At the moment, her family is caring for eight more guinea pigs, including ones called Winnie, Gizmo, Jasmine, and Gus Gus (the latter named after the mouse in “Cinderella”). It’s a 50/50 arrangement with her daughter, she says: Julie feeds the pets every morning, and then her mother cleans the cages.
Told that this doesn’t sound like a “50/50″ arrangement, Scotina laughs: “She does plenty of poops, too!”
She ran an in-home daycare service for years, until the pandemic hit.
“Now I’m unemployed,” she says. “Really, guinea pigs is what I do.”
For more information, visit guineapigsanctuary.org.