In May of this year, Alicia Wentzel saw a post on Facebook alerting people to a guinea pig apparently living in the wild along the Monongahela River. As a lover of small animals, she was immediately concerned.
“[Guinea pigs] are not built for outside. They don't exist in the wild anymore,” Wentzel tells Pittsburgh City Paper in a phone interview.
After seeing these reports, Wentzel, who lives in Mt. Oliver and volunteers with local guinea pig rescue group Wheek Care, set out to capture the lovable critter and find it a safe home.
Wentzel says she went down to the river in the South Side and walked the trail length, asking people if they had seen a guinea pig. After a couple of hours, she says, she ran into a couple walking a dog that looked like hers did as a puppy, and she stopped to talk with them.
“After we're talking like 15 minutes, I go, ‘you guys didn't happen to see a guinea pig, did you?’ And they go, ‘oh, yeah, we did down there.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh, you did!?’ and they're pointing, and they go, ‘Yeah, but it's dead,’” she says.
She rushed to where the couple had pointed and found a recently deceased guinea pig lying on the trail. The dead pig had long hair and matched the animal described in the initial Facebook post.
“We missed him by probably an hour … it appeared that a dog got him,” she says. “We were absolutely devastated."
But weeks later, on the Friday before Memorial Day, another Facebook post appeared with a picture of the same spot but featuring a different guinea pig. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding,’” she says.
“So I go down and there he is, just hanging out eating some clover,” she says, referring to a second guinea pig, grayish and looking like he was under six months old, who has now become the target of Wentzel’s rescue campaign.
She says it was clear the guinea pig had been living in a patch of brush about six feet deep and 30 feet wide on the bank of the Monongahela River.
“It’s rough,” Wentzel says of the terrain. She says there are “a ton of dead leaves and debris and dead branches” and rat tunnels underneath the bushes.
Wentzel borrowed a humane small animal trap from a friend and “loaded it up with fruits and vegetables and cilantro,” she says, and, at first, things were looking good.
“He goes in the trap, and we get him,” Wentzel says. But, “there's a half-inch gap under the trap door. And he escapes.
"Now this was the very first night, so we’re devastated but we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to get him again,” she says.
Wentzel says she must have spent at least 40 hours that weekend trying to rescue the guinea pig. A few days later, on Memorial Day, she set up the trap again with fresh produce. “He's wandering over … just very casually grazing. And I'm just very patiently waiting for him to happen to get under the trap. And then he's got his head three inches under the trap, and they do a 21-gun salute from the Point.”
The pig ran away, and “I burst into tears,” she says.
At that point, she says she realized she couldn’t accomplish the capture by herself and recruited some volunteers from Wheek Care, which rescues and rehomes guinea pigs out of a New Kensington basement, and they took turns doing stake-outs with the drop trap.
In mid-July, Wentzel says they stopped seeing him but continued to fill a water bowl and stop by to check on his hiding spot.
Then, after almost 30 days without a sighting, someone sent Wentzel a message saying they had spotted him. And then she got another message saying the same thing.
“So I go down [there]. I'm talking to this girl, you know, via Facebook Messenger. I said, ‘It's the little gray one, right?’ She said ‘No, it's brown, light brown.’ And I'm thinking okay, maybe she just doesn't know colors.”
Still, she went down to the river and waited. Nothing. “All of a sudden,” she says, “this groundhog pops out.”
Although one or more of the people reporting a brown guinea pig may have actually seen a groundhog, Wentzel says some river regulars are adamant they’ve seen a “chocolate brown” guinea pig. Wentzel requests anyone reporting a guinea pig sighting include a picture to avoid future miscommunications.
Recently, Wentzel returned to the spot and received quite a shock. “I go down there two weekends ago, and I'm just sitting in my car Saturday morning, and I'm listening to an audiobook. And don't you know, this little a-hole pops out from underneath those bushes,” she says, “and I got goosebumps. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, he's still alive. I can't believe it!’”
Given the reports of a brown guinea pig, it’s possible he isn’t the only one of his kind living down by the river. Wentzel says a man by the river told her that college students often dump small pets in the area at the end of the semester, coinciding with the first guinea pig sighting.
“I don’t think this is the first time this has happened,” she says. “We're gonna keep going. We're gonna keep chugging along,”
Once the temperature drops, Wentzel says, the guinea pig isn't likely to survive long.
“We have to get him before winter. We have to, or he's gonna die. The first night the temperature drops, you know?”
Although his living situation is far from sustainable, Wentzel says the guinea pig seems to be surviving well so far. But her efforts to trap him are getting increasingly difficult.
“The longer he’s down there, the more feral he’s getting… now he’s getting to the point where if you get within five feet of him, he takes off,” Wentzel says.
They don't know for sure how the pig ended up in the wild, but Wentzel and the volunteers suspect the guinea pigs were dumped by someone who no longer wanted to or could care for them.
“There are a million people that belong to Wheek Care that would have taken those pigs, rather than have that person dumped them,” she says. “I’ve lost hours laying in bed, worrying about this pig. I'm truly astonished that he's still alive.”