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The American Gerbil Show: What Our Pets Teach Us

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The animals were groomed and shiny. The judges wore white coats and serious expressions as they rated the furry contestants for conformation, color and disposition. There were competitions for agility and speed. Every owner hoped to win Best in Show.

Was this The Westminster Dog Show? Nope. This was the American Gerbil Show. The competitors may only be palm-size rodents with tufted tails, but their owners still eagerly trekked to this year's Massachusetts show from as far away as Nebraska to talk gerbil.

The American Gerbil Show is held twice each year by The American Gerbil Society. Some of the day's events are just for fun, like the Gerbil Olympics, where pet gerbils take on paper tubes to prove their jaw power and race against each other in plastic balls. Their owners cheer them on from the sidelines, shouting things like, "Yeah, you got this! Go, go, go!" When it comes to exhibiting groupie level enthusiasm for these curious rodents, it's tough to tell the kids from the adults.

But serious business is conducted at these shows, too. Gerbil enthusiasts have been breeding these pocket kangaroos since the animals were first imported to this country from Japan in 1954. By now, the color variations have spun out far beyond the golden agouti gerbils that my own father once raised by the thousands. Today there are lilac and nutmeg gerbils, Siamese and Burmese gerbils, dove and polar fox gerbils, honey cream and silver fox, and many more.

There is even, as of this spring, a blue gerbil in the United States, shown by the show's coordinator, Libby Hanna. Her devoted husband flew to Helsinki, Finland to pick up the animals, turned around in the airport, and flew right back - his Christmas gift to Libby. "Massachusetts is a real hot spot for gerbils," she assured me. "We had to have blue gerbils."

The new blue gerbils were certainly a show stopper. So was Herman the Show Jumping Gerbil, an athletic YouTube celebrity who is even more debonair in person than on screen.

A few side tables at the American Gerbil Show displayed gerbil paraphernalia for sale: gerbil purses and gerbil hats, wooden gerbil houses, gerbil art and gerbil books. There were even hand-knitted gerbils trucked all the way from Ohio by their creator.

As I mingled with the gerbil fanciers, I couldn't help but recall one of my mother's favorite sayings: "There's a lid for every pot." These were people who wear their passions emblazoned on their t-shirts: American Gerbil Society: Christmas Revels, Audubon Society. If they weren't here, this crowd would be out walking for good causes.

One example: Tom and Renee. Tom tells me that he's had pet gerbils since the 1960s. These days he specializes in rescuing gerbils with disabilities, like his personal favorite, a blind gerbil called "Blindy." In an unfortunate incident, Blindy once caught his leg in the crack of a coconut shell while taking a dust bath. Blindy couldn't see which way to pull his leg out, Tom explained, so he thrashed around and broke it. Tom and Renee had to nurse him back to health.

"It was a good thing that happened, really," Tom mused, because it showed their adopted son that, "when parents love you, they don't abandon you. They take care of you no matter what happens. It was a good lesson in love."

Good lessons in love: that's what our pets, small or large, teach us all.