Ordinary owners, not so ordinary pets

By Toh Xun Qiang

Pets can play an important role in our lives, providing us with companionship and love. Many owners even regard them as family.

According to a Straits Times article in 2016, more people in Singapore see value in keeping domestic animals, with pet ownership increasing over the years from 816,115 in 2014 to 824,600 in 2016.

But not all pet owners take care of cats and dogs. Some, including these two NTU students, are proud owners of a few unusual pets.

A love shell-dom seen

Garden snails, commonly spotted along pavements and in grass patches especially after a rain, are often stepped on by unsuspecting passers-by. To many, these gastropods are just obstacles to avoid when walking along the road after wet weather.

One of Nadia Khoo’s snails eating a flower petal. Snails are able to see using their two longest tentacles. PHOTO: NADIA KHOO

But for 22-year-old Nadia Khoo, these garden snails are her prized possessions.

The second-year School of Art, Design and Media student has been the owner of seven pet snails for about five months now.

When she was younger, Khoo owned a pet hamster but neglected it as she did not know how to take care of it. As she grew older, Khoo wanted another pet that she could care for responsibly.

As she did not want to keep another rodent, which would remind her of her hamster, Khoo did some research on potential pets and came across snails. She watched YouTube videos and learned about their lifestyle and diets.

In her eagerness to own them, Khoo even went to Ikea to buy a greenhouse in preparation to keep the snails.

She then casually mentioned her interest in keeping snails as pets to her friend, who later found one in a drain and gave it to Khoo last November as her birthday present.

Initially, Khoo’s parents laughed at her decision to keep the snail because they were not sure if she was serious about it. However, they were convinced after she assured them that she was determined to look after the snail well.

To her surprise, the snail was pregnant and hatched a batch of 120 eggs shortly after she had received it.

According to Khoo, the eggs started protruding out from a hole near the snail’s face while it was eating. She also found eggs when she checked the soil.

“My whole family kept coming into my room everyday to check on them for the first few weeks. I think my dad and sister wanted to make sure that the snail was doing well, while the rest of my family were mostly curious with when the eggs would hatch,” said Khoo.

Eventually, all but 20 eggs hatched. Khoo took care of all the hatchlings by feeding them lettuce and keeping the tank moist by spraying water every night. As they were very tiny, Khoo did not need to get an extra tank to fit the 100 snails.

She eventually kept 10 hatchlings for herself and released the rest at a tree near her house after a month.

Among the 10 she kept, six survived.

Currently, Khoo still sprays her snails’ tank with water every night to make sure that they stay well moisturised and hydrated. Otherwise, the snails would become lethargic, indicating that they are dying.

She also leaves a piece of cuttlefish bone and eggshells for the snails to eat, replacing them whenever they run out. This is to provide a steady supply of calcium for her snails to build and repair their own shells.

Once every three weeks, Khoo also treats her snails to their favourite snack — wet tortoise feed and cat food, which she had learnt about online.

Whenever Khoo leaves the snack in the tank, it would often be consumed quickly — unlike the lettuce or cuttlefish bone.

Though the snails do not need to be bathed, Khoo wipes their shells when there are pieces of faeces on them, as the baby snails often leave trails and defecate when climbing onto the mother snail’s shell.

Despite her immense love for snails, Khoo’s friends find it disgusting that she keeps them as pets. They question her decision and sometimes say mean things about her snails. However, Khoo remains positive and shrugs off their hurtful comments.

“To me, not being able to hug or play with them (the snails) is not an issue. I love my snails and love taking care of them, observing them and seeing them happy,” she said.

“I am staying true to what I love and that is all that really matters to me,” she added.

Chin-chilling around

Chinchillas are not mainstream pet rodents, unlike hamsters or guinea pigs, according to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Singapore.

Zippy (left) and Dingding taking a break on a chess table. They used to exercise once a week by climbing the stairs. PHOTO: FLORENCE PAU

However, Florence Pau was owner to two chinchillas until one passed away last year.

“Chinchillas are not pets that require high maintenance. They can be toilet trained from young, which makes it convenient to clean up after them,” said the 25-year-old, who graduated from the School of Humanities last year.

She added that chinchillas can be toilet trained by encouraging them to use litter boxes with bedding placed inside. By putting a litter box near the area where they urinate, chinchillas will slowly learn that they should only urinate in the box.

“I just need to provide a glass container filled with bedding for them to pee on, and I clear the cage twice a day,” Ms Pau.

Her desire to own a chinchilla came about when she chanced upon a photo of them online when she was 12. Eight years later, she bought Zippy, a male Standard Grey chinchilla from Pets Specialist. He had cost her $400.

The following year, she purchased Dingding, a male white Mosaic chinchilla, for $800. He was sold at a higher price because of his rare breed.

Dingding, a Mosaic chinchilla, perches outside his cage. PHOTO: FLORENCE PAU

In total, Ms Pau would spend $100 per month on her chinchillas, buying pellets and snacks, bedding, and dust to bathe them in.

Ms Pau would feed her chinchillas with pellets twice a day, and let them roll in dust baths twice a week to keep their thick fur clean and healthy. She also bought a special comb to remove dead hair from the chinchillas, preventing them from eating their own fur which might lead to indigestion.

“Dingding used to have tangled fur near his tail so grooming had to be done one to two times a week. Zippy would join him in the dust bath and grooming too,” said Ms Pau.

As chinchillas are vulnerable to heat stroke in Singapore’s climate due to their thick fur, Ms Pau placed their cage at the breezy part of her house and left the fan on at night for them.

When chinchillas roam the house, they can chew on wire or dangerous objects to trim their ever-growing teeth.

“Once, Dingding bit my brother’s speaker cable and also ate the corners of his worksheets,” she said. Her brother has since refrained from allowing Dingding to enter his room.

As a result, Ms Pau started monitoring her chinchillas wherever they went. This was time-consuming, but she did not mind it because they always kept her entertained.

Before she bought a running wheel in 2014, Ms Pau also used to bring Zippy and Dingding for exercise by running up five storeys of stairs.

She would tie a leash around them and bring them to the stairs in her apartment building to exercise.

In 2017, Zippy died from a bloated stomach. His overgrown molar teeth had made him unable to ingest pellets and snacks to defecate properly. He was five years old then. This would have been 45 in human years.

Now only left with Dingding, Ms Pau says the bond between her and her pet chinchilla continues to grow every day. She talks to him on a daily basis and has even taught him a few tricks such as walking for a short distance to receive his treats.

“I always talk to Dingding about my day and he would stand still outside the cage while placing his paw on my finger, listening to me. But he won’t stand still for very long. He gets bored after five minutes and would start to jump off the cage and wander about the house,” said Ms Pau.

“I don’t want to think about the day Dingding leaves me. Even if he leaves, I hope it isn’t a painful death like what Zippy went through,” she added.


Fun facts about snails and chinchillas

Garden snails

  1. An average garden snail has 14,000 razor sharp teeth arranged in rows on their tongue.
  2. Garden snails secrete a trail of mucus which consists of 98 per cent water. It allows them to climb up walls and glide on sharp blades like knives.
  3. Garden snails are hermaphroditic, but still prefer to mate. Most, although not all, have both male and female reproductive organs and thus are able to self-fertilise. Their reproductive system ends in an external opening located near the head, called a genital pore. The eggs are also buried in different places underneath the soil.
  4. They are intelligent and adapt well to their environment. As Khoo feeds her snails by opening the lid on the right side of the tank, they tend to stay on the left side of the lid at night, so as to not get in her way.

Chinchillas

  1. Zippy and Dingding sometimes emit a series of loud barks when they are bored or terrified. In response, Ms Pau usually feeds them an apple chew stick to keep them occupied. Chew sticks are fruit flavoured twigs that help chinchillas to trim and sharpen their teeth when gnawed on.
  2. Chinchillas are territorial creatures that guard their homes and possessions fiercely. In order to ensure that Zippy and Dingding could live together in the same cage and not fight to establish dominance over each other, Ms Pau sent them for a three-week bonding session with a shop called Pets Republic which has since closed down. The bonding session acquainted Zippy with Dingding slowly by feeding them, bathing them, and letting them play together. The pair was able to live together amiably in the same cage after the bonding session.
  3. Chinchillas have the softest fur among all land mammals. Their hair is very dense, with 50 to 80 strands of hair growing out of a single follicle as compared to humans, which average between two and three.
  4. Despite their active nature, chinchillas do not have strong stamina. It is recommended by local retailer, House of Chinchillas, that they rest 15 minutes for every five minutes of exercise.