Along with hamsters, gerbils are often chosen by infant school teachers to be the class pet. There are many advantages to choosing a gerbil - they're cute, they're just the right size for little children to hold and they're reasonably straightforward to look after. Unfortunately, gerbils often suffer at the hands of their small guardians. When taken home for the holidays they are often lost down the back of the sofa, or disastrously eaten by the family cat. This can have repercussions across the classroom and can frequently be a five-year-old's first encounter with the major issues of loss and bereavement, and the ebb and flow of life and death.
With rodents making such an enormous impact on young lives, choosing your gerbil is a serious business. There are loads of different sorts to choose from - there are reportedly more than 80 species living in the wild. Among them is the Cheesman's gerbil, which is an excellent choice for a pet that is going to handled a lot, as it is practically outgoing in gerbil terms (many of them are twitchy and nervous). Bold and brave, they are unafraid of people and inquisitive.
Cheesman's gerbils, otherwise known as Red Desert gerbils, are also very sweet looking. One distinguishing feature is its very long tail that's almost bare. It trails behind and looks as if it should be slung over one paw to be kept out of the way. The underbelly is white, while in stark contrast, the back is orangey brown with a few black hairs. In fact, Cheesman's gerbils look as if they are wearing capes. The combination of this distinctive tail and fur markings gives him a distinguished air, though a ring of white around his black beady eyes makes him looked surprised and bookish. If the hero mouse Reepicheep in CS Lewis's book Prince Caspian had been a gerbil, he would have certainly been a Cheesman's gerbil.
Cheesman's gerbils are not common in captivity - it appears they are not as easy to breed as other more common varieties of gerbil. If you are lucky enough to get hold of one, you should keep it in a sizable glass aquarium. As floor covering you can use the sort of cat litter that is made from recycled newspapers. This is recommended over traditional wood flakes and sawdust as these can irritate the eyes and the oils in the wood can cause liver damage. Gerbils also have a tendency to nibble on the flakes and swallow a quantity of the dust produced, which isn't good for them.
You'll also need something soft for your Cheesman's gerbil to sleep on, such as tissue paper or hay. Other things to include in the aquarium are toys: cardboard tubes, boxes and plastic pipes1. However, it is best not to include an exercise wheel, as long-tailed gerbils tend to get their tails caught between the spokes - this can lead to breaks, and possibly necessitate amputation. If a wheel is unavoidable then you should tape over the spokes, frequently replacing the tape. Your gerbil will also need a little shelter to hide in; purpose-made ones can be found in pet shops.
For food, give your Cheesman's gerbil a good quality rodent food mix, with occasional treats of peanuts and sunflower seeds (these are both high in fat so shouldn't be given too often). Your gerbil will appreciate a piece of apple or carrot and other hard things to gnaw on (pieces of wood or dog biscuits) as their front teeth grow constantly and should be worn down with nibbling. You should always make sure your gerbil has a supply of water - despite being desert animals, they don't cope well without it.
In the wild, Cheesman's gerbils can come and go as they please across the dry and sandy areas of the Middle East right across to Pakistan and into South Western Afghanistan. There are various sub-species distributed throughout:
- Gerbillus cheesmani (Lower Euphrates, Iraq)
- Gerbillus cheesmani aquilus (Iran)
- Gerbillus cheesmani arduus (Central Arabia)
- Gerbillus cheesmani maritimus (Yemen)
- Gerbillus cheesmani subsolanus (Pakistan)
In the frequently harsh environment where they live they will forage out nuts, grasses, seeds, roots, and insects to chew on. They are capable of climbing high and can we seen in the wild swinging to and fro on tall seed heads.
Their burrows, dug out of sand dunes and dried up mudflats, can be up to four feet deep, which protects them from harsh sun during the day and the crisp cold of night. During the day, when they are sleeping (they are nocturnal animals) they shore up the entrances with sand to conserve moisture and to hide the burrow from potential predators such as snakes. They nest separately side-by-side in a community of neighbouring burrows, which belies their sociable nature.