4 Lessons about readers from the chinchilla

Our chinchilla, Gizzy, turned 2 on the 4th of July, and has lived with us for over a year and a half of that time. She is what they call a ‘legacy pet’ – one inherited from one’s children.

chinchilla sitting on a hand

Gizzy deigning to sit on my hand

I am not a pet person – but the kids were moving to Houston, and were afraid they couldn’t keep her cool enough. Chinchillas are animals of the high Andean mountain desserts, and will fry if they get too much over 70° F, plus can’t stand much humidity. Think of it: there she is, my little Gizzy, wearing a thick coat of the softest fur on the planet, but she can’t get rid of excess heat because she doesn’t pant and has no sweat glands. The only way she cools is through her feet and her ears, which will turn bright pink to warn you she is approaching heat stroke.

Chinchillas are not pets, not really. They are wild animals we sometimes keep around, but it is a symbiotic relationship at best, and basically I am allowed to have an exotic little creature in my house, and interact with her as much as she will let me, on her terms. Observing her and taking care of her has led to a lot of thoughts about Readers and Writers.

Chinchillas are like Readers

Living with a chinchilla makes certain truths evident, and my mind does the same thing while waiting for her to come around and get her treats as it does when I’m gardening: it looks for parallels. Too much time? Yes, but is also the enforced-waiting aspect of having a bit of time to think, without the distraction of internet, TV, or music, almost a form of meditation.

1. Readers are wild exotic animals – they will never be pets.

No matter how much a reader likes your book, it is always on her terms, never on yours. Any attempt to disrupt this relationship quickly shows who’s boss: the reader stops buying and reading, and especially recommending, the output of an author who is deemed to try to manipulate this fragile relationship.

I think this may be what’s at the base of the Amazon 1-star reviews or Goodreads kerfuffles: readers do not like threats to their independence.

And readers win. And writers who try to take them on, even to explain, lose. ‘Don’t tell me what to think.’ Every reader has an opinion, and that opinion is RIGHT, because opinions always are. Sometimes opinions are based on faulty data – misinterpreting the author’s intent, misreading something, not noticing that the word count indicates a short story, picking the wrong category – and the author might be able to point this out.

Problem is, the ability of a writer to improve things is very limited in the best of cases, and comes across as adding insult to injury in most.

About the only thing a writer can consistently try is to say ‘I’m sorry you found the book not to your taste; please avail yourself of the return policy.’ Or even offer to refund the money expended personally if the return period is officially over. But even this can backfire because $10 is not enough money to pay back the perceived offense: wasting hours of someone’s time.

Really, it is best to learn from negative reviews if there is anything to learn there, and leave the reader alone to cool off.

I’ve read the opinions of writers who have successfully turned a negative review into at least a neutral one, but, as a reader, they always leave me thinking that particular writer walked into the lion’s den, and was lucky to escape with her life.

2. Readers are only there for the treats.

Gizzy is a soft little wonderful ball of gray fur. She has no need of me.

She tolerates me stroking her in particular careful ways, or burying my face in her soft coat, ONLY as long as I can make the tiny stack of treats she is allowed last. End of treats, end of petting.

Essentially, I buy her tolerance with treats.

She doesn’t know about the fact that she is one of the most spoiled chinchillas in chinchilla history: she has her own room, and I feel very guilty the few nights I don’t allow her a couple of hours to roam about the main floor.

She expects me to open the darned door, and let her bound down the stairs, run around under the furniture and on the plant table. She is probably irritated because I block her access to the table tops (chinchillas live in places where there are large rocks and crevices), and don’t let her into the pantry. She understands nothing about the safety issues involved.

And every night she’d rather stay on the dining room chair, in the safe dark spot under the table, rather than go up to her room and have the door closed for another day. I wish I could show you a video of the process – which involves me chasing her around the room under the furniture with a flashlight until she decides it is just too much trouble to stay in the living room and she’ll go rest in her room, and bounds up the stairs – maybe you could search on YouTube for a video of someone herding cats?

Readers will stay with you ONLY as long as your writing provides them treats.

One bad or careless book, and, if you’re lucky, you’re on the warning list, and not banned. Many good books in a series and I, as a reader, will drop the series the minute I don’t like where the writer is taking the characters, I suspect the writer is getting senile or PC or too commercial, or touches a topic I don’t like. I give my favorite authors a LITTLE leeway – after all, it’s hard to FIND treats in reading – but that is it. No treats, I’m out of there.

A gray chinchilla being hand fed her treats.


3. Readers are fickle.

Gizzy doesn’t care who does what around here, as long as she gets her treats.

It makes me so mad that she stays around for longer with my husband, because he feeds her the treats only one by one, and makes her let him pet her longer for each treat. Not fair!

Which is silly of me: she’s a wild animal and she has learned that when he has the treats, she will get them only his way. Her other choice is to run away. She can’t force him or trick him into letting her eat out of his hand, so she does exactly what she has to do to get treats from HIM, and no more.

I don’t make her work as hard – I’m tired and I feel sorry for having the poor little beast stuck in her own room most of the time, even if that room has lots of boxes and furniture she climbs around and jumps to and from – so I usually hold out a short while, and then I let her eat the rest at her own speed right out of my hand as I pet her.

She goes with whoever has the treats. There is no lasting relationship – she will take them from anyone (subject to her tolerance of strangers and noise, and only as long as she is still hungry) regardless of who gave her treats last time.

Husband and daughter almost never physically take care of her needs. I do, every day. She doesn’t care.


4. Readers decide when they are done.

Chinchillas don’t get fat (unless they are spoiled by sweet treats on too regular a basis, and then they get diabetes): they have a little internal switch THAT WORKS (mine doesn’t). As soon as the little brain (very little) senses ‘full,’ eating stops.

This is very important. As long as you leave out a selection of Timothy hay and alfalfa pellets, with maybe a couple of special hays for diversity, Gizzy will decide how much food to eat and when. She is driven by her own hunger.

I THINK she waits for me to open that door at night (an irregular schedule) and wants those treats and doesn’t stuff herself on the regular fodder, but I can’t be sure. Some nights she won’t even come off the dining room chair for ‘Treats!’

It is strictly up to her and HER needs. Perceived by HER.

When a reader has had enough – of a particular book, a series, or an author – that’s it. Writers have no way to control this: it is not up to them.

It’s MY decision as a reader to read – or not. Not only do I not care what the writer says, I won’t even give the writer a chance to say it.

Readers are like chinchillas

To sum it all up, readers are always going to be skittish, noise-averse, and picky – it’s their nature, and it isn’t going to change.

Did I mention I love the little furball?



5 thoughts on “4 Lessons about readers from the chinchilla

  1. marianallen

    Dasha (my daughter’s chinchilla) is devoted to my daughter. Daughter got Dasha from a pet store after she had been returned by a previous owner — underweight and with ringworm, as it turns out. Dasha, I mean, not (necessarily) the previous owner. I think Dasha may associate my daughter with her recovery and may also appreciate the difference between her former “keeper” and my indulgent daughter. At any rate, Dasha tolerates me, but the LOVES my daughter!


  2. Catana

    She’s even worse than a cat. A cat will at least pretend it likes you. Most of the time. Or maybe a soft, warm lap is merely the equivalent of treats.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Gizzy is frightened of noises we can’t even hear. Survival comes first for wild animals; friendship is a distant second except for babies – and most babies get eaten.

      Which is why it’s so cute when she will consent to sit on your lap for a minute, or walk all over you when you’re lying on the living room carpet.

      Or give you a paw.

      A cat is also a lot more trouble – but it can be a companion. I didn’t choose Gizzy, and I will never have another pet, probably, so I take it as it comes.


    2. Catana

      What’s so interesting about her is that she has never become entirely tame. Most wild animals will if you start them young enough. But I wouldn’t ever trust any of the big cats. Male chimps can also become dangerous when they mature.


      1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

        I didn’t get Gizzy until the kids had had her for six months; I have been given to understand her mistress wanted a dog, but the lease on their apartment wouldn’t allow it.

        When I have more energy, maybe I’ll be able to spend more time and can tame her a bit more (she’s 4+, they can live to 15). Meanwhile, daughter helps, and she is the most spoiled little chinchilla – I grow wheat grass and hand cut the treats she likes. She has decided opinions about what she likes.

        And I’m really not a pet person – it’s more like I’m the guardian of an exotic species.



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