The unforgettable pet: Hollie McNish discusses her guinea pigs – ‘my mom bravely protected them from a ferret’

Every week, my mother would come home from work as a nurse with gifts of gratitude from patients. But it wasn’t until the brutal 2am attack that I witnessed her true heroism in action.
I cannot recall who named our two adorable guinea pigs, Cocoa and Bramble, or where we acquired them from – most likely the pet shop that always smelled of sawdust, a place I pleaded to visit during every trip to the garden center. What I do remember is the night my mother saved those precious little creatures’ lives.
They were not our first pets, nor our last. We had a budgie, a hamster, and two incredibly affectionate dogs that, as a young child, I wished were horses and often tried to ride, much to their dismay.
However, the guinea pigs felt more like my own pets, perhaps because I spent more time with them than the others. They didn’t fly away or scurry back to their wheels when I attempted to cuddle them. Instead, they sat on my lap, their fur patchy with tawny russet, soft and snuffling. They allowed me to stroke them and feed them; the sound of their eager munching on clover became a cherished melody of my early childhood. I would like to say that I took care of them, but I am certain it was my mother who did the majority of the caregiving and cage cleaning.
That night, when she saved their lives, is etched into my memory like a slow-motion film. My mother was always saving people’s lives, or at least, that was my perception as a child. She worked as a nurse in the local clinic, and walking alongside her through town felt like walking on a red carpet, as every other person we encountered was a patient expressing their gratitude. Every week, she would return home with gifts that people had given her to show their appreciation – gifts presumably for saving their lives.
However, I had never witnessed her heroism firsthand until that night.
It was deep into the darkest hours of the night when I suddenly heard my mother’s screams from the backyard. I sprung out of bed and rushed downstairs to peer through the glass panels of the back door. There, in the middle of the garden, with her bare feet freezing on the dewy grass and the November night’s chill gnawing at her legs, stood my mother in her nightgown. She cradled Cocoa in one arm and Bramble in the other, shouting and forcefully swinging her body to fend off a ferret that had come to hunt our beloved pets – a ferret that was currently latched onto Cocoa’s flesh, its teeth piercing deeply.
The battle seemed to last for hours in the eyes of a drowsy seven-year-old. Finally, my mother emerged victorious: the ferret fled, and Cocoa received the best nursing care in the entire region.
How my mother detected the squeaky turmoil at 2am from her bed on the opposite side of the house remains a mystery to me. I also cannot fathom how she convinced the ferret to release its grip. Regardless, that image of her, with the guinea pigs nestled in her arms, shielding them from the world, is forever ingrained in my mind – much like the way she would hold me every night before bedtime, telling me a story.
To the best of my knowledge, the ferret never returned to feast on our furry friends. However, the guinea pigs eventually passed away… well, they had simply reached the end of their lifespan, I suppose? I hope.
Their departure marked my initial encounter with grief. We meticulously prepared shoebox coffins – an unusual craft project – and constructed a small wooden cross to mark their resting place in the garden patch. To this day, whenever I come across a lush field of clover during a walk, I think of them and the comfort they brought into my life.

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