Guest Post: A Death in the Family

This past week—on Friday, January 11th, to be exact—we lost a member of our family: Jimmy Stewart, our beloved, bizarre chinchilla. The condition afflicting him is still something of a mystery; the good people at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital are doing an autopsy on him, and we’ll know something in a day or two. All I know is that I took him in to get a fairly routine procedure done—the trimming of his incisors—and he never really recovered from the anesthesia. He was put down shortly afterward.


This post, however, is not meant to dwell on his ailment, or even the very real, devastating fact of his death. It’s just that I feel compelled to tell a few stories about him: how he came into my life, where he’s been with me, and how many fond, sometimes hilarious memories I have of him.


I’m 28 years old—29 in one month—and I got Jimmy when I was about 20. A friend of mine back in Georgia had a chinchilla that had babies, and Jimmy was the last one, something of a runt. I didn’t know a damn thing about chinchillas. I’d seen pictures of them, and I agreed to take him mainly because I thought it might garner me some cool points at college (it did).


I didn’t, at first, know what I was getting into.


The first thing I remember about him is that he was much faster than I’d expected. Ridiculously agile, blindingly quick. He was chill enough to ride around on my shoulder, but would jump from five feet away to the top of the refrigerator without warning. He would scamper up sheer vertical walls nearly a full foot before gravity kicked in. He was a novelty, and I liked having him around.


And then, of course, I grew to love him. He was, as you’d expect, extremely hard to catch hold of, but once you had him, he loved being held close and securely. His whiskers tickled. He twitched a lot.


One of the things I loved best about him was that he didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Anything. When I vacuumed my room—later my apartment, later our apartment—he never cowered, but jumped up on his perch inside his cage and tried to get a better view. When Jack, my mother’s yappy-dog, tried to intimidate him—after being otherwise put in his place by Fritz, our 13-year-old Schnauzer mutt and Otis, our 15-year-old cross-eyed and toothless cat—Jimmy simply charged at Jack from across his cage, sending the intruder scampering back down the stairs to, I assume, reassess his place in the great cosmic pecking order.


My favorite story: one night, Michelle and I came home to the apartment we shared in Milledgeville, GA. We’d just adopted a second cat, Penny, who was only now beginning to understand life outside the shelter. Michelle and I walked in the front door to find a curious scene playing out in front of us. Jimmy had somehow managed to get out of his cage, and was sitting on the floor in the study, chilling out as usual. Penny was hunched at the end of the hall, obviously prepared to pounce at any moment. It took us a minute to see why she didn’t.


Roxy was standing in the doorway to the study, her back to Jimmy, staring Penny down in a manner that clearly, though gently, said “Over my dead body.” It was pretty remarkable. We scooped Jimmy up, re-deposited him in his cage, and had a good laugh. Roxy and Penny too, I like to think.


Jimmy was, by far, the strangest pet I’ve ever had. He was fairly private, but had personality to spare. I was with him when he was only a few months old, I saw him get plump, and I was with him when the vet administered the dose of drugs. He was in no pain at all.


I only have the one picture of him on my phone. It does, though, capture him at his best, though I look kind of like a serial killer. I can think of nothing else he must be doing right now besides, as my sister Sara put it, riding Fritz in heaven like a horse.




RIP, you little bugger.

  1. This was sweet, loved it! – but did not explain something and now I must know: how did he acquire his unusual name?

    • joshr84 said:

      It’s a bit random, actually. One of my dad’s favorite actors is James Stewart, and it just somehow seemed to jive with this little guy’s personality. Plus, I once had a fever dream where he told off Lionel Barrymore, so there’s that.

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