A life in care

How Hartley Holder founded the only guinea pig rescue in the country.

Written by      

Becki Moss

Trixie, the Abyssinian guinea pig, lived in a pet store in Auckland. Though she was for sale, she attacked everyone who tried to touch her. The staff were at a loss. Trixie was about to be put down.

Trixie bit Hartley Holder, too, at first, but the girl, then 13, took her home regardless. Trixie gentled over time, and stopped Hartley’s other guinea pigs picking on little white Precious, who was blind and deaf.

Shortly after adopting Trixie, Hartley spotted another guinea pig on TradeMe. It was being kept in a wire birdcage with no hay. Its long fleecy hair was matted; it had mites and ringworm. Hartley took the guinea pig home, shaved it, applied a mite treatment to its shoulders, and rubbed antifungal ointment onto its sore patches.

And as she did all that, Hartley noticed something: she was feeling a little bit better, too.

She had been severely depressed for a long time. She struggled with social interactions, anxiety. School was, in a word, “difficult”. Speeches were a nightmare. At swimming sports, she knew everyone could see the scars from cutting. In class she worried, always, that her opinions were not the “correct” ones.

But the guinea pigs helped. “It was kind of a way for me to focus on something other than my own struggles,” she says. And so Auckland Cavy Care began.

Twelve years on, Hartley, now 25, estimates more than 2000 animals have come through the rescue she and her mum Raylene set up at their home in Mount Roskill. Today, they have in their care: three ex-battery chickens, three dogs, seven cats, five chinchillas, 46 rabbits, and 153 guinea pigs. Some of those are the family’s pets, others are just stopping over. But most are in need of good homes.

Hartley, her partner Cameron, and Raylene share the load. They spend a lot of time driving to pick up dumped animals, or to vet appointments. Just cleaning out the cages takes about 32 hours a week, they reckon, plus three hours at the laundromat churning through 160 kilograms of towels and blankets.

Hartley spends hours each day on the computer, coordinating pickups and fosters and adoptions. Fending off the well-meaning but misguided is a significant part of her work. Many people who’d like to adopt a guinea pig are not set up for it. Sometimes, all Hartley’s questions and checks are not enough. The rescue is very clear that they’ll always take “their” animals back if necessary, but some people don’t ask for help. One trio of female guinea pigs (Snap, Crackle and Pop) turned up on TradeMe covered in dried mud. Pop was blind in one eye, likely from an injury that didn’t get treatment.

“It’s difficult having to trust people,” Hartley says.

Other would-be adoptees balk at the fee. “What they don’t see is the vet bills and the food and the money and the time. People accuse us of making money and we’re like, ‘Ah, no.’”

Initially, Raylene spent her own money on the rescue. She still handles the financial paperwork, and has set the rescue up as a charity. They receive donations, and apply for grants for significant bills like desexing and maintenance. There’s no salary in it, for anyone. While Hartley was studying—applied science, and animal management and welfare, at Unitec—she also worked, at a cattery and various vet clinics. She’s worked in a lab caring for animals used for medical testing (a non-disclosure agreement means she can’t talk about it). For a while, she looked after the menagerie at Unitec’s small-animal unit.

Hartley was diagnosed autistic at 14, and still finds the people side of running the rescue difficult. She can manage a few hours running a stall at the Pet Expo. She can make a speech about the rescue. “When it’s something that I really care about, I kind of just push through.”

She’s also extremely efficient. She plans, organises. It helps her stay calm.

But life, of course, is a barrage of curveballs. Three years ago Hartley took a call from the council. Staff were clearing a rundown property of rabbits; could the rescue help? That first day she brought home more than 50. A litter of babies arrived overnight. Very soon the rescue had 100 rabbits, and the council was still catching more. All up, more than 300 rabbits have come through the rescue, from just that one property.

Other times, Hartley is called to pick up dumped guinea pigs. Usually this happens once or twice a year; this year, she’s already had five or six “strandings”. Maybe these guinea pigs are lockdown pets and people’s circumstances have changed, Hartley thinks. Maybe it’s the fact that so many Auckland gardens devolved into mud pits this winter.

And then there are the surprises that change your life. Eight weeks ago Hartley gave birth to Ollie. It was a traumatic birth—she needed an emergency C-section, and woke up from the anaesthetic in a recovery room, with no baby. She burst into tears. It still hurts. “I know Ollie doesn’t care who held him first,” she says. “But it just felt like that was kind of taken away.”

The two of them spent Ollie’s first few weeks in hospital.

But now it’s spring. The claggy Auckland winter is behind us; berms and back gardens are flush with fodder—long grass, groundsel, dandelions. Ollie is well, and Hartley is grateful, and tired, and optimistic. Caring is something she knows how to do.