I had no idea I would see so much unintentional yet completely avoidable suffering. Guinea pigs are likely the kids pets and I have found that parents are often hands off. Literally hands off because the adults actually never handle the animal. So what happens is that the children often do not recognize something is wrong until it is too late.
I had the pleasure to interview Saskia Chiesa CEO & Founder of Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue . Saskia was born and raised in the Netherlands but moved to Milan at 17 to pursue a modeling career. Her modelling career first brought her to the U.S. where she pursued TV & film opportunities, including starring in Milli Vanilli’s famed “Blame It on the Rain” music video. Despite her success, Saskia found herself living in America as a single mother, with little money in the bank and no long term career. She became determined to change her path and decided to start her own business. After years of hard work, she founded International Checkout Inc. in 2003 which focuses on international logistics for USA based retailers. The company was featured as an INC. 100 Fastest Growing Company, among other awards, and today has more than 500 merchant partners worldwide. With a successful business, Saskia had a desire to give back. She’d always been an animal lover and supporter of rescues, but she met her first guinea pig here in the US and it was love at first site. She soon realized how little support this animal had in the rescue community and so she founded Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue. The rescue also has its own line of guinea pig accessories created by Saskia called Piggies Choice. Their Annual Fall Festival is happening October 20th on their ranch. It is free for the public and last year they had 400 attendees.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Saskia! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Seventeen years ago I found myself living in America as a single mother, with no money in the bank and no job. At a moment of clarity, I told myself, “Heck no — this is not going to be the life my son and I will be living!”
Determined to get ahead and not become a sad statistic, I spent days and nights figuring out what was going to work as a business and once I figured it out, I worked non-stop to get it going.
But I also wanted to do something besides a regular business so I founded Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue — the largest guinea pig welfare organization in America. I used to be involved in a dog rescue and I learned that there were animal rescues for dogs, cats, bunnies, hamsters and other animals but none for guinea pigs! So I decided to start my own rescue to give back to my little furry friends.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The most interesting thing that happened to me since I started the rescue is realizing that I actually have patience, it was a revelation really! I am by default a most impatient person. I want everything yesterday and get all anxious if I have to wait on something. I think it is a terrible trait to have. Yet when it comes to my guinea pigs, I connect with this zen type personality that I didn’t know existed and am able to just wait or calmly try picking up their little feet that kept being yanked back for the 13+ time to finish a nail trim! Tasks like picking up a skittish guinea pig can be a tough undertaking. If a guinea pig doesn’t want to be picked up, she knows how to avoid capture; they are quite ingenious about it. It was so nice to hear myself giggling and talking to the guinea pig “Wow great job getting away from me… you are so good at not getting caught” while I slowly and calmly following the piggie around the cage. This new found patience is slowly making it into my ever day life as well which I find really interesting.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest things was thinking that I was going to have free time to enjoy the ranch and hang out with the animals when I started. Ha! I don’t know what I was thinking because the ranch and the rescue are my home as well and it is a constant coming and going- seven days a week! My husband and I laugh about that because that has proven to be so far removed from the reality of running the rescue. I guess we have a wacky sense of humor because we think that is funny.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We rescue more than 2,000 guinea pigs every year! The rescue is a no kill private shelter that offers rescue, sanctuary and adoption services for guinea pigs. The guinea pigs are rescued from private homes and from city shelters. Usually 200+ guinea pigs are at our shelter looking for forever homes. We provide a tremendous service to our community. Families that need to give up their animals usually do so with a heavy heart and they are extremely grateful that we are here to provide a soft landing for these innocent little beings.
I also think that there is not one person who visits the ranch that is not touched in one way or another. We advocate kindness and compassion and that is contagious. A lot of people that visit have never really spent any time in an outdoorsy setting with animals. I really enjoy taking folks to meet Pepe and Maria for instance, our 650lbs farm hogs that are the sweetest, silliest and smartest of animals. Their kind is also one of the most brutalized of species, bred to be slaughtered at only six months old. Meeting these two extraordinary giants leaves an indelible mark in the heart of those who meet them and a closer understanding of kindness and compassion for all and the lack thereof.
I am also always amazed at the amount of thank you’s I receive through our social media and Youtube channel; “Thank you so much for teaching me to become a better guinea pig parent” …”I have learned so much from you” …. and “You saved my guinea pig’s life! Without that video on the subject I would never have known what was wrong and not have gotten treatment on time” etc.
There is an unbelievable lack of proper care information on guinea pigs and because of that there is widespread unintentional neglect. Take cage size for instance- the majority of guinea pigs are kept in cages that are much too small. It is one of the more important topics. A Youtube video I published recently entitled “How much cage space do guinea pigs really need” has racked up 121K in views and almost 1000 comments in just six months. I’d like to think that the lives of a lot of guinea pigs has significantly improved and that they live in spacious quarters now as a direct result of this video.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?
Usually there is a good reason why a guinea pig has to be surrendered and often there is a lot of emotion involved. Every single person that surrenders guinea pigs to us are impacted. Most people are apprehensive and a bag of mixed emotions. In the rescue world, there is such stigma attached to giving up a pet and often people are prejudged even though the story behind the surrender is not known. I try to approach every situation and person with kindness. I understand giving up a pet is traumatic for some and I have provided a shoulder to cry on many times. I think people are very touched by the attitude they encounter here. They likely have an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame when they come in and to then be greeted by a friendly face and a kind person goes a long way.
We also have many visitors to the ranch. We offer ranch parties for kids and adults, part of the experience is a “meet and greet” with all the animals we care for here, hearing their stories. Pepe and Maria, our hogs, are great ambassadors of their species. People hear the story of how they came to be rescued and what their fate would have been. People interact with them by giving small pieces of fruits or veggies and are amazed by how daintily and gently these massive pigs retrieve these little morsels. They let you pet them and roll over like a dog for a tummy scratch. After this encounter, the next time they eat bacon, it is highly likely that it is not going to taste the same. A seed was planted in their hearts!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
We encourage new guinea pig owners to adopt instead of purchasing from a pet store since the animals come from huge breeding facilities and many of them are sick when being sold. The rescue has taken in animals purchased at pet stores that suffered from upper respiratory infections, ringworm, lice and mite infections. We would love political support to end the practise of selling animals in pet stores. Pet stores deliberately give out incorrect information. Cage size for instance. People are advised to buy one of the small cages and told that the size is perfectly adequate. A nice compact cage that fits perfectly on the side of a child’s desk or shelf. If stores were more truthful and let people know the actual space requirements for a guinea pig, I believe that many people would not buy the animals.This of course is bad business for the stores who rely on the continuous income stream of selling you the hay, pellets, toys and accessories. I think the guinea pig sales are a loss for the stores but it is the subsequent and repeated purchases of their food and accessories that bring in the revenue. So less guinea pig sales, less money. This needs to change.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
That question will probably have most people digging deep to find an interesting, inspiring and unique answer. The truth is that the cliche is the true answer here for me. “Lead by Example” and “Be the change you want to see.” It sounds a lot easier than it is in reality. This essentially means I have to behave like a perfect role model all the time. But you know, I also have bad days where I want to yell at something or someone. So I catch myself a lot and that is great; it is a constant reminder for me to do better and that then becomes an opportunity for personal growth.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- I wish someone told me that this is a 24-hour job. Work is never done, sick animals don’t do 9–5. It can be exhausting and discouraging. Mornings start at 6am and most of the time I have to stay up way past my bed time to try and get it all done. The emails never stop, I get messages from all over the world of people asking for help with their sick guinea pigs, that has almost become a full time job in and of itself. So time and especially free time is a luxury here.
- I wish someone told me that I would be seeing a lot more sadness than I had thought. Having been involved in dog rescue before I thought I was emotionally prepared to deal with the sad cases I was going to have to deal with but sometimes it is just too much. What we see a lot is animals being surrendered that have been allowed to suffer for many months before as a last resort being handed over to us. There are the skin issues where guinea pigs have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of seizures from scratching the skin raw to such severely infected paws that you have to wear a mask to protect yourself from the smell. Guinea pigs are likely the kids pets and I have found that parents are often hands off. Literally hands off because the adults actually never handle the animal. So what happens is that the children often do not recognize something is wrong until it is too late. I had no idea I would see so much unintentional yet completely avoidable suffering.
- I wish someone told me how tough it is to raise enough money to pay the feed and vet bills every month. So much effort goes into fundraising and it seems that it never is enough. There is so much more I want to do, new initiatives that will change the lives of thousands of piggies worldwide, not just the ones locally! One of the big ticket items on my list is to open the worlds first vet clinic dedicated to the care of just one species, the guinea pig. It will be a low cost community clinic as well as a teaching hospital where veterinarians from all over the world can come and learn. Surprisingly little is known about guinea pig diseases and currently there is no research undertaken to further experience and knowledge in this field. It is time!
- I wish someone told me that Chatsworth is the hottest place in the valley. Being from Holland, I am not used to the hot weather in South California. Even after all these years, I am still not used to it and feel half as productive when it is hot then when it is cool. I love winter, the rain, the clouds, grey sky… yes, I know I am weird!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Plant Based Diet for a New Earth. Listen, aside from the obvious that a meat and dairy diet is bad for the animals and bad for the environment and of equal importance it is bad for your spiritual growth. You will agree with me that most people want “love and light”, positivity and loving energies in their life. A meat and dairy diet is the opposite of that. I remember that day 25 years ago that I consciously chose to never eat meat again, it was like the heavens opened up and bathed me in this loving light. I felt so liberated and filled with love. Peace does begin on your plate.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“May all that have life be delivered from suffering.”
Even as a child, this quote resonated with me. Because every being does have this RIGHT. Imagine that everyone in the world were to recognize this and ask themselves, will beings suffer as a consequence of my actions? I think it is the foundation of a better world. Real change would happen
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Jane Goodall — she spent 50 years in the jungle, 50 years! Researching and living in the Tanzania jungle and successfully advocating for Chimpanzees. Not much was known about these animals at the time, she dedicated her life and still does. At the age of 85 she travels 300 days of the year in service of her beloved animal friends.
“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference.”
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