Why Filmmakers Gave Guinea Pigs Their Own Documentary

Fun fact: They make 26 unique sounds that humans can hear.

Winners at a guinea pig show in Germany
Winners at a guinea pig show in Germany.

Suzanne Mitchell

Little creatures with oversized personalities, guinea pigs are funny, curious, and make all sorts of interesting noises. So fascinated with these curious pint-sized pets, film directors (and guinea pig owners) Olympia Stone and Suzanne Mitchell teamed up to make a documentary about them.

Premiering now at this year’s San Francisco DocFest through June 20 and streaming online, "Guinea Pig Diaries" looks at the lives of guinea pigs and their relationships with the people who love them. It looks at those who rescue them, breed them, and show them in competitions 

The film was made in partnership with KAVEE, a company that sells specialized guinea pig products including cages and fleece cage liners. 

Filmmakers Stone and Mitchell spoke to Treehugger about guinea pigs, their advocates, and making the film.

Treehugger: Both of you brought guinea pigs home right about the same time. What were your early experiences like and what prompted you to turn guinea pig life into a documentary?

Suzanne Mitchell: I have had animals as pets my entire life. Dogs, cats, birds, fish, hamsters, rabbits, ducks, chickens, and even an African pygmy hedgehog but I never had a guinea pig. When my husband and I adopted our guinea pig, Hubert, we found him sitting alone in a Petco store on the cashier conveyor belt. Someone had returned him and by law, they were not allowed to resell him so I asked if I could adopt him. 

When he came home, we quickly realized he was unlike any of the other rodents I had owned—he was funny, curious, up during the daytime, loved all veggies, and most of all he made all of these strange noises. The squeaks and purrs and chatter were so endearing my husband David actually became very attached to Hubert and built him a run around in our bedroom where he could popcorn and run. Popcorning was another thing we learned about guinea pigs. It's this funny jump and spin they do when they are excited.  He was free to run in our bedroom—away from our dogs and cat—because we wanted to keep him safe from animals whose basic hunting instincts could have harmed him.

Olympia Stone: Suzanne and I discovered on a film shoot that we both owned guinea pigs. I bought two for my daughter’s birthday and was immediately charmed by them. As we were exchanging stories about our piggies, we both realized how fun it would be to make a film about them—for such little creatures, their personalities are definitely oversized and they are just so funny with their noises and quirks! Plus we had a strong hunch that there would be some interesting guinea pig-lover subcultures to investigate in a film. 

baby guinea pigs
Baby guinea pigs.

Suzanne Mitchell

You say guinea pigs are special and misunderstood. Why are they special? Yet why are they misunderstood?

Mitchell: Guinea pigs are special because of their size and demeanor. They can become very attached and call for you when you leave the room. They are unlike hamsters, gerbils, mice, and rats, and even rabbits, yet many people confuse them for these more common rodents. They do not stay up at night spinning on a hamster wheel, they are born with all their fur, and unlike other rodents, they make 26 unique sounds that are audible to humans. Their diets must be taken into consideration when purchasing or adopting a guinea pig: Timothy Hay and pellets are important to keep their teeth filed since their teeth continue to grow, and they must have fresh fruits and vegetables each and every day.

They are misunderstood because so often parents purchase these for their children and do not realize the work involved in feeding the animal and cleaning the cage. Then the novelty for the child wears off and the child becomes active with school, friends, and activities, and the pig is left by itself. A lonely guinea pig is very sad. In countries like Switzerland, it is illegal to own just one and considered cruel and punishable by law. Guinea pigs are herd animals and do much better in pairs or several groups where they can play and speak to one another. But buyer beware—make sure you are not bringing in an unneutered male with a female otherwise there will be many babies to contend with. 

Stone: Guinea pigs are special because they are so vulnerable—they literally have no way to defend themselves other than running away and hiding underneath something. I personally feel extra protective of them for this reason and I suspect a lot of other guinea pig owners feel the same way. I think they are misunderstood because they are often not taken seriously as a real pet the way a dog or cat is—and they are also frequently confused with hamsters and gerbils—and they really are so different!

Where did you start when you began exploring the world of these critters?

Mitchell: We started everywhere and anywhere. The internet became our best friend when researching and looking for stories of individuals who shared a passion and understanding of guinea pigs.

Stone: We definitely started with open minds and cast a wide net searching for good stories and people to interview.

Ian Cutmore, his dad, and Tubs, the guinea pgi
Ian Cutmore and his dad with Tubs, the guinea pig.

Suzanne Mitchell.

How far did you travel? What sorts of people did you meet?

Mitchell and Stone: We traversed Europe and found great characters and their beloved guinea pigs. In Austria we filmed a guinea pig show (think Westminster Dog Show but for guinea pigs); we went to Freiburg, Germany where we met a popular blogger named Julia who has a thriving YouTube channel called “Little Adventures,” and later we met a woman named Petra who runs a large guinea pig fair in Munich. Petra introduced us to Alex, a flight attendant who found solace in breeding guinea pigs and who convinced his husband to purchase a larger home with outside stables for all of his show pigs. 

From Germany, we went to the U.K. where we met Ian Cutmore of Norwich, who, while caring for his dad who was suffering from dementia, started a guinea pig hotel for people who needed a reputable source to watch over their guinea pigs when they went on holiday. While in the U.K., we interviewed Dr. Anne McBride from Southampton University. McBride has long studied the human-guinea pig connection and offered us fascinating insight into understanding what life is actually like from this little animal’s point of view. McBride’s interview was so informative and helpful that we chose to weave her interview throughout the film. 

We also went to Holland to meet Sylvia, a woman that runs an international rescue organization called Stichting Cavia. Back in North America, we visited with another social media influencer named Abby who introduced us to the unconditional love of owning pet skinny pigs—a special and unique breed of guinea pigs. And finally, we went to Los Angeles to visit the largest rescue in North America, LA Guinea Pig Rescue. Here we were able to film “bromancing”—the art of finding a friend for a lone male guinea pig. 

Saskia Chiesa, founder of Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue
Saskia Chiesa, founder of Los Angeles Guinea Pig Rescue.

Suzanne Mitchell

What were you most surprised to find about them and the people who loved them?

Mitchell: Unbeknownst to us when we set off on these film shoots, we discovered it was the guinea pig who wound up rescuing the person from some dramatic life event. In almost every story we captured, a sorrowful experience opened the door to a guinea pig coming into their life—not only winning their affection but helping to heal them in the process. 

Stone: I think it's always surprising to meet people who own and/or take care of not just one but tens and sometimes hundreds of guinea pigs—when just having one or two is a lot of work! But seriously, what Suzanne said about guinea pigs healing their owners is so true—and it is a real theme in the film.

How do guinea pigs and their people compare versus the other subjects you’ve filmed?

Mitchell and Stone: Guinea pig owners, breeders, aficionados are wonderful spirited individuals who, like many people we have filmed throughout our years directing and producing documentaries, opened their hearts and homes to our cameras. Many of the folks we interviewed and spent time with were surprised and honored that these little pets they love so much were finally getting the attention of a feature documentary film that would celebrate these endearing creatures.

What do you hope non-guinea pig people might take away from this film?

Stone: Ultimately, I think this film is a celebration of the human-animal bond, its importance in our lives, and what it can teach us about ourselves and one another. During the pandemic, the importance of pets and having that connection seemed to take on even greater importance. This film is a reminder of that special relationship—not just with guinea pigs, but with any animal.

Guinea Pigs and the Pandemic

judging guinea pigs in Germany
Judging best in show in Munich, Germany.

Suzanne Mitchell

Mitchell and Stone point out the documentary was shot prior to the pandemic, but the rescues who were part of the film have been rescuing unwanted animals for decades. Now, they’re faced with even greater challenges.

Earlier this year, Kavee coordinated a survey with a dozen U.S.-based guinea pig rescues, asking about the effects of COVID-19 on the adoption and fostering of guinea pigs. Some animal shelters have reported pandemic pets have been returned, although statistics don't show that it's happening in large numbers.

The guinea pig survey “revealed that after a major increase in guinea pig adoptions last year (largely due to quarantine), rescues are experiencing a concerning number of guinea pig surrenders,” Clementine Schouteden, founder of Kavee, tells Treehugger. 

One respondent, Wee Companions Small Animal Adoption, Inc. in San Diego, said they were on track to have a record number of guinea pig returns this year.

To help ease the burden, Kavee is offering financial support and awareness through a Rescue of the Month program. 

“As the US opens up and more people go back to work, some are finding it difficult to have the time to care for their pets,” Schouteden says. “Contrary to popular beliefs, even small pets like guinea pigs require a daily time commitment. They are not low-maintenance pets. Their cage needs to be cleaned every other day for example.”