Animal Engagement – the magical Guinea pig!

Not long ago, I was contacted by Mary Bermingham, of the Burren Nature Sanctuary in County Galway, Ireland, inviting me to talk about how I became a ‘nature educator’ for the podcast she set up in response to the first lockdown in Ireland.  Mary is clearly a very energetic and driven person, and apparently cannot be idle, as she also wrote and published a book during the enforced closure of the Nature Sanctuary: first on Kindle and then, due to its enthusiastic reception and reviews, as a paperback hard copy.

I had a lot of fun talking with Mary.  Her questions, although simple and straightforward, led to something of a life review – and I got to share lots of my personally significant books in response to a question about ‘your favourite nature book’.  Folks who know me will guess that I wasn’t able to restrict my choice to only one; so I selected a key book that had a lot of influence on my journey with nature for each decade of my life in playing, studying, educating and mothering with the outdoors!  (You will have to listen to our conversation if you want to know what those were).

Mary’s aim with the Nature Magic: A positive voice for nature podcasts is to share the stories and inspiration of “influential people, all working hard to to create environmental awareness”.  This includes a strand on nature educators (Michelle Lawton and Professor David Sobel in the USA, Dr Paddy Madden in Ireland, and Dr Clare Warden and me in the UK, with more to come), but also ranges widely in the environmental and animal world.  She says,

“The decision to speak publicly was hard.  I had no experience as an interviewer.  It was very scary but incredibly rewarding.  The conversations needed to be had, and the voices needed to be heard”.

Mary’s work in visioning and developing the Burren Nature Sanctuary itself, along with the charismatic assistance of Emilia the Juliana micro pig, and her determined, imaginative responses to a year of closure with no income from visitors, is a fantastic example of resilience, optimism and positive thinking that is rippling out into the wider world.  I think she deserves a dandelion badge!

Her book, Nature Magic: how you can engage everyone with biodiversity, is great fun to read, with lots of lively short sections, things they have learned from running the sanctuary, and excerpts from the Nature Lover interviews.  Her post for this week’s ECO blog provides a flavour of her style and enthusiasm for connecting children with the living world.  I’m very much looking forward to visiting the stunning Burren landscape, seeing Mary in real life and meeting the famous Emilia when travel is once more possible.

Animal Engagement – the magical Guinea pig! by Mary Bermingham

All children love animals, and they are great teachers.  Animal engagement is a fast track to a passion for the natural world.  Their behaviour is not only fascinating but also encourages mindfulness and instils empathy.  Since lockdown I have been hosting the podcast ‘Nature Magic- a positive voice for nature from Ireland’ and every single guest has told me the powerful impact that animals have had on their lives.  Encounters in childhood often leading these people to a life of service to the environment.

The top starter animal for a interaction with little people is the Guinea pig!  They are kind and easy to manage.  People often make the mistake of getting a pet rabbit for children.  Rabbits are fabulous but they have extremely strong, blade like back claws for digging and escaping predators.  If a rabbit decides to hop out of a child’s arms it can leave deep scratches.  The child screams and the experience is traumatic on both sides.  Rabbits can live for ten to fifteen years – long after the children have disappeared to college!

Guinea pigs, however, are very user friendly!  They quickly learn to sit happily in one spot.  They do not bite (unless you jam your finger into one’s mouth, in which case he might think it’s worth tasting) and they have small claws.

I always start an engagement session using positive instructions such as :

“What kind of vegetable does your finger look like?”

“A carrot!”


“What would happen if you put a carrot in a Guinea pig’s mouth?”

“They would eat it.”


They soon get the idea!

It is easy to show the smallest child how to pet a Guinea pig properly.  And it is quite possible to have a handling session with a large group of toddlers.

All you need is a few squares of old carpet:

  • Place the carpet on the child’s lap.
  • Place the guinea pig on the carpet.
  • Take the child’s hands and place one on the back of the Guinea pig to keep her steady.
  • Place the other hand on top of the Guinea pig’s head.
  • Show them how to gently stroke the Guinea pig in the direction of the fur.

It is especially fun to see how happy the animal is, gently buzzing with pleasure as it gets a lovely massage.  The children are surprised when the guinea pig vibrates.  They think he is afraid until you explain that this noise is like purring for a cat,

What you will need:

  • a pair of guinea pigs – either 2 females or 2 neutered males,
  • a cage,
  • shavings,
  • hay,
  • a feed bowl and
  • a drinker

Guinea pigs are happy to be left for a couple of days without attention if they have a good supply of food and water.  They must be cleaned out once a week.  They will live from 3-6 years.  They would be happy in a classroom.

The key to successful interaction is never to feed the guinea pigs at play time.

For more information on care of Guinea pigs and to find out all about my second favourite animal for young children to interact with – the goat – see my new book, (best seller on Kindle release in 2020) now available in print:  Nature Magic – How you can engage everyone with biodiversity.  This book also has sections on nature activities for children and on how to run school nature tours.

Find out what the fairies get up to at Burren Nature Sanctuary and how they too care for the planet in my book for children, ‘DUST, An Irish Fairy Tale
Check out the Burren Nature Sanctuary website 
Find us on Instagram Facebook and Twitter
Connect with Mary at

The RSPCA provides information on taking good care of Guinea pigs and you might also be interested in their blog post 8 Reasons why you should adopt a rescue guinea pig – Adopt Not Shop

You might also be interested in the book Connecting Animals and Children in Early Childhood by Patty Born Solly (Redleaf Press 2014)

All images are copyright Mary Bermingham, Burren Nature Sanctuary and must not be used without written permission from the photographer or Early Childhood Outdoors.


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