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   Chinchillas have a history older than that of man. Millions of years ago, when the Andes Mountains of South America were covered with lush, tropical foliage, the timid chinchilla was playing hide and seek with prehistoric creatures that roamed the earth. 

   Over the centuries, the climate of the mountain region changed. The tropical foliage disappeared and gave way to bleak ice and rock. The chinchilla, in a miracle of survival, adapted to its new environment. 

   About 900 A.D., these hardy chinchillas were discovered by a tribe of Indians called Chinchas. These Indians found the inviting warmth and durability of the fur to be the answer to the rigors of their cold mountain climate. 

   In the nineteenth century, chinchilla fur became the most popular fur of the European royalty. The demand for pelts was so great that the animals were hunted with a zeal no less fierce than that with which men fought for gold in the roaring 80's. In 1899 alone, some 440,000 pelts were exported from Chile. The animals were further decimated by foxes, which had been imported from South America for hunting purposes. 

   By 1914 the problem had become so serious that the Chilean government, in an attempt to prevent the animals from becoming extinct, imposed a ban on trapping and exporting chinchillas. Some six years later, however, an American mining engineer named Mathias Chapman received special authorization from the Chilean government to trap a limited number of the animals. Leading an expedition into the Andes Mountains, he succeeded in trapping 11 chinchillas, and these were taken alive to California. From this small beginning- one that probably saved the animals from total extinction- the modern chinchilla industry had its beginning. 

   What is this animal with such a strange history, and why did it compel men to track it down as they did precious stones and minerals? The answer lies in the rare beauty of the fur. The standard gray chinchilla has three distinctive shades. The fur next to the skin is a band of deep slate-blue, followed by a marvelous range of tones from blue-gray to snowy white. The surface of the fur is a veil of cool, icy blue. Chinchillas also appear in beige, varying in shades of black, ebony, sapphire, and, on rare occasion, white. Because each single hair divides into as many as 70 to 80 different strands as it emerges from the skin, the fur has a uniquely dense, soft quality. The unique qualities plus the gentleness of the chinchilla has earned it the reputation of being one of the most beautiful animals in the world. 

HOUSING: Chinchillas are most comfortable in a room temperature of 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They should never be exposed to drafts. Humidity should be around 50 percent.

   Chinchillas are by nature very clean animals, and are easy to care for. Small wire mesh cages, approximately 14" high by 22" long and 12" wide, are usually used with a tray on the bottom to hold 1 1/2" to 2" of pine shavings. The shavings have to be changed every 7 to 10 days. There is no odor to the chinchilla's waste matter. 

DUSTING: Part of their cleanliness is due to the luxurious thickness of their fur and partly because of their favorite sport- the dust bath. Taking a dust bath is a little different for chinchillas than most creatures. Instead of water, they enjoy baths in dust. This helps keep their fur clean and fluffy. There are several types of chinchilla dust, the most common being volcanic lava, white mineral, and brown clay. 

   For show chinchillas, volcanic dust gives the best appearance, but can cause respiratory irritation in humans and chinchillas, and should not be used on a regular basis. White mineral dust is also very irritating. Brown baked clay is less expensive, fully acceptable, and non-irritating to the respiratory system. Fill a container (8" long by 5" wide by 4" high) with about 2" of dust and place it in the cage. They love to roll in dust, cleaning and fluffing their fur. Dusting must take place every day. After 30 minutes, remove the container. If the sand contains droppings, do not throw it away; use a small sieve and sift the droppings out. Then reuse the same sand preparation, adding more as needed.

HANDLING: To pick up your chinchilla, approach it directly, not from the side. Extend your open hand, palm up, from the bottom of the cage. Speak to the chinchilla in a soothing voice. Holding it 2" from the end of the tail, lift it by the tail and cradle it in the crook of your arm. Never apply pressure on their bodies, as their bone structure is extremely delicate. 

FEEDING: The cost of feeding is about a penny a day per animal. Chinchillas are strict vegetarians, requiring only hay and grain pellets for daily feeding. A heaping teaspoon of pellets per day is sufficient. At times, rabbit pellets can be used for a change of diet. Fresh water must be available at all times. Chinchillas like raisins, feed pellets, carrots, timothy or alfalfa hay, soy beans and wheat germ. You may supplement their regular diet by adding two teaspoons of wheat germ once a week. It is also a good practice to occasionally add supplemental vitamins to their diet.. 

   Water bottles must be kept clean at all times. Sterilize the bottles and the stems at least once a week with a brush, hot water, and a few drops of household bleach. Rinse thoroughly. 

   A small block of wood placed in the cage gives the chinchillas something to play with or chew on.


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