SIDNEY — Marianne Sansouci’s interest in chinchillas started, oddly enough, with guinea pigs.

“My daughter’s friend got guinea pigs, and she was talking about them and was just enamored with them. I couldn’t stomach the idea,” said Sansouci, recalling the moment in 2008. She went looking for alternatives, eventually settling on a chinchilla. It died two months later.

Driven by curiosity and perhaps some guilt, Sansouci began researching what went wrong. “I had no information about it,” she said. “I fed it what the previous owner had fed it and it was off.” 

For Kate Spicer, a biologist working with Sansouci, it was when her daughter asked her for a tarantula in 2017. 

“My daughter wanted a tarantula, which, at the time in Maine, was a double-permitted species (needing two permits to own), and I was working on my thesis and I said ‘I don’t want to mess with any more paperwork, thank you.’ My husband also said that if (my daughter) gets a tarantula, ‘I get a shotgun, and those things are related,’ so that was out. 

Marianne Sansouci of the Maine Chinchilla Ranch holds a chinchilla recently in the barn of the ranch in Sidney. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“I printed out a list of pets allowed here in Maine and she said ‘Ooh chinchillas!’ and I was like ‘What?! What’s a chinchilla?’ No way we’re gonna find that in Maine. (But) it was 20 minutes away. We came to Marianne and started to learn about chinchillas. The first time (Marianne) held one by the tail I had a kitten.”

After growing to love the animal, Spicer, who also has a background in ecology, became interested in learning more about them. 

Today, Sansouci and Spicer are a lab-coat-clad team that make up Maine Chinchilla Ranch and Shelter. Located in the garage of Sansouci’s Sidney home, colony-style cages span almost the entirety of the space, organized like bookshelves with aisles in between. 

Each cage is large enough for multiple chinchillas and filled with hay and pumice dust, which they routinely bathe in. 

Chinchillas are mammals native to the Andes mountains, exclusive to countries including Bolivia, Peru, Argentina and Chile. The wood-chewing mammals are crepuscular, making them most active at dawn and dusk, and their diet mainly consists of hay and hay-based pellets; their digestive systems being closest to that of a horse.

They are borough-dwelling animals in the wild that don’t need much space; in fact, they are happiest in smaller, more claustrophobic environments. 

Because they are used to an arid, desert-type climate and lack the ability to sweat through their thick fur, the garage is kept at 70 degrees or below so the chinchillas don’t overheat.

The ranch focuses on professional breeding and research, while also sheltering pets and providing adoption services. Sansouci’s and Spicer’s goal is to breed out undesirable qualities of the species. 

Biologist Kathleen Spicer holds a chinchilla last week while leading a class over Zoom at the Maine Chinchilla Ranch in Sidney. The class focused on chinchilla care and behavior. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“We try to work against some genetic problems,” Spicer said. “They’re such a small gene pool because all the millions of chinchillas throughout the world are descended from 12 individuals, almost 99 years ago in captivity.”

In 1923, American engineer Mathias Chapman brought 12 chinchillas from Chile to California with the intention of breeding them for their fur, creating the first chinchilla farm in the United States. Nearly all chinchillas in America are descended from this stock. 

The chinchillas bred at the ranch are show quality.

According to Sansouci, the “wedgy,” ratty looking fur of some chinchillas can be bred out by selecting those with smoother, deeper-colored coats. Similarly, the pelvis of each female is measured prior to breeding, as smaller, more narrow pelvises can put the offspring and the mother at risk during birth. 

But the animals chosen are few and far between. “We breed, but it’s very low (numbers), females never more than twice a year, and really, it’s about the science, it’s about the benefit of better quality animals,” Spicer safe. 

Marianne Sansouci of the Maine Chinchilla Ranch holds a chinchilla Wednesday while using a comb to groom the animal in the barn of the ranch in Sidney. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Due to overhunting for their fur, wild chinchillas have become nearly extinct, although domesticated chinchillas are still bred for their fur. There are two variations of chinchillas: short-tailed and long-tailed. The former has been the predominant species hunted for their fur to the point of near extinction. The latter are most commonly found as house pets, and aside from their tail length, differ from their cousins in that they have thinner bodies and larger ears. 

What most people don’t realize when they get a chinchilla is the amount of knowledge needed to properly take care of it, the two experts said.

The Maine Chinchilla Ranch is leading the way in education worldwide, according to Spicer, providing new and pertinent information for pet owners, veterinarians and scientists from France, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who have reached out for help. 

“There’s always some little thing with nutrition or behavior,” said Sansouci, who is the ranch’s animal caregiver and adoption specialist. 

Marianne Sansouci of the Maine Chinchilla Ranch holds a chinchilla last week in the barn of the ranch in Sidney. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

In addition to offering classes, the ranch provides a rescue service for chinchillas that can no longer be taken care of or that need temporary shelter.

“When we get chins that are surrendered, we put them in quarantine,” Sansouci said. “After a month or two, they can come out, when they’re calmed down and they’ve been tested and cleared of giardia, strep and staph, anything that can be contagious to humans, and after we know that they’re healthy and they’re ready to be a good pet, because some of them come in and they’re afraid of all people, so we help them calm down. We teach them that it’s safe to be with humans and that humans are good.” 

Spicer’s research with malocclusion — when teeth are misaligned, resulting in incorrect positioning of the jaws — has been a notable aspect of the ranch’s research. They collect skulls of maloccluded animals to determine signifying characteristics. Drooling is usually a sign of a genetic malocclusion problem.

Most often, chinchillas diagnosed with malocclusion will have to be put down. 

A chinchilla takes a dust bath recently in the barn of the Maine Chinchilla Ranch in Sidney. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“It’s the humane thing to do,” Sansouci said. “We get about six to eight a year that are surrendered for euthanasia.” This statistic also includes pets that have fallen ill or sustained serious injuries. 

Chinchillas are typically sensitive. If dropped from chest height, they could dislocate a bone or break a tooth or be fatally injured. 

As pets, chinchillas are known to be sociable and calm, albeit with proper training. “They’re very sweet companion animals,” Sansouci said.

“My personal theory is that there are no irredeemable chins,” Spicer said. “They can be slow if they’re not well socialized. You have to have patience with them. That’s why we often say if you’re going to get an animal, especially a chinchilla, come to somebody like us. You can come in here and ask at any time where this animal is, or ‘what is this animal like?’  Then I can tell you, because we interact with them, we hold them, we make sure that they’re well taken care of.” 

For more information about the Maine Chinchilla Ranch and Shelter, visit www.mainechinchillaranch.com/ or Sansouci’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/MaineChinchillas.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.