BOOKS: The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2009:

The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter
by Holly Robinson
Random House (1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019),
2009. 304 pages $23.00, hardcover.

Publisher’s Weekly says that author Holly Robinson
“intersperses her compelling narrative with accounts of gerbil
mayhem, managing to milk a great deal of humor and pathos out of the
rodent that eventually became a common children’s pet.”
Gassing “extra inventory” as her father, Navy commander and
gerbil farmer Donald Robinson calls the victims, is not my idea of
compelling. Rather, it is disturbing and cruel–and so is much of
the rest of Holly Robinson’s account.
Holly Robinson grew up around pets, but how her family
treated them was questionable even by the standards of her childhood
in the 1960s and 1970s.

A fox terrier, Tip, was kept chained, and was sold when
Navy commander Robinson transferred to another post. Years later the
family adopted a shelter dog. For misbehaving, he too ended up on a
chain, instead of in a behavior class.
The Robinson family bred goats. Holly’s younger brother
Donald ornamented his bedroom with a goat’s skull, “with a couple of
Ping-Pong balls painted bright green glued into the eye sockets.”
A pair of horned toads “eventually starved to death because
we didn’t ever manage to feed them the right mealworms and they
wouldn’t eat anything else.”
The Robinsons’ parents debated “the pros and cons of raising
lizards.” Mrs. Robinson opposed the idea. They once had an iguana.
To scrimp on electricity, Mrs. Robinson turned off the iguana’s heat
lamp. “The air-conditioning froze Mr. Green Jeans to death right on
his sleeping branch,” Holly Robinson remembers.
That left gerbils. Commander Robinson raised gerbils by the
thousands in Kansas, Virginia, and Massachusetts, selling them to
pet stores and laboratories. He wrote and lectured extensively about
gerbils, too.
Before he turned to gassing “excess inventory,” he drowned
unlucky gerbils in a nearby lake. Holly Robinson tried to save a
crook-tailed gerbil named Kinky, but does not seem overly concerned
that her father “did everything he could to induce seizures in
gerbils,” such as shining lights at them and holding them upside
down. Discovering that gerbils can be bred to suffer epileptic
seizures made Commander Robinson the world’s largest supplier of
gerbils for biomedical research.
The business exploded in 1969, when the family bought a
remote farm in rural Massachusetts. “It’s pretty much like
propagating seeds. You just put the gerbils in a box and watch them
grow,” said Commander Robinson.
On page 35 Robinson mentions that, “As we waited for the
sailors and Marines to board the ship, Donald, Gail and I pelted
rocks at the jellyfish that flowered blue and purple in the water
below the pier.”
Younger sister Gail died of cystic fibrosis at age four.
Neglect and abuse of animals often follows a family loss, but in the
case of this family the pattern appears to have already been
After his retirement from the Navy, Commander Robinson sold
the gerbil business to a large New England research lab. What labs
do to gerbils is also often disturbing and cruel. But it is not
passed off as humor.
–Debra J. White

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