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Chinchilla History: Where They Come From, When They Became Pets, & More!

Grey chinchilla Bath in a bowl

Chinchillas are among the cutest of pet rodents, with an impossibly soft coat that makes them irresistible to the touch. Unfortunately, that same plush fur nearly spelled doom for the chinchilla hundreds of years ago. If you ever wondered where chinchillas are from and how they came to become such beloved pets, you’ve come to the right place!

In this article, we’ll learn the history of the chinchilla, how they nearly disappeared from the wild and how they were saved. We’ll also learn more about the chinchilla as a pet and some fun facts about these rodents.

divider-chinchillaWhere Are Chinchillas From?

Chinchillas hail from the mighty Andes Mountains of South America. Their original range included the countries of Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Argentina. There are two species of wild chinchillas, the long-tailed and short-tailed chinchillas.

Wild chinchillas live in higher elevations among dry, rocky habitats. They make their homes in burrows or rock crevices, forming colonies of up to 100 rodents. Wild chinchillas rely on their famous fur coats to keep them warm in their harsh native lands.

fluffy gray chinchilla runs in a wheel in its cage
Image Credit: rossiaa33, Shutterstock

Chinchillas In Danger

Chinchilla fur has been worn by the native people of the Andes for centuries. During the 16th century, after Europeans also discovered the rodents with beautiful coats, chinchilla fur became part of the international fur trade. By the early 20th century, wild chinchillas were nearly extinct due to hunting and trapping for their fur.

Although Chile and other neighboring countries attempted to protect the remaining wild chinchillas, they were considered extinct for a period of the mid-twentieth century. Wild populations were rediscovered in the 1970s but wild chinchillas remain endangered and hunting is banned. Chinchilla fur is still popular but now the animals are bred in captivity for this purpose.

When Chinchillas Became Pets

The major history of chinchillas as pets begins with an American called Mathias Chapman who acquired a pet chinchilla while working in Chile. Charmed by his new companion, he decided he wanted to try and bring chinchillas back to America to breed as pets. After receiving permission from the government, he eventually brought 11 wild long-tailed chinchillas back with him in the 1920s.

Mr. Chapman established the first major chinchilla breeding operation in America, primarily raising the animals for fur and sale to other interested breeders. As the number of breeders and chinchillas became more established, the rodents began to be sold as pets as well, starting around the mid-1960s. Nearly all pet chinchillas today can be traced back to the original Chapman chinchillas.

Chinchilla in pink bathtub
Image Credit: MirasWonderland, Shutterstock

What Is It Like Keeping a Pet Chinchilla?

As pets, chinchillas are energetic, shy, and gentle. They can be cuddly and learn to enjoy human interaction but only with diligent socialization and handling from an early age. Chinchillas do not make the best pets for kids because they can be high-strung and don’t tolerate rough handling.

Keeping a pet chinchilla healthy requires a moderate level of care. They prefer a multi-level habitat with places to climb and hide, bedding, and an exercise wheel to burn off energy. Chinchillas should eat a diet of pellets, hay, and small amounts of fresh vegetables and fruit.

Like many other rodents, chinchillas’ teeth grow constantly and they need access to safe chew objects to keep them in check. Chinchillas also need to take dust baths about twice a week to keep their thick coats healthy.

Chinchillas are usually same-sex aggressive and should be kept by themselves. Sometimes one male and one female can live together. They can’t tolerate heat well and should avoid temperature extremes.

Fun Facts About Chinchillas

  • Chinchillas can jump up to 5 feet in the air.
  • A chinchilla’s defense mechanism is to release large patches of fur when grabbed, allowing them to escape while leaving their enemy with a mouthful of hair.
  • A chinchilla’s red blood cells hold more oxygen than other rodents, an adaptation that allows them to thrive living in thinner, high-altitude air.
  • Chinchillas are thought to have the thickest fur of any land animal. They can have 50 or more hairs growing from a single hair follicle. In comparison, humans only have 2 or 3 hairs.
  • Both species of chinchillas are endangered in the wild but short-tailed chinchillas are considered critically endangered.

divider-chinchilla

Conclusion

Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed learning some history and facts about the adorable chinchilla. Maybe you’re now inspired to look into getting one for your very own. Before you get swept away by the cute face of a chinchilla, however, make sure you’re prepared to care for one. Chinchillas can live as long as 8-10 years in the wild, sometimes even longer in captivity.

They may come from rugged terrain but pet chinchillas can be surprisingly delicate. Do your research first to ensure you can provide your chinchilla with the best quality of life before accepting the responsibility of owning one.


Featured Image Credit: Barbashova Sveta, Shutterstock

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