If you didn’t know better, you might think Jeremy and Tracy Henle have a rodent problem.

At the young couple’s ranch-style home in the Lauderhill neighbourhood in Fort Lauder-dale, Florida, there are four-legged critters in the living room and in two of the three bedrooms. Lately, their numbers have been in the hundreds – 219, to be exact – as of this writing.

But these aren’t unwelcome guests: The Henles, life-long animal lovers, run an at-home guinea pig rescue organisation.

“They let us live here,” joked Jeremy Henle, 32, of the pets. “That’s nice of them.”

Under normal circumstances, the pair host between 70 and 80 guinea pigs through their non-profit, Crazy Cavies Guinea Pig Rescue.

That changed nearly three weeks ago, when they got a call from a woman who could no longer handle the 138 crammed in her Palm Beach County mobile home.

The Henles were quick to act. They made the half-hour drive in a U-Haul, packed the pigs inside and brought them to their home. They found room for them alongside the 80 already there.

“I knew from the beginning we’d be taking them all,” said Tracy Henle, 27. “That’s just how we are. We don’t like to watch them suffer.”

It’s no easy task caring for 200-plus guinea pigs. Especially since the Henles squeeze their Crazy Cavies duties in around full-time jobs: Tracy works as a secretary at the University of Miami; Jeremy is a certified veterinary technician and teaches at Sanford-Brown Institute (a school for health-care workers) in Fort Lauderdale.

Every day, he vacuums poop from the 50 or so cages stacked in the house. Every other day, he scrubs those cages, and every week, he washes the brightly patterned fleece blankets that line them. His wife runs the business-side of things, since she can’t help with up-close-and-personal parts. She loves guinea pigs, but she’s allergic to them.

On a recent weekday, the cleaning process took three hours.

You’d think that with so many animals, the couple would have to deal with some unpleasant smells. But, perhaps as a testament to their cleaning prowess, the only odour in the house is hay, the guinea pigs’ main source of food. The Henles buy it in bulk — about 27kg per week.

They keep the critters in bright, spacious cages labelled with name tags and stocked with other snacks like lettuce and red bell peppers. They’ve noticed the new guys jumping around, a move called “popcorning” they say, which is a sign of happiness.

“Those guinea pigs are treated like royalty,” said Jessica Lang, a guinea pig lover from Miami who pitches in by fostering a few at a time. “There’s something really special about Jeremy and Tracy, because they do so much.”

Jeremy has had a soft spot for the rodents since college, when he bought one at a garage sale and soon found himself taking in six more. When he met Tracy, he said, he introduced her to the “world of guinea pigs” and she was hooked, too.

The Henles shudder at the way their 138 new adoptees were kept before: Crammed eight to 10 per cage, none neutered, some with missing fur and open wounds.

“It was terrible,” Jeremy said. “It was almost like one of those moments when you walk in and you don’t have any words, you know? You’re speechless. You look at the person and you’re just like, ‘How did this happen?’ ”

The former owner told a Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control investigator that she bred and rescued the animals but had fallen upon hard times. Records show the agency paid her a visit on March 12 after an anonymous tipster reported she was a “hoarder” and her home had “faeces, urine and roaches everywhere”.

In the end, the woman asked Crazy Cavies to take the guinea pigs off her hands.

The couple gave each of them a name (among them: Napoleon, Popeye and Lil’ Jon for the boys, and Shirley Temple, Flirt and June Bug for the girls), coming up with nearly 90 before turning to a list of 50 names suggested by a fan of their Facebook page.

Together, the Henles have operated the rescue for seven years, since they moved to South Florida and realised there was nothing like it in the region. It typically takes up just the two bedrooms, which are accented with guinea pig wallpaper and framed pictures of the critters. But the new additions made it necessary to expand to the rest of the house.

“Our parents think we’re crazy,” Jeremy said. “They don’t understand why we rescue guinea pigs instead of dogs and cats.”

It’s a reaction the couple often gets. But they said they do it because no one else does. Cats and dogs get most of the attention at shelters.

Last year, the Henles found homes for 100 guinea pigs. They’ve been especially busy the last few weeks, trying to find people willing to adopt or foster some of the 138.

Plus, that number is growing.

Since the new guinea pigs arrived, one has already given birth, which brought the grand total to 219. And the Henles only expect more from here. – Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service