DETROIT (AP) -- Former autoworker Ralph Rodentia had always kept a few guinea pigs around the house for his kids to play with while he earned a big salary working on the General Motors assembly line.
But after being laid off and facing a grinding life of welfare and foods stamps, his rodent population started exploding last December. Now his family has 22,000 guinea pigs in pens throughout his house and in the backyard. Every month the family brings another 7000 or more to market.
Rodentia's family is among the growing 26,000 households in Michigan trying to keep themselves from poverty and hunger by breeding the furry creatures for local markets. His operation is now a full-time occupation and it has already doubled his former income as an autoworker.
"The money pays for my 13-year-old boy's private schooling," he explains, as well as for the increasing costs of health and dental care and general living for his entire family. He is now planning on opening a restaurant with the help of a generous business development grant.
"The kids took awhile to get used to the idea of guinea pig ranching," he admits. "But they adapted."
And like thousands of other rural mid-westerners who've turned to guinea-pigs, the families are boosting their earnings further by supplying the South American guinea-pig market. But these guinea pigs aren't pets. They are lunch and dinner.
Guinea-pig meat is already highly popular in the US thanks to immigration from Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
Agricultural economists say increasing exports of guinea pig meat, which is widely eaten in the Andean region, could take a big bite out of poverty here in Michigan as well as in South America.
Today, guinea pigs have become the main protein source in Detroit and throughout the state since laid off autoworkers can no longer afford such staples as beef, chicken, veal and fish, which are now delicacies.
Detroit families that don't breed their own can order the favorite guinea pig dish at local restaurants. Or, they can buy the meat frozen at grocery stories, or choose from thousands of live specimens at open-air markets. Michigan already consumes about 650 million guinea pigs a year.
"Even the poorest family can afford to raise guinea pigs," says Gloria Garbanzo, who directs Michigan's largest guinea pig livestock farm in Kalamazoo. "They require less space and grow faster than other livestock," she says. "And instead of costly feed they thrive on grains, grass, and even kitchen scraps."
She is also President of the Mid-West Small Livestock Breeders Association which has grown to include 56,000 households and ranches and now supplies the largest percentage of raw meat to the important Chicago livestock distribution hub.
California outlaws guinea pig meat because it comes from an animal fornerly used as a pet, yet others note that people in America who are concerned about obesity should realize that guinea pig has more protein and less cholesterol than beef, pork, or chicken. "And, it's tasty," adds Garbanzo. "The flavor resembles chicken."
Guinea pig fur is also appearing in the best clothing stores throughout the US, as coats, hats and fashion accessories. The US army has been supplying guinea pig meat to its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for years.
McDonald's is already trying Guinea Pig McNuggets in selected Detroit and Chicago restaurants.
One patron who just sampled the new McNuggets without initially realizing what they were, exclaimed, "Oh my god, they're not meat animals at all. They're pets...they are actually rats," before upchucking her discount meal into the parking lot.