TEMPE, AZ—Calling his pet "a  completely different gerbil" than the one he brought home from the store, Doug Kerlin, 34, told reporters Tuesday that he fears the small mammal is growing increasingly distant.

Kerlin, 34, and Blinkers, 0.5, sometimes go days without making eye contact.

"When I first got Blinkers, it was like we had this amazing connection," said Kerlin, who aside from his gerbil lives by himself in a one-bedroom apartment. "But lately it's almost as if he cares more about burrowing in his wood chips than he does about me."

Despite recent attempts by Kerlin to bridge the ever-growing void between himself and the withdrawn rodent—primarily by placing several new wooden ramps and ladders inside Blinkers' 15-gallon aquarium—as of press time the gerbil had refused to emerge from his nesting box.

"I don't know what to do," said Kerlin, who claimed the gerbil barely acknowledges his presence when he comes home from work. "Sometimes it's like he doesn't even recognize me."

According to Kerlin, the eight-inch, 2.3-ounce Mongolian gerbil's aloof behavior started when the junior accountant noticed that Blinkers would avoid looking at him every time he stared into the rodent's cage. The emotional detachment only became more apparent, Kerlin said, when Blinkers started making rhythmic thumping sounds with his hind legs every time Kerlin would reach into the glass enclosure to hold the gerbil.

"I was concerned," said Kerlin, who purchased the pet on a whim when he was walking through a shopping mall last Saturday night. "But the veterinarian told me that there was nothing medically wrong with Blinkers. That's when I knew it was me."

Though Kerlin has tried to personally engage his despondent gerbil by giving him more dust baths and leaving a cleaned-out coconut shell on the aquarium floor, Blinkers became even more cold and unfeeling with every conciliatory gesture, opting to ignore his owner for hours at a time by roaming around his multicolored climbing tunnel.

"Sometimes I come downstairs in the middle of the night to get a snack, and I hear him running on the exercise wheel and rustling around in his cage," Kerlin said. "But as soon as I turn on the light, he suddenly stops and waits for me to leave the kitchen."

Kerlin said the last real emotional response he received from the gerbil was several nights ago when he left a toilet paper tube in the aquarium for Blinkers to play with.

"The next morning it was completely destroyed," Kerlin said.

Searching for some kind of reason to justify his gerbil's callous behavior, Kerlin admitted that he probably doesn't clean out the rodent's dwelling as often as he could. He still contends, however, that he has never done anything physically harmful to Blinkers that would warrant such a coldhearted response from the rodent.

"I never once picked him up by his tail, and always made sure his sipper bottle was full of fresh water," Kerlin said. "Also, I used to give him lettuce or seeds as an occasional treat. How dare he act like I'm a complete stranger?"

"I didn't buy a gerbil to be treated like this," he said.

Following a last-ditch attempt to win over his pet's appreciation by introducing a companion gerbil, an idea that reportedly backfired completely, Kerlin flatly stated that Blinkers has distanced himself to a point where the once-loyal pet is mentally and emotionally "gone," and a "mere shell of the gerbil he once was."

Still, Kerlin said he would always remember the good times.

"I remember when I used to come home and watch Blinkers chew through old cardboard, squeaky toys, file folders, wood chips, plastic tubing, Kleenex boxes, Styrofoam cups—anything he could get into his mouth, really," Kerlin said. "He just loved to chew. He still does, but it's just different now, you know?"

Added Kerlin: "I probably should have gotten a hamster instead."