My daughter wanted a cat. That was the starting point. She wanted a cat but my husband was against the idea. He felt that she needed to be old enough to take proper care of a pet before we got one. Opining that third grade was too young to expect the level of responsibility needed, he said he thought we should wait.
After some acrimonious family discussion copiously interspersed with tears and overlaid with big, sad eyes, my husband offered a compromise. He proposed that we start with a smaller, more manageable pet so our daughter could acquire proper care-taking habits. By manageable, he also meant one with a shorter life expectancy so that we weren’t committing ourselves to endless servitude if it didn’t work out. Some might call my husband a bit unfeeling; I just think he has a finely honed instinct for self-preservation. Inevitably, our search for a solution led us to the rodent family (not a fan) in general, and to hamsters in particular.
and finally agreed on a male hamster, of the dwarf variety. They were reputed to be relatively easy to care for and had an average life-span of 1-1/2 – 2 years. We went to a local pet store to purchase our pet rodent because our next-door neighbors — twin girls a few years older than our daughter — were now in their teens and had given up breeding them. At the pet store, many choices were available, including larger breeds with alarmingly well-developed genitalia. After much discussion, my daughter settled on a tiny, apricot-colored ball of fluff. We purchased him, along with food, water, chewing sticks, a hamster ball, nesting fluff, litter, and a large condo
with plastic tubing that could be assembled to make a playground full of twists and turns. We put together Basil’s home
and he settled in quite nicely. We’d read the books ahead of time and Rachel knew how to hold him and care for him, just needing a little help with the litter changing and cage cleaning. Two weeks after we got him home, Rachel came to me and said she’d seen something red in Basil’s cage. I investigated and found that Basil had given birth to 4 mini-Basils. Did I mention that s/he was a dwarf hamster and didn’t have the elaborate scrotal structure common to the larger varieties? Apparently, determining the sex of a tiny hamster isn’t quite the no-brainer you’d expect it to be — even for pet store personnel.
… five hamsters. We named the babies Peach, Raisin, Fig, and Brindle. It was fascinating to watch Basil care for and train her babies, but the unappealing future loomed. Hamsters mature quickly and are perfectly willing to mate with relatives, so we knew we had to separate the sexes. Fast.
Of course, we couldn’t actually tell what sex they were, because they were so small. And holding them close enough to get a good look wasn’t possible because hamsters are excitable and they express themselves by shooting pellets. One pellet in the eye was enough to discourage additional fact-finding. This meant we would have to separate them all.
Fast-forward a few weeks. Brindle was adopted by Rachel’s best friend and left us as soon as she was old enough. That left us with 4 fully equipped hamster cages that had to be cleaned each week. Four little hamsters who had to be exercised in their little hamster balls (NOT all at the same time); three little hamsters “available to good home.” Rachel was a good little trooper about it, but whenever we cleaned the cages I was aware of her accusing glances. A single tray of kitty litter certainly would have been simpler to handle.
…there were adventures. Figgie was in a wire cage with a door he was able to open, as we belatedly discovered. The first time he escaped, he was gone for 2 days. We eventually found him in a closet. He’d climbed up the ridged part of a detached vacuum cleaner hose, reached the top and slid down the smooth metal part, where he was trapped in a metal tube not much larger than himself. When we found him, he was pretty pitiful — fur matted with pee and dried poop. We fed, watered, and bathed Fig before returning him to his cage — tying it shut, this time. Of course, he ate through the string after a while and escaped again. This time it was almost a week before he turned up, but he was in much better shape because we left his open cage on the floor with the filled water bottle and fresh food. I’ve always wondered whether Fig might have been a trans-species — a cat born into a hamster’s body, but with the feline’s rodent-eating instincts. In my little fantasy, he ran away so as not to be tortured by the constant desire to consume his own family. In any event, our friend Marissa asked to adopt him, so Fig went into the big world, to a household with 6 children who were passionately eager to take care of him. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the chance, because Marissa’s husband bonded with Fig to the point that he wouldn’t let anyone else play with him.That left us with Basil, Peach, and…
Eventually, Raisin joined Fig at Marissa’s, to fulfill the original objective of giving her kids a pet. But not before the maggot incident. It was the middle of summer vacation — aka Fly Season. With all the running in and out the door was open a lot and flies were unwelcome but unavoidable guests. Unfortunately, Raisin’s litter offered a hospitable environment in which they could deposit their offspring. So one week, while cleaning out the cages, we uncovered, beneath the top layer of shavings and fluff, a seething, writhing mass of pasty yellowy-white maggots. Ugh. After Raisin left, Basil and Peach remained as our permanent pets. We settled into a routine and enjoyed them. Underneath all, though, was the knowledge that Rachel’s next pet would be the cat she had awaited so patiently and worked for so hard. And she had to be really, really patient — because our little hamsters exceeded their predicted life span by about a year, and outlived the other three by about 15 months. (Ironically, this reminds me of the story of Jacob and Rachel in the Bible. Remember it? Jacob falls in love with Rachel (!), younger daughter of Laban. Laban says Jacob can marry Rachel after he has worked for Laban for 7 years. He does this and then Laban does a bait and switch and under the veil Jacob finds older sister Leah. He then has to work another 7 years for the woman he wants.)
In the fullness of time, Basil and Peach departed this world for whatever adventure next awaited them. We cried over them and buried them with full pomp. In a fortuitous intersection of demand and supply, I even had perfect burial containers. I collected miniature shoes for a while, each of which came in its own small shoebox. Turns out that these miniature shoe boxes are perfectly sized to be coffins for dwarf hamsters. So we were able to send Basil and Peach on their way in style. We buried them in our front garden, under Rachel’s bedroom window, and marked their graves with beach rocks from San Diego. And that, mercifully, is the end of our hamster chronicle.