Decades ago, before the reign of big box stores, when there was such a thing as an independently owned neighborhood pet store, I saw them regularly, they were a cage or two down from the guinea pigs on the rodent isle sandwiched somewhere in the store between the fish and the puppies. Can this beast that resembles a cross between a teddy bear and a mouse be a good pet? Would having and caring for a hamster provide your family with a useful learning experience? My answer is an unequivocal yes. But be advised, the lessons your family learns may not be the ones you set out to teach.
Our hamster experience began in mid-April of 1992. My two sons had accompanied me to a new neighborhood pet store to stock up on cat food. At check-out time, there on the counter, right at child-eye view was a nest of baby hamsters. They were a furry jumble of fat bellies and tiny paws nestled in fragrant cedar chips.
As I was writing the check for my purchases, Drew – who was 6 at the time -threw me the standard check-out question, “Mom can I have a…” followed by the name of whatever irresistible item is in the immediate vicinity.
“Mom can I have a hamster?” Drew asked.
“Oh! I want one!” said Eli, age nine, as he tapped out a greeting in morse code on the glass encasing the tiny creatures.
“Yuck!” I thought to myself stifling a rodent induced shudder. “We’ll discuss it later.”
The grandmotherly lady behind the counter jumped on this opportunity like a jaguar on a haunch of raw meat. She stopped in the middle of our transaction, reached inside the glass enclosure and pulled out a hamster. She handed the little bundle of joy to Eli and reached in for another one for Drew. I wanted to hurt her.
For the next ten minutes the boys fondled their hamsters while the sales lady, Grace – her name tag said, spoke earnestly to me about what great pets hamsters make. I learned that hamsters don’t keep the neighbors awake at night barking. They don’t climb your curtains. You don’t have to worry about them getting run over by a car (unless you are consciously trying to get in the Guinness book of world records for negligence.) You don’t have to walk them, house train them or even check on them every day. According to Grace, who apparently earned her living on sales commissions, hamsters were to pet ownership what disposable diapers were to motherhood.
“And look at these great cages!” she said to the boys. She led them around the corner to a display that looked like a scale model of a McDonald’s playland. Only this one would have been the special one they designed especially for Disneyland. It had miles of colorful plastic tubing to provide your hamster with easy access from his cavernous great room to his dining room, sleeping quarters and little hamster gym.
“Doesn’t it come with a heliport?” I asked sarcastically.
For a moment the boys stood gaping, speechless, like they do on Christmas morning at the first view of all the presents piled high under the tree. I guess it takes a minute for all the pleasure to ping threw the maze of synapses in their brains before they can operate their voices to squeal in delight and motivate their arms and legs to run over and rip paper off of all those packages.
“Mom!” Drew said, snapping to enough to hop in place like a little wind up toy, “I really, really want this.”
“Please Mom?” Eli said, his voice deep with desire, “I have wanted a hamster for a long time.” He was familiar with my standard argument about compulsive purchases.
“How long have you wanted a hamster?” I asked him.
“As far back as I can remember,” he said staring rapturously at the hamster wiggling in his gentle embrace.
“How come you’ve never mentioned it before?” I asked.
“I forgot?” he said, looking up at me innocently.
“We are not buying a hamster today.” I said with all the assertiveness I could muster.
Eli, Drew and Grace all deflated like balloons and stared at the floor as though trying to hold back tears.
All the way home my offspring talked about how good it would be to have a hamster.
That night at the dinner table Eli entertained his father and I with tales about “Captain Kirk” Ashley’s hamster. “He likes to sit on Ashley’s old fashioned record player and ride around in circles. Then he walks funny.”
Even though I regarded hamsters as a form of pestilence, the thought of abusing an animal in any way horrified me. “I would never allow you to ride your hamster around in circles on anything,” I said.
“You mean we can have one?” Drew said, springing from his chair and spilling juice all over the table.
“I didn’t say that!” I said over my shoulder as I ran to get a towel.
“Dad can we have a hamster?” Eli asked in a businesslike fashion.
“It’s okay with me if it’s okay with your mom. But you have to take care of it,” he said with stern finality.
“Watson!” I said and smacked him in the back of the head with the towel. If they recruited him into this crusade I wouldn’t stand a chance. Desperation sent adrenaline squirting into my brain causing a flash of uncharacteristic parental clarity. I said, “when school is out for summer if you still want one we can talk about it then.”
For four weeks straight neither child uttered one single sentence that didn’t contain the word hamster. They had taken on hamster acquisition like some sort of junior Olympic challenge. I think they secretly trained at night after we tucked them in bed.
Drew talked long distance to my mother, “Gammy, guess what, we’re getting a hamster.”
When there was only a week of school left and no sign of a slow down in their high pressure tactics I asked, “If…I were to say yes, which I am not at this time doing, who would pay for this hamster?” I knew money was a big issue for both of them. Eli’s allowance vaporized in his palm as soon as he got it every Friday. And Drew had never parted with a dime of his money since he started getting an allowance in kindergarten.
Drew will.” Eli said.
How much is it?” Drew asked suspiciously.
Two dollars and forty nine cents,” Eli said.
Drew gave me a conquering look. “I have three hundred and sixty eight dollars, he said.
“Yes, but you have to buy a cage. And you have to buy food and bedding.”
“How much is that?” he asked.
“A lot more than two dollars and forty nine cents,” I said triumphantly.
“Will you take me to the pet store so I can see?” he asked.
Grace fairly leapt over the counter when she saw us file through the door. “Back to pick up that hamster?” she asked.
We’re just looking!” I said.
Mom said we could have one if we payed for it with our own money.”
“I did not. I never said that.”
Grace led them back to the hamster habitat isle. There were many options to choose from, starting with your basic hamster shanty and after that the sky was the limit. Naturally, they were interested in the one that they had seen on display on our previous visit. It cost $49. Eli, who could perform any math function as long as there was a dollar sign before the number assured Drew he could buy seven such hamster havens and still have enough cash left over to treat the whole family to happy meals. Drew swallowed hard.
“Will you take me to PetsPlanet and see if they have it cheaper?”
It was $49.25 at PetsPlanet, $49.15 at PMart and $48.75 across town at PetsBU.
In the end Eli convinced him it was worth it at any price and all the shopping had just served to fan the flames of their hamster lust.
That night after the boys were in bed Watson and I sat on the couch with a cup of decaf. “The boys are convinced they want a hamster,” I told him.
“Well, let them have one. It will be good for them,” he said.
“Good for them in what way?”
“It’ll be educational,” he said.
“Can’t they just watch National Geographic or something?” I said, not getting it.
“Caring for a pet teaches them responsibility,” he said.
I thought of Gideon, our cat. Every morning I asked the boys at least six times to feed her and three out of four mornings I ended up feeding her myself after they left for the bus stop. Somehow that thought reminded me of all the sleep I lost over the years to things like breast feeding, nightmares and late-night sheet-changings. “I hate hamsters, I’m going to bed.”
The next morning the boys sat at the kitchen table drawing hamsters in super hero attire.
“If you had a hamster,” I asked. “Who would feed it and clean out its cage?”
“We would,” they said in unison.
I thought of all my divorced friends who had sworn, “until death do us part.”
“I want it in writing.” I replied.
They drew up a contract. Drew would buy the cage and the hamster. Eli would clean once a week for the first 3 weeks and buy one month’s worth of bedding and food. After that they would trade off every other Sunday of cage cleaning duty and split the cost of the supplies.
“Okay” I conceded at last, “You win.” I signed my name on the appropriate line.
At three fifteen on the last day of school we went to the pet store and picked our hamster. They named him Boomer Dan after someone on a football trading card. Then to Grace’s horror we drove all the way across town to PetsBU and got a cage, a book about hamsters, bedding and a two dollar bag of something that looked like trail mix.
We put the cage together and lined it with bedding. The boys put the hamster inside, he promptly fell asleep. Drew watched him, enamored, while Eli discovered an interesting tidbit of information in the hamster book, “It says here that hamsters are nocturnal.”
“That means they like hamburgers,” Drew said.
“It does not!” Eli said, “What does that mean Mom?”
“It means they sleep all day.”
At one A.M. that creepy feeling of being watched made me spring awake. Both boys were standing next to the bed. “What’s wrong! I gasped.
“It’s the hamster,” Eli said, climbing in between Wats and I, “He’s making too much noise. Can we sleep in here?”
One sleepless hour later, bruised and cranky, I stumbled into the boy’s bedroom, disassembled the hamster metropolis and moved it into the guest room.
The next day the house was filled with young people who came to view our new arrival. The boys roused him out of his restful slumber and set him loose in their bedroom. Forty-five minutes later they came to get me.
“He’s gone,” Drew said, eyes glistening with tears.
“What do you mean, ‘gone’,” I asked, sinisterly hoping they meant ‘gone’ in the cosmic sense.
“We can’t find him,” Drew wailed.
I cleared out all the non-inhabitants and Eli, Drew and I searched in earnest. We unearthed things we had forgotten we ever owned. “Look, here’s the pedal-extenders for your tricycle.” But we didn’t find the hamster.
Hours later, outside the front door, the cat’s wails turned into pathetic croaks.
“Go outside and explain to Gideon why she can’t come in the house.” I said as Watts screwed the entertainment center back into the wall.
“He has to be here somewhere,” Drew said encouragingly.
In the middle of the night I was awakened by a scratching sound.”Aha!” I whispered and jumped out of bed. I homed in on the sound. It was coming from inside the master bedroom closet, the one where we store everything too valuable to suffer the summer heat in the attic. I knew I was on the right trail when I noticed the neat round hole that had been chewed through my brand new Berber carpet to allow access under the closed door.
I found Boomer sleeping blissfully in the corner. He had chewed his way through the contents of the left side of my closet and made a nest out of the remnants. There were soft pieces of the cello case, the hand crocheted winter afghan Gramma had made for me just before she died and the F volume of our limited edition 1940’s set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
I stifled the urge to invite Gideon to have her way with him and resolved instead to return him to his cage. But I was afraid that if I just reached out and grabbed him, startling him awake, he might add a couple of my shredded fingers to his nest. So I attempted to talk him awake. I used my nicest creature calling voice so as not to scare him. To my surprise he raised up sniffing the air. He looked at me pleasantly and began grooming himself just like a Disney character. I fell in love. I scooped him up and returned him to his microcosm, but not before I discovered he would eat out of my hand. He especially liked sunflower seeds and corn kernels. He reached out delicately so as not to damage my fingers and gobbled whatever I offered into his storage cheeks for later consumption.
And so began my late night hamster visits. Every night after the boys were asleep I would creep into the guest room and coo at Boomer Dan. I would open the lid to his penthouse and he would climb out onto his roof and preen for me. I bought special honey coated treats for him and every toy ever invented for rodents.
Eli and Drew quickly tired of him. About two months of cleaning the cage and they announced they were ready to flush him down the toiet. Then they hugged me and dried my tears, “Mom, you know we didn’t mean it. We wouldn’t hurt Boomer.”
One day a couple of months after school began we were once again at the pet store spending the kid’s allowance on food and bedding. Grace told us a delightful story about a hamster she had as a child who broke every record for hamster longevity by living to be four and a half years old. The kids groaned and dragged their purchases out to the car.
The next day Eli and Drew presented Boomer to me with a pink ribbon tied around his neck. “Since he likes you so much, we think you should have him.”
“Would this mean that I would then have the responsibility of taking care of him?”
They nodded enthusiastically, glad that I understood the real meaning behind the gesture.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said.
Eli’s whole body slumped as if the weight of the world had just been poured onto him, “But Mom, he’s too much work,” he whined.
Drew threw himself onto the couch next to me and buried his head in my lap. “We’re just not big enough to handle this much responsiblilty,” he sobbed.
Hadn’t I known this would happen? Isn’t this why I didn’t want them to have a hamster?
Apparently I had made a terrible lapse of judgment in permitting the indulgence of their desire. I looked at my two boys. Their faces peeked up at me, sad but trusting. They knew that the world was a safe place where children did not have to suffer. They had learned this from me, the mother who loved and cared for them. Deep in their hearts was the unshakable knowledge that if they dove into deep waters I would swim out and get them. They needed this from me now. They were begging me to save them.
Confusion wrenched me like something akin to a labor pain. I took a deep breath and pushed through it.
“No,” I said, “You wanted this hamster more than anything you ever wanted before. You made your decision, now you must live up to your responsibilities.”
Eli fell to the floor and hugged me around the knees, “But mommy we made a mistake,”
“People make mistakes,” I said, “and they have to live with them.” I wrangled free of their desperate embraces and locked myself in my room. I could hear them in the other room crying, but only because exhaustion made my own tears silent.
The years passed and Boomer became old. He quit escaping. He even quit running in his squeaky wheel.
Periodically a crust welded his eyelids shut. The vet was consulted, and I added to my nightly ritual washing his eyes with little bits of toilet paper soaked in Visine.
Every Sunday whoever was on cage cleaning duty would ask, “how long do hamsters live? And I would whisper to Boomer nestled in my hands, “as long as they want to.”
His time finally came. I went into the guest room for a late night visit and he didn’t stir. I felt the sky box under him and it wasn’t warm. I opened the lid and looked through teary eyes. He rested peacefully, stretched out, tummy full, a look of contentment on his face.
The boys did not grieve, they were relieved their tour of hamster duty was finally over. Watson, shovel over his shoulder, led them in a procession to the field behind our house. They buried Boomer Dan’s little body cradled in toilet paper in the miniature cedar chest that I got for my high school graduation.
Watson was right, it was a learning experience. Besides discovering that I am helplessly smitten by animals regardless of their position on the food chain, I learned that some of the best lessons you learn or teach are the ones that hurt. And the boys learned that caring for a life is a big responsibility on its own timescale and not to be taken on lightly.
Only the future will tell but I will consider the experience an epic triumph if some romantic evening in the back seat of a car a vague memory of really wanting something and then living with the consequences drifts over one of my teenage boys and causes him to say, “Wait!.. this may need more planning and consideration.”