It began, as so many tragedies do, with a rash promise, made with little understanding of what was offered and almost immediately regretted. I hoped that I would never be called upon to fulfill the promise, but when, a week later, safe at home with the excitement behind us, my oldest daughter said, “Mama! You promised to buy me a rabbit!” I knew I couldn’t back out.
But I could try to renegotiate.
“Are you sure you want a rabbit? There are other small, furry animals – cuter, smaller, easier animals,” I wheedled. We went to Petco to look. Both girls oohed and aahed at every cage. At the end, my oldest held firm. “No, I still want a rabbit.”
“Mommy, can I have a hamster, pleeeease?” begged my youngest.
Which is how, on a Saturday afternoon in June, we came to own a young, female dwarf Roborovski hamster named Lilac. We set her up in a too-small starter cage and spent the rest of the afternoon watching her explore her new home, frantically burrowing, climbing, and tasting until she knew every inch of the space. That night we lay awake listening to her wheel spin for hours.
“We’ll get used to it,” we told ourselves. “In a couple of days it will be white noise.”
On her first full day in our home, her nocturnal nature kicked in. Now comfortable in her surroundings, she burrowed in her bedding and slept all day. She emerged once or twice for a few minutes to eat. Each time, with patience out of proportion to her six years of age, my daughter held individual kernels of corn in the cage, tempting the little hamster to come close. Although she charmed us all with her curiosity and tentative approaches, Lilac never came close enough to take the corn. We reassured her disappointed human that it was still good progress for the first day, and coaxed her away to play before rushing back to the cage to try again ourselves.
The wheel was louder that night, humming almost constantly but stopping at brief and irregular intervals all night. Our sleeplessness seemed rewarded the next day when Lilac casually walked across my daughter’s palm (ignoring the pea on offer there). After the kids were asleep, we spent an hour watching Lilac play. Before bed, I adjusted the wheel and marveled at the energy from such a tiny creature that could knock the wheel off-kilter.
But when the wheel started up again, I knew I couldn’t handle another sleepless night. I moved the cage from its place in the living room to the kitchen counter where we couldn’t hear the wheel’s whir. We could, however, hear the crash at 4:30 the next morning when the cage tumbled to the floor.
Our cat was still asleep on the bed when we rushed to the kitchen. The linoleum was coated in paper shavings, the walls of the cage next to the dishwasher, its floor beside the stove. We had forgotten to lock the cat door, and a quick peek out the window confirmed a new cat in the neighborhood had chosen this night to explore our home. That a strange cat would even dare attempt to enter our cat door would have been unthinkable even last summer when our own cat was a mere seventeen years old. But apparently this summer the territory under his control has shrunk beyond measure.
There was no hamster dangling from the startled cat’s mouth, so I began sifting through the bedding on the kitchen floor, looking for the broken body of the tiny hamster. I found nothing. Against all odds, Lilac had survived the fall and escaped the cat. I spent the hours until the kids woke up googling “lost hamster,” then rushed the girls off to breakfast at a restaurant before they could notice the empty cage. (“We’re celebrating the last day of school!” I explained brightly. How could I ruin the final day of kindergarten with worry?)
That night my husband walked into the kitchen past the homemade hamster traps and spotted Lilac near the baseboards. In a flash she disappeared under the stove. I stayed up until 1 a.m. hoping for another encounter. The next night we woke to an all-too-familiar sound. We had not heard it for years, but it was unmistakable – the sound of our cat playing with a trapped rodent. I turned on the light and my husband caught the cat. Lilac lay lifeless on the floor at the foot of our bed.
I locked the cat in the spare bedroom while my husband went to get something to pick up the body. When he returned to the bedroom, Lilac was gone.
Did I think hamsters were delicate? This tiny furball was unstoppable. How wondrous that such a tiny creature could be so tough.
But she was still missing. Two days later, the traps had proliferated, the bait had been modified, and we sat in the living room wondering how we could have made such a mess of caring for such an “easy pet.”
Tiny squeaks erupted from behind the bench by the front door. My husband jumped over furniture to perform the Heimlich maneuver on the cat, ejecting the hamster, who lay as if dead on the floor. This time we weren’t fooled and placed her in the cage.
After a few moments she revived and stiffly walked to her food dish, where she ate almost an entire pellet with her eyes closed. Then she got a drink of water, curled up inside a toilet paper roll and went to sleep. We watched her for a while, then went to bed, hopeful that she would survive.
The next morning her eyes were still closed and she was still moving slowly. I googled “hamster blindness” and learned about sticky eye. I boiled water, made breakfast while it cooled, and then grabbed cotton to wipe her eyes. She flinched when I touched her, but offered no resistance. Her eyes remained closed.
I googled “hamster vet.” There was a specialist blocks from our house. They could fit us in for an emergency appointment right away. At the vet, they weighed Lilac. She had a severe infection and was so dehydrated she only weighed nine grams (0.3 oz). Using the sober but nonjudging voice that masks veterinary disapproval, they explained our mistakes. It took a while to cover them all.
Four hours later, the hamster died. She had survived almost exactly six days from the moment we left Petco; during those days she faced three cat attacks, fell four feet from countertop to floor, spent four days without food or water and two days with a fatal respiratory infection.
My daughter never got to pet her hamster, clean its cage or feed it treats. She barely even settled on a name before I modeled such bad animal husbandry that her pet ended up dead. I wanted to teach her the rewards of consistently caring for another living thing. But what could she have learned except that pets are disposable and replaceable (if we get a new hamster) or that we are not responsible enough to care for animals (if we don’t).
I asked her what lesson she thought we as a family could take from the experience. She answered, “Close the cat door.”