Hamsterdam


                We had hamsters growing up. My parents allowed them because I was frantic in wanting a puppy when we already had two grown dogs and didn’t need another.  I called my first hamster Olga-Da-Polga, and my sister called hers Frisky. Olga, named for a guinea pig in a book I’d read, was white with gray spots and a mousy little face. Frisky was of a variety called “golden”, though to us he seemed more tan in color. He earned his name by being a spastically active creature. Indeed, Frisky’s friskiness taught us several of our early lessons in rodent care.

                Lesson 1:  Tape the ball shut.

We had one of those clear hamster-balls to give our pets free run in the house. But Frisky could do this thing where he would ram the ball up in between a couple of chair legs or into just about any other tight space, and, while it was wedged there, use his body to twist the lid off. The first few times, we thought it was an accident and blamed ourselves for failure to screw the top on tight. But after awhile, when Olga started getting out too, and when we finally saw him doing it, we  realized we would have to actually tape the lid onto the ball. We got lucky with that pair. They always came back when we left out a trail of chow, never falling victim to the numerous cats stalking the house.

Lesson 2: Get a male

A couple of weeks after we got our new pets, I looked into the cage and started screaming, “Olga Da Polga’s HAVING BABIES!”  We presumed that she acquired her pregnancy in our care, though she could have just come that way. And, though they aren’t born pregnant, hamsters definitely breed like tribbles. Olga had four in that first litter, though only three survived. Frisky killed one. Oops. We bought him his own cage after we learned the hard way how quickly daddy rodents turned into ferocious competitor rodents. Of the other three, one vanished into the walls when it was still small enough to squirm between the cage’s bars, and the other two grew to maturity.

Lesson 3: Maturity comes extremely young in hamsters.

We thought we now had Olga da Polga and her daughters safely cordoned off from the violent offender. But then one day I looked in the cage and screamed, “Olga da Polga and Helen are BOTH having babies!”. We knew who had to come out, because only one of the three still in there wasn’t in labor. We realized the babies had to be kept apart from the (oops) daddy who was the (aw shit man) uncle, as well. (Hamster incest.)Since Frisky had proven so violent towards his offspring at birth, we worried about putting father and son together, but there was nowhere else to put the hamster version of a teen parent, so in with Pops he went.  I guess they swapped hamster sex stories or something, because they did fine.  The next crisis came when, as I was counting the newborns later in the morning, I saw Helen cannibalizing one of hers.

My mother figured out how to stop this while I ran screaming through the house. (Yet  it was nonetheless years before I developed the kind of rodent paranoia stereotypically associated with women of a much earlier generation.)  I do know the fix involved a series of frantic calls to a pet store and some other rodent loving friends on a corded phone that Mom couldn’t quite stretch into the room with the cages. But she threw me outside so she could hear before I saw what actions she took in between setting the phone cradle on the kitchen table and running into the middle room where the hamsters were then housed.

                Lesson 4: Plastic cages

                Between the two mamas, we had some ten little hamster babies. Helen and her brood went into the bottom floor of one cage, while Olga and hers went up on top. These particular homes resembled birdcages, with metal jail-cell bars and a plastic base.  They had been transferred out of my sister’s and my room and into the living room at some point in the murderous chaos, but we all checked on the new families regularly. When babies started vanishing again, we at first feared Helen had reverted to eating her young once more. But Helen couldn’t get to Olga’s crew, and we woke up one morning to find each hamster down by two. The ugly truth came out when we saw one of the cats perched beside the cage, tail eagerly twitching. Where kitty paws could fit in, tiny hamster snacks could be pulled out, and the new location was apparently the perfect stalking ground.

We swapped the mamas with Frisky and son, as those two had been sharing a plastic hut, but that meant putting Helen back with Olga. Helen’s cannibalism could possibly have been related to her having been in the cage with another new mother (her own) at the same time. (Or maybe it was the hamster incest driving her crazy.)  Mercifully, the babies were old enough to seem less tasty by the time we reunited them, or else her body had regained some of its nutrients or something, because she didn’t go on another killing spree once she and Olga were together in the smaller enclosure. Though Olga did bite the piss out of me when we were moving them, so I would have wished her the worst of whatever she got.

After that, we did a better job sorting the boys early (or maybe there was a miracle and both litters contained all girls), but we still had something like half a dozen rodents when all was said and done. Our initial cages, both the wire and the plastic, had been pretty basic. But as the babies grew, we added tubing and additional rooms. Helen eventually pulled the hamster-ball trick one time too many and escaped into the woodwork, never to return.  I think Olga just died one day. And I don’t remember what happened to the other babies (or the baby daddy) as they grew up. But for awhile there,  we had an apartment complex we called New Hamsterdam because of its city-like proportions across a table in the living room.

But slowly, the population dwindled, until only Frisky remained, back in that one original plastic square. He was a fat, lazy, friendly creature who had run out all his friskiness in his youth. He liked to sit on the insides of my arms when I let him get out on the table and walk back and forth between my open hands. He actually grew too large for the hamster ball and his wheel, so he had to exercise through personal contact. Finally, after I think three or more years, he, too died quietly in his cage. After he was gone, we didn’t replace him, though we still maintained quite a menagerie of pets.

It was fun having hamsters for those few years, but I honestly still secretly think things would have turned out better if my parents had just gotten me the puppy in the first place.

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