Habitrails to You

By Gregory Keer

I don’t like rodents as a rule. Anything related to a rat gives me the willies and I have been known to run like a scared deer from anything that even looks like it could mistake me for a chunk of cheese.

This is why I did not want a hamster in my home. Just because it’s only a cousin to the type of creatures that inspired horror films like Willard didn’t mean I wanted its scurrying feet and twitching nose under my roof.

So I persistently said no to my middle son, Jacob, despite his annual requests for a hamster. I agreed to the countless goldfish that came home from carnivals. I said yes to the two hermit crabs. I had no problem with the Sea Monkeys. All these animals required low maintenance and posed no imminent threat of busting out of their bowls to gnaw on my ear in the middle of the night.

Yet, this year, my son came home one evening with a huge smile and a tiny gift.

“You – bought – a hamster,” I said haltingly to my son and his grandmother, who had no inkling of my aversion to said rodent.

“Daddy, he’s really cute! Look — ” he replied as he opened the box.

Reluctantly, I peered into the carton, half expecting to see the thing bare its famous two sets of incisors at me with murder in its beady eyes.

What I found was a puff of honey-colored fur that my son could not stop cooing over. And by the time Jacob and his grandparents had set up the Habitrail so that little Bijou could run enthusiastically on her red wheel, I felt mildly accepting of our new family member.

Over the next three months, I overcame my fears about hamsters because of Bijou. I giggled with the kids as she ran through the house in the plastic ball. I took to feeding her treats and even held her occasionally.

Most of all, I appreciated the way Jacob prized her as his very own. He talked to her regularly, read a book on hamsters, and helped nurture her in a way that was more personal than his experience with our still beloved dog. She was every bit the emotional and scientific learning experience a pet should be for a child.

Then, Bijou stopped running on her wheel. We didn’t really notice the difference for a couple of days, but when we did, we got concerned. So, we put her in the rolling ball and, because she rotated around the house happily, thought we had figured out she just preferred exercising in open spaces rather than in a cage.

Days later, Wendy spotted diarrhea in Bijou’s bedding and our own stomachs dropped. We studied up on what might be wrong and found the likely culprit in wet tail, an illness that had a lot of possible causes yet only one cure, antibiotics.

Despite knowing a veterinarian visit would cost exponentially more than the $7 critter (yes, we agonized about the medical expense), we called various clinics that night. No one would see her as she was considered an exotic animal and other options were closed or prohibitively far. We also commiserated with our friend Randy, who had seen her son’s own hamster take a bad turn due to glaucoma. The next day, Wendy visited a number of pet stores looking for medicine, but no one had the antidote.

By nightfall, Bijou quietly passed on to that great pet heaven where our family’s two cats, seven fish, two hermit crabs, and five billion Sea Monkeys resided.

We had a funeral in the side yard where we buried our Golden Hamster next to a rose bush.

“May you help these flowers grow the way you grew in our hearts,” Jacob eulogized.

 There’s a part of me that feels absurd going over the events of a furry rodent’s demise. Yet, despite her small size, Bijou had taught my nine year old a lot about caring for something other than himself, about loss, and that life goes on.

Some time after, Jacob felt a bit more normalized about the absence of his tiny friend, so he chose a new hamster. Bolstered by the knowledge of how to care for the creature and watch for serious health problems, he was willing to try again. While I had proven to myself that I could accept a rodent into my house without regular nightmares, Jacob had shown a capacity for resilience. Not bad for $7.

Child Development, Columns by Family Man, PetsPermalink

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