Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dwarf Hamster Madness

I don’t know what possessed me. For some reason I thought I should have a pet. Something that I could relate to, something cute, something that I could derive some pleasure from. Something cuddly and cute. A cute guy would be best, or maybe a pack of cute guys. Even better. They’re cuddly. But that would take some doing as there isn’t a Cute Guy Pet Shop in this region.

So I had to figure out exactly what kind of pet I could handle. The furry and the scaly and the feathered ran through my mind, like profiles on a rapid flash menu. Dogs were out – the building doesn’t allow them (though it seems we’ve elected more than a few dogs to the Board managing the building). I don’t like cats (I actually toyed with the idea of one of those hairless cats, but, oh man, when you really look at them, they are the face of ugly.) Birds, well I had a bird once and for fourteen years I was tied down by the lovely and wonderful creature. She was a joy but I worried about her and always needed someone to house sit whenever I was away. Fish were what I wanted – I had a beautiful tank prior to moving. But I wasn’t ready to do that again just yet. The next time I get fish I want to consider it all more carefully, have something that I’d enjoy watching, and that would not take up half the room (as did my other nearly 100 gallon tank).That didn’t leave too much else in the way of pet choices.

So I thought I might get a lizard. I’m not sure what my reasons were. I just like the look and the idea. In Florida I met a guy who brought his lizard (and no, I don’t mean his trouser lizard) with him to the resort we were staying in. It was a bearded dragon and while not the most responsive of pets, it did sit there and seem comfortable being held.

Jason suggested hamsters or at least something more cuddly than a lizard. There is a host of other furry creatures: ferrets, chinchillas, rodents of every sort, and other things. And then there are hamsters. We’d been to the pet store a few times before and had seen the cutest, tiny hamsters. Dwarf hamsters. And, truthfully, I did like the look of the little creatures. So, when I finally decided to get some, we went down to Monster Pets (ah, how apt that name can seem at times). There we saw the cutest little tribe of Rubinowski hamsters – a brownish gray, black-eyed set of little guys. The normal, large hamsters are ugly by comparison and don’t bring out any warm feelings in me. Besides they are known to bite.

I didn’t want to get just one hamster. I thought he should have company. And the tank I bought wouldn’t fit the six that were in the store’s cage. So I settled for four. We took them home and Jason helped me to set up their living quarters. Nice pine shavings as bedding, gourmet hamster food, a silent wheel, water dish, plenty of places to run and hide. Toilet paper rolls and paper towel rolls for them to frolic in. And for a time it was kind of fun watching them. However, you don’t get to see them all that often as they do a lot of sleeping. They’re nocturnal – sort of. They appear to violate the rules of nature whenever they please.
That was the end of April or early May 2007

Then things started going horribly wrong. Horribly wrong.

First, they became fiercely competitive about the wheel. Knocking each other out, crowding three and four at a time, running over one another. Flying out of the wheel as it reached high speeds.

Then one of the bigger hamsters continually fought with another of the hamsters. She, I called her she but I had no idea of the sex/gender of the things. But she was tough and mean and attacked the poor fellow (again my assumption) without cessation. As the books predicted, the attacker went for the balls of the victim – which is how I realized the attacker was female. She did this over and over, pinning the other down so she could get a better avenue of attack. She eventually drew blood, serious blood; and I had to isolate the poor thing. I had him in a large, very large, tin with all the goodies he needed including the wheel (I figured that since he had to be isolated he should have the pleasure of the wheel all to himself).

The smallest hamster, of the three that were left, liked to dominate the food dish – plopping herself into it and scattering all the food out of the dish. She also was quite aggressive about grabbing her favorite treats right out of the mouths of the other hamsters – like a large peanut or some other tasty morsel.

Jason agreed to take the bloodied but now good-as-new hamster. We bought him all the necessities and brought the hamster, which he named Scar (after the scar the female had made on his nose) to his apartment.

With Scar gone, I thought we’d reached a period of d├ętente. Nope. The other two began ganging up on the tiniest one (the food snatcher). They chased her around and dominated her. I thought she was about to be killed, so I asked Jason if he’d take one more. He said yes and it seemed that Scar was happy with his old cage mate back.

We had already paid for our trip to the East Coast Gathering (see the Darlington post next) so we had to find someone who’d take care of the creatures while we were away. My friend Jesse, a gentle soul and an animal lover, agreed to feed and water them. But the ugly head of a former friend thrust itself into the picture. And that is too long a story to tell right here. But it resulted in Jesse agreeing to take the hamsters to his own home and care for them there (actually making it easier on him since he would not have to drive into the middle of the city from his location in one of the outer (but still in the city ) zones.

Fine. All set. I thought.

One morning while at camp I get a call from Jesse. “You won’t believe what happened.” I'm wary of conversations that start that way.

What happened was that the totally aggressive hamster which had scarred Scar, had given birth to a littler of hamster pups. Great. Now I’d have more. I was not looking forward to that but it’d be interesting to see the whole phenomenon as it unfolded.

I asked Jesse if he’d hold onto the hamsters a little longer after we returned since the books say that any undue stress could cause the mother to eat her young. Apparently the males don’t do this – it’s only the savage mothers, who have already de-balled the males in fights, who are bloodthirsty enough to eat their own young. Jesse agreed to hold onto them. But said the squealing of the young ones was kind of pitiful.

When we got back I was anxious to see the new situation but waited patiently. However, Jesse called in a panic soon after I returned. The mother hamster seemed to be acting insane. She would put the mewling babies, whose eyes were not yet opened and who had no fur, into the wheel and try to run with them in it! They’d go flying out around the cage. Then, in a murderous act, the mother dropped one squealing baby into the water dish where it promptly drowned.

In the other cage, Scar had apparently murdered his tiny companion. Jesse found her with her head bloody lying dead inside the little house where they both slept.

He couldn’t take the carnage and the squealing and asked if it would be OK for me to take them back sooner. I agreed.

Back here, they calmed down. Jason took Scar to school and dealt with him there. The mother hamster became a model of motherhood, caring for the little ones well (even if she did try to spin them in the wheel occasionally). But the squealing and mewling never stopped and that did get sort of annoying.

Soon the newborns opened their eyes, grew some fuzz and began to walk around. The squealing, however, still never stopped. And that was driving me nuts. I also had to help the mother keep track of them because they were beginning to get into everything. One of them even climbed into the water dish and drowned. (After that I placed it on a sort of platform which made it impossible for that to happen again but the dish was still accessible for drinking.)

Soon they were self sufficient. And I began to notice the mother attacking another hamster. But this one was attacking back and attacking others. So I had to isolate him. Which I didn’t like. I made attempts to return him to the cage but he went on the rampage again and again.

Then, in what seemed an incredible turn of events, a second litter was delivered. To the same mother. She popped them out before my eyes and sat in the wheel afterward cleaning herself. (I found out that hamsters can be impregnated more than once at the same time and that the second litter will wait its turn, so to speak, until the first litter is self sufficient. So, now I had another squealing bunch of just-a-little-better-than-rats in the cage. There were already about eight of them. This new batch made it sixteen or more. I was not a happy camper.

I fretted just about every day about what to do with this group – I didn’t want to drown them, though that was tempting. And I felt obligated to care for them. So there I was watching as the mother, more experienced this time, cared for her new brood. The first bunch, still trying to get her attention but no longer trying to suckle, was making progress every day. The newborns seemed to grow even faster than the first litter. I guess all those weeks of waiting in darkness made them a little impatient.

Inevitably the mother insisted on spinning them in the wheel. She also moved them about the cage from one impromptu nest to another. She ended up drowning one of them – and I began to think this was some sort of survival thing. Either she couldn’t handle feeding all of them and knew one would die, so she chose the weakest. Or, knowing it was the weakest and had a small chance of survival, she killed it. Probably both theories are full of hot air – maybe being a hamster is no different than being human, and this hamster was an abusive parent. Or a serial killer. Though she seemed to limit her kills to one per litter.

Now I was beginning to envision this tank filled to overflowing with hamsters as more and more litters were delivered. I could see more of the new generation becoming pregnant and then having all these little Rubinowskis multiplying like tribbles. I couldn’t stand it.

Jason found a person to adopt one. OK, one out of sixteen or seventeen – not good. I tried an ad on Craig’s List – no takers. And I kind of felt that was not a bad thing because I wasn’t sure what a stranger would do with one of them. But it didn’t help the problem.

In the mean time I was still caring for them – changing bedding – more often because more hamsters made that necessary. And I’d become used to leaving the top open. However, one night as I was gong to bed I spotted something crawling on the floor – one of the hamsters! It had plotted and executed an escape. I managed to trap it – they aren’t all that bright. They can escape but what then? They have no clue. I trapped it and plunked it back into the crowded cage.

A few nights later, when I forgot to close the cage as I was changing the food and water, another escaped. Didn’t know that until I saw the little thing among my books on the floor. Trapped him easily and that was that.

The new ones were growing exponentially and I feared another pregnancy was imminent. So, I called Monster Pets and asked if they would buy them – no, but they would take them for free. OK, I thought. That’ll have to do.

Jason decided to take two and I kept two and the rest were going to the pet store, including Scar, whom Jason had grown tired of because he had become aggressive and awful. But when I took them out for transport I realized (after counting them) that during one of the earlier escapes, two others must have made a break for it and I hadn’t found those. They either squeezed out the front door or out onto the balcony. Either way it meant certain doom. Or, maybe they just wandered the house without my being able to see them and eventually starved. We’ll never know for sure, unless skeletal remains turn up.

Took them to the store where they were accepted with glee (sure, fifteen fucking dollars apiece when they got sold, the store made out royally).

Now I have two and they seem to get along. Neither seems pregnant but I wonder what I’ll do should that happen again.