Of hamsters, and mice and men

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We bought a hamster a month ago, our family’s first pet unless you count a couple of fish we once had that we couldn’t pet, on account of them being fish. Our son named her Teddy, because some Syrian hamsters are also called “teddy bear” hamsters, on account of how damn cute they are.

Teddy the hamster


Teddy delighted us. She loved to run in the hamster ball we bought for her and she walked right onto our hands when we opened her cage. Our son adored her and my wife and I found ourselves speaking to this rodent in soothing tones and saying “Good night” to her before heading to bed.

Teddy died 16 days after we brought her home. On a Tuesday morning, I knew something was wrong. She was sleeping in an unusual spot, awkwardly positioned in a hamster loop-tunnel above her cage. I knew. I said, “Oh no, Teddy,” as I gently poked her in case I was wrong and she was alive. She wasn’t. We didn’t tell our son that morning. I walked him to the school bus and then came back to the house, carried Teddy’s cage to the backyard, and buried her by the crabapple tree. She most likely had Wet Tail, a disease Syrian hamsters sometimes get. She probably had it when we bought her.

That same day, after thoroughly cleaning the cage, I bought a new hamster. PetSmart guarantees hamsters for 14 days and Teddy had made it to 16, so I paid $12 for our new hamster, who looked like Teddy but was a bit younger and thinner.

When our son got home, I asked him to sit down in the kitchen and said, “I have to tell you something.”

He immediately asked, “Did someone die?” My tone had given it away.

“Teddy died.”

He was sad, as you’d expect. She was only a rodent, true, but she was our rodent, and we had spent a good deal of time and energy watching her and playing with her and taking care of her over those two weeks. Introducing him to our new hamster didn’t make him less sad, but it did shift the focus and give him something to look forward to. He named her Snickers.

We’ve had Snickers now for just over two weeks. She is healthy and full of energy, far more active than Teddy ever was. She also seems to have a bit of hamster ADHD. She’s a lot more skittish than Teddy was. We haven’t been able to hold her yet. We’re not rushing her — stress can lead to Wet Tail. Snickers is cute and curious and she’s growing on us. At first we would slip and call her Teddy. We do that less now. Though Teddy had a nice set-up, we renovated it for Snickers. Yes, she’s a rodent, but she’s our rodent, and we don’t mind spending a little money on extra tunnels if that makes her happy.

Rent would be $2,700 a month in Manhattan


We try to find snacks Snickers likes and toys for her to play with and we monitor her droppings to be sure they are solid pellets, since diarrhea is a sign of Wet Tail. We’re happy to see her solid pellets of poop. “Happy” is not the word for our reaction to discovering other rodent droppings in the kitchen.

A few days ago my phone rang while I was at the morning bus stop with our son. It was my wife. I had to come home right away. She thought we had a mouse. She was right. A mouse had been in our kitchen. There were droppings to prove it, and a chewed bag of bread with a bite taken out of a slice.

Our basement has a large storage room with lots of rafters and hiding spots and we’ve treated for mice once before. In our neighborhood, like in many neighborhoods, with cold nights come mice looking for warmth. Garages and basements are the most likely refuge. This was the first time we’d seen evidence of a mouse outside the storage basement. I was sure the mouse had come from the basement to the kitchen looking for food.

I would have to treat for mice. Treating means I would buy poison and traps to kill any mice living in the basement. The rodent irony did not escape me.

We had spent well more than $100 in the last few weeks caring for a rodent. We had spent hours cleaning a rodent’s cage, feeding a rodent, picking out toys for a rodent. My son and I had built a rodent playground in a large tupperware container and assembled a rodent play-gym. I had devoted a lot of time to attaching a maze of tunnels to a rodent’s cage for a rodent to climb through. I had buried one rodent in the backyard because I wouldn’t simply toss our pet rodent in the trash. We talked to a rodent, stroked its fur, worried about it, and researched how to make it comfortable and friendly and keep it healthy.

I knew all this, just as I knew that the green blocks of poison work. I was going to place them around the perimeter of my basement storage room, and the mice were going to die. Our rodent problem would be solved in a matter of days.

Snickers was settling in for a morning nap in her bedroom, surrounded by cushiony nesting material we had bought for $8. In a gentle voice, I told her I’d be back soon, before putting on my baseball cap and heading to my car so I could buy the mouse poison.

On second thought, I switched hats. Mice, possibly carrying disease, running loose and defecating in my house, are not the same as a hamster from a pet store that we’ve volunteered to care for. I required no convincing. Still, it just felt wrong to wear it.

This mouse doesn’t poop in my house


Scott Stein is editor of When Falls the Coliseum and runs the humor site STEINLINES. He is author of the novels Lost and Mean Martin Manning. His short fiction, book reviews, and essays have been published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The G.W. Review, Liberty, National Review,, and Art Times. He is a professor of English at Drexel University. Scott tweets @sstein.

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3 Responses to “Of hamsters, and mice and men”

  1. Great piece. Wait til your son “guilts” you into a dog.

  2. Thank you, Paula. Allergies (his and mine) might make a hamster the largest furry thing we invite into our home.

  3. “PetSmart guarantees hamsters for 14 days”

    That. Right there.

    Though, I don’t know what the guarantee covers, such as Alcohol Ingestion or I Sat On It.

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