When I was in fourth grade, there was nothing I wanted more than a pet hamster.
I’d had pets before. We owned a dog at that time; a lively Welsh Corgi named Lady Margaret Waddle-Bottom (Maggie for short) and my sister and I had previously owned a slew of fish, thanks to a summer reading program at our local library that offered “Free Fish” coupons as a prize for reading a certain amount of books. As an avid reader from a young age, I earned several of those coupons, and so, a local pet store granted us with several fish. Sadly, our dear friends Spot, Spike, Angel, Goldie, Rocky, etc, etc, did not grace us with their companionship for very long.
As such, my parents grew (understandably) weary of bringing new pets into the house, so my initial pleas for a pet hamster were shot down. However, I was determined to prove to them that I could be responsible – if only I could have a little furry friend to call my own. I took out hamster and pet care books from the school library and read them multiple times, cover to cover, to prove to my parents that I was dedicated to owning a rodent. I put in extra effort with chores and helping around the house, and I promised to contribute what little money I had to pet care expenses. I think I even gave a presentation about hamsters in school. Thinking back, I’m not sure what my fascination with hamsters was. I was a big fan of the Hamtaro show that aired on Cartoon Network in that era, and I think that fed into my love for them, but I was borderline obsessed with hamsters. The first “series” I ever wrote was about the adventures of a superhero hamster named Hammer Hamster and his sidekick, a gerbil named Fuzz. Unfortunately, this was before the era of typed writing assignments, so no drafts remain of those stories, but I may revive the stories someday. I was also really into bats at the time, so it might have just been a strange admiration for rodents.
Eventually, my persistent requests for a pet hamster paid off – and on one fine Saturday morning, my mom took me to a local pet store to pick one out. I settled on an adorable, chubby-cheeked brown-furred creature, which I happily dubbed Sophie.
We re-purposed the old fish tank to serve as a hamster habitat, filled it with fluffy bedding, set up a wheel so she could stay active, and ensured she had a full water source and lots of food. For those first few days, I loved watching her toddle around her cage, run around in her exercise wheel, and I even picked her up (in a cup, because I was scared she would bite me) and stroked her on the head to try and establish a rapport. For a while, everything was okay… but really, no amount of research could have prepared me for owning a beast like Sophie.
Sophie was the hamster from hell.
It’s probably my fault for not getting her acclimated to being held by humans early enough, but after a couple of weeks, she became utterly vicious. Every time I tried to pick her up and transport her to a smaller carrier so I could clean her cage, she snapped at me, and even gave me a couple of nasty bites. She, being primarily nocturnal, would run in her wheel at all hours of the night, and the squeaking would keep me awake, so we had to relocate her to the family room. After the old aquarium cracked, we got her a new cage; but it was much more difficult to clean, and thus, the rodent “odor” was much worse than it had previously been. The books did not prepare me near well enough for the odor.
The turning point was when I’d had Sophie for several months, and I decided to take her to visit my fifth grade class. In a bizarre turn of fate, the receptionist at my elementary school was out that day, and a substitute had stepped in – a substitute who happened to work at a local pet store. She looked into Sophie’s cage and said, “Oh, how sweet! What’s his name?”
My subsequent thought was, “….His?”
I don’t remember the exact wording of the ensuing conversation, but basically, my mom and I found out that Sophie was, in fact, not a female. Trust me – we were all fooled, so it wasn’t easy to tell. From that point on, Sophie was renamed Sammy. I wondered for months afterward if Sophie’s ever-growing resentment of me was due to my almost year-long confusion over his/her gender… and I suppose I’ll never know. But his hostility never waned.
The newly-named Sammy eventually took up residence in the top “compartment” of his new cage, where he proceeded to hoard food, eat obscene amounts of seeds, smell terrible, and sleep all day in a collection of his own urine and feces. He eventually stopped running in his wheel, and, as such, put on a significant amount of weight. He didn’t want to play, or interact, or do anything but eat and sleep. Any efforts to be affectionate toward him were met with open hatred. Owning a hamster was nothing like I expected it to be; there were basically no fun times to be had, no bonding experiences with my furry “pal.” It was a lot of responsibility, and, as the charm of owning a pet wore off, I gradually slacked off my duties. He was always fed/watered and his cage was clean, but I put in the bare minimum of effort. Sammy lived for over 4 years, when the average life span of a hamster is about 2-3 years. I was half convinced that Sammy was immortal for a little while, because even though he stopped exercising and led a completely sedentary existence, he survived well into old hamster age. He was practically ancient, by the end. Maybe he struck a bargain with the hamster devil, I’m not sure…. or maybe he was the hamster devil.
Then, one day, my mom informed me that she had glanced into his cage and saw that he wasn’t moving. Sammy had passed on to the next life. I felt a stab of sadness; the bittersweet close of a chapter. And I knew, in that moment, that my chances of ever owning another rodent again were slim to none, because I am not equipped for it. I could never handle another Sammy.
I lament that I never developed a true bond with Sammy – that we more or less just existed in the same space, bearing no affection for one another. Regardless, I will never forget Sophie/Sammy, my gender confused, grouchy, obese pet hamster – and from our time together, I learned many valuable lessons; mostly about expectations versus reality. The actual experience of owning my own pet was not the rosy, cheerful time that I anticipated after reading all those pet-care books and watching a cartoon about little hamsters and their big adventures. Now, before taking on similar responsibilities, I carefully weigh my options and research exactly what will be expected. I don’ t consider, “Oh, it’ll be fun!
to be an adequate reason to take on a pet or something similar.
As I kid, I didn’t know what pet ownership would be like. Now, as an adult, I have a cat – and it’s enough. My cat spurns most gestures of affection, just like me, so she fits totally fine within the household and she doesn’t require a demanding level of care. In fact, some days I don’t even see her except when she comes around to whine for food. Thanks to Sammy and our tempestuous time together, I know my limitations; the level of dedication I can achieve as a pet owner – and I hope Sammy is somewhere on the hamster wheel of the afterlife, enjoying a nice, leisurely spin before a nap and a sunflower seed feast.