Sunday, July 5, 2009

My son's hamster almost died in my care

My son and I have been at odds over the setup of his hamster cages. We keep them in large, plastic bins, to avoid getting hamster bedding — and poop — spread all over the family room. He likes to leave the sides of the cages open, so the hamsters can wander in and out at will. I like to keep the sides closed. The bins are tall enough, so they can't get loose, but I figure all it takes is one super-bionic hamster jump, and we've lost a pet. With my son, I pick and choose battles, so I decided to let him and the hamsters win this one.

We have two hamsters now — Christopher Ryan and Mary. We had to separate them into two cages because Christopher is mean. He scratches and bites when you try to hold him, and he was putting a good beating on his female counterpart. Mary is sweet. She loves to be held and petted, and will stand on her hind legs and squeak when someone approaches. My son loves both of his hamsters, but obviously Mary is, hands-down, the preferred rodent in our household.

When my wife and son left for Las Vegas last week, I was left in charge of caring for my son's pets. I didn't mind. It was a chore that didn't require much of my time — I fed them daily, checked their water bottles, that was it. I didn't sign on to play with them, but I did look in on them daily. Everything seemed fine, until yesterday.

Late last night after I finished painting for the day, I was cruising the internet when something — intuition, maybe — told me to check on the hamsters. I sat my laptop aside and went to look. As usual, the mean one was working his cardio on the exercise wheel, completely ignoring my presence. Rat! I checked his water bottle, and it was mostly full. Then I added a bit more food to his bowl.

I looked towards Mary's cage, expecting her to be up on hind legs, begging to be picked up. She wasn't. She likes to sleep in an empty paper towel tube we keep in the bin next to her cage. I figured she was asleep, though I thought it strange because both hamsters are very active at night. Her cage smelled fowl, but then, too, it hadn't been changed in over a week. I returned to my computer.

Today, before heading into work, I checked on the hamsters again. Chris was asleep, and Mary was still in the paper towel tube. I thumped the side expecting her to come out. But nothing. I knew something was wrong.

Her bowl was still filled with food, so I hadn't starved the poor thing to death. And her water bottle was still mostly full. But when I looked at the sides of her cage, my heart sank: My son had capped the openings on either side of her cage. She had been locked out for more than a week, and while I had checked her water bottle every day, I didn't know she couldn't reach it. Nine days is a long time for a golf-ball-size creature to go without water, especially when it's been 100-plus degrees outside everyday.

I turned the tube on its side, but Mary didn't come out. Oh my gosh, she's dead and stiff and stuck inside this damn tube! I knew if my son returned from Las Vegas to a dead hamster, he'd blame it on me. After all, he'd left his precious Mary in my care. That's not the story I wanted told for years to come.

Looking through the end of the tube, I could see her silhouette, so I shook it again. She tumbled out, stood up on her hind legs, but then sluggishly fell over on her side. It was like she was drunk. Was she on the brink of death or simply groggy from a nap? I didn't know, but she had lost a lot of weight and didn't look good. I snatched up her water bottle and offered it to her. She drank like she hadn't had anything to drink in a week because, well, she hadn't.

I held her and stroked her back. I felt bad because in the past I'd refused to hold her. The idea of holding a creature that licks itself clean. Rodent saliva . . . um, yuck. She trembled, but soon return to her normal self.

The incident made me late for work, so I put her back in her cage and dashed out the door.

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