For a hamster, a ratty home just isn't good enough

MIKE LITTWIN

July 07, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

I was in the grocery store the other day when I saw it up there on the bulletin board, right next to a flier for a martial arts festival, or was it a marital arts festival. Anyway, the notice said: "Free hamsters to a good home."

Leading to the inevitable question: What actually constitutes a good home for a hamster?

I had to think about this for a moment. Is it a home laid out like a habitat trail, with a giant wheel in the den? Should all residents be required to lick their water from the end of a metal pipe? Is it good or bad to wear Mickey Mouse ears (on one hand, that could be interpreted as rodent-like solidarity; on the other, a not-so-subtle put-down, species-wise)?

Another question: How sensitive are hamsters, exactly? As an example, more or less sensitive than Alan Alda?

It's easy to figure out what a bad home for hamsters would be. It's the one you read about where somebody has 426 hunger-crazed cats in an apartment.

If you were to call the person giving away the hamsters, -- you wouldn't say "hamster owner," that's so proprietary; let's say host -- how would he ascertain the hamster-worthiness of your particular home?

There was once a classified ad in The Sun (this is true) that read: "Abandoned female shepherd mix. All shots. Has been abused. Needs permanent loving home with yard and cable TV."

I've got cable, although no premium channels. An abused pup might need HBO, but a hamster I think can settle for TNT.

A possible interview scenario:

Hamster host: Where do you stand on the hamster vs. guinea-pig controversy? And have you ever said to anybody, "You know, hamster tastes just like chicken?"

Prospective hamster host: Huh?

As it turns out, I am a veteran hamster host. But I'm still not sure I'd pass the test. I hate to say this, but all the hamsters who have ever lived in my house are now dead, in some cases having passed away under mysterious circumstances. In one such instance, the police said the case was better left unsolved.

Now, normally I'm not a hamster person. My preference in pets is definitely in the dog area. A dog can be depended on to greet you when you come home, and he'll tug on that sock with you way past the point of exhaustion. What I'm saying is, no matter what, your dog is there for you.

But my daughter was allergic to dogs, so we had to give Sandy away. She insisted on other pets as sort of an inalienable right of childhood. First, we got her a fish. But she was so pathetic carrying that big bowl -- with the fish inside and that castle at the bottom -- to school on pet day we knew we had to upgrade. Face it, the only thing a fish can do that's at all interesting is turn belly up.

So, we got a hamster instead. But our first hamster -- I think his name was Squinchy -- was desperately unhappy. We got him one of those hamster cages, but each night, he'd do his Steve McQueen imitation and try anything to get free. You'd see him biting at the wires of the cage, and it'd break your heart.

One day, we found Squinchy nose down at the bottom of the cage. It looked as if, in deep despair, he had leaped to his death, although, to be fair, there was no suicide note.

Our next hamster was, I think, Speedy. He was named Speedy because he spent every waking moment at full speed on that wheel. What's the deal with hamster wheels? Presumably, hamsters live somewhere in the wild, but I've never run across a hamster wheel out there. Are there little hamster carnivals where hamsters with tattoos charge young hamsters to ride on the wheel?

And then one day, with Speedy in mid-stroke, the wheel went silent. We knew immediately he was either posing for someone who likes to paint hamsters or he was fully in the throes of rigor mortis. And so it went. We'd buy 'em. They'd die. My daughter would cry.

What good is a hamster? Cages need to be cleaned, and the kids never do it. You can't actually play with a hamster, unless you've got a really small Frisbee.

Take one out of his cage and what does he do? He crawls up your arm and then runs away. Now a free hamster may bring joy to the animal rights folks, but a hamster is basically a rat. Meaning a freed hamster in your house is a freed rat in your house who may one day be crawling up your pants leg or napping on your pillow.

Now that I think about it, I know what constitutes a good house for a hamster: somebody else's house.

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