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BAD RAP Blog
It should be little surprise to readers of this blog that I have always been a bit into animals. My childhood dogs have featured heavily on this space, but the truth is I’ve had a wide variety of animals when I was a kid.
From grades 4-6, I was a hamster fanatic. At the time, it was very difficult for North American children to buy dwarf hamsters. The mainstay of the hamster world was the golden or Syrian hamster, and there were very few people breeding for docility in pet hamster strains. The goal was to produce as many different morphs as possible with very little regard to the temperament of the hamster.
As a result, many children from my generation have horror stories about biting hamsters. Over my years of hamster keeping, I came to accept their bites as part of keeping them.
I got into hamsters rather on a lark. I was always reading the Barron’s pet guides, many of which were translations of German pet manuals, and the one on hamsters was written by Otto von Frisch.
The book was not just a pet care manual. It was full of anecdotes about pet hamsters, as well as discussions of scientific studies on their behavior. It also talked a lot about the Central European ideas about hamster, for as I learned from that book, that there are hamsters native to Germany and Austria (the very large common hamster). The species was well-known to farmers in the region as an agricultural pest and as a rather vicious creature that shouldn’t be messed with. As someone who predominant ancestry is from that region, I was quite fascinated by these accounts.
And I knew I had to have a pet hamster.
After much pleading, I was given permission to get a hamster, provided I kept it at my grandparents’ house. My mother was an extreme murophobe, and I had to accept her conditions.
The first hamster I got was what was called a black-eyed cream. I named her Linda, because I was a child and thought that was a nice name. And her variety may have been black-eyed cream, but her tendency to bite led to her receiving the moniker “the black-eyed bitch.”
I soon found that it was very easy to get hamsters. People were quite literally giving me new ones, including an old long-haired female that live for about two weeks then fell over dead from old age.
I longed, though, for a true “wild type” hamster. I wanted one that was marked just as the wild ones are in Syria, with white cheek flashes and sabled golden coats.
I never was able to purchase such an animal. The closed I got was what was called a cinnamon hamster. She was marked just like a wild type, but she had no black hair at all on her pelt.
She had come from Walmart, where she had been kept in a cage with several banded hamsters. The banded ones were wild type in color, but they had a white band going through their mid-section. I had managed to get two females from that cage: this cinnamon one and a banded one.
Two weeks later, the cinnamon hamster dropped pink babies all over her cage. Apparently, a male hamster had been kept with her, and she was just in the early days of her pregnancy when I got her.
In five days, their fur started to grow in. 9 were wild-type but banded, but one was wild type in full!
I didn’t understand my Mendel in those days. The banded trait is dominant over the non-banded, and the wild-type markings are dominant over the cinnamon. Cinnamon bred to a banded wild-type would produce young that were banded wild-type, but if the wild-type were a carrier for a non-banded hamster, it is possible to get at least one in the litter that lacked a white band.
That’s what this hamster was, and I was instantly transfixed. I spent my summer that year handling hamster babies, knowing fully-well the stories of mother hamsters eating their young if they were stressed.
The young wild-type hamster was a male, and he became the tamest hamster I ever knew. I named him Houdini, after a children’s book I had read, but he really didn’t live up to his namesake. He escaped a few times– always because I left a latch on the cage a little loose– but he was easily recovered.
One time, he did escape and was gone for several days. I was certain that he had wandered out of the house and had eventually fallen prey to some nocturnal predator.
I had all but given up on him, so I sat with a heavy heart in my grandparents’ guest room watching Nature on PBS. I heard some rumbling sounds in the wall. I thought I was hearing things, but the rumbling sound grew louder and louder.
I then caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Houdini crawling along the side of the wall. He stopped and sniffed the air, and he scurried right up to me and let me pick him up.
My childhood mind said that Houdini came to me because he loved me. My adult mind now recognizes that Houdini recognized me as a source for food. He had spent several days wandering around the walls of my grandparents’ house and had become famished in his freedom. He caught my scent on his evening travels, and he came to me to figure out if I might have some food.
But a child’s mind saw Houdini as the Lassie of the hamsters. He’d come home out of the walls just because he loved me.
Despite that childhood flight of fancy, the hamsters taught me much. I learned what it was like to be around an animal that utterly has no use for humanity. Dogs and horses are personable animals, but a hamster is solitary, remote, and mostly nocturnal (at least in captivity).
The world they reveal is a world in which territory matters the most. The males have greasy scent glands on their hips that they rub along their tunnels to mark their realms. The females have a musty odor, and when they are receptive to males– every four days if not bred–they get quite stinky indeed.
I got to where I could tell if a female hamster was receptive just by the intensity of the odor. This odor is an adaptation to a species with such hyper territorial behavior that they are forced to live pretty far from each other. The strong estrus odor of a female hamster is necessary to announce to the male that it is okay for him to enter her territory and mate with her. When she is not receptive, she will attack any hamster, male or female, that comes near. In this species the females are bigger and fatter than the males, and males that don’t heed the odors wind up with a dangerous situation indeed.
These captive hamsters– all derived from a single litter captured near Aleppo in the 1930s– opened my eyes to another world.
The solitary Syrian hamster lives and breeds well in captivity, but it is still mostly a wild animal. In the past few years, breeders have produced truly more docile strains of hamster, but I knew them in the raw.
In fact, I think that if I were ever to be a hamster keeper again, I would try to get a little more of the more rugged strain. I would not be buying a cute pet for the kids. I would be be buying an animal that I wish to appreciate as a wild being with its own instincts and drives and desires. I would want to be the naturalist hamster lover again. I would keep them with the cool detachment of an adult who understands animal behavior and not the childhood anthropomorphism or “cynomorphism” that turned them into furry people or severely debased dogs.
The Syrian hamster will always mean a lot to me. They were terrible pets for the typical child, but they were the ideal subjects for a budding young naturalist who needed to know animals that weren’t dogs or horses.
They opened my mind to something else, and I will always appreciate them for their indifference and their solitary grumpiness and their general remoteness.
This is my contribution to Rodent Week.
I’m a sucker for good ol’ fashioned classic kids’ Halloween costumes. There are so many options available these days in comparison to when I was growing up, especially character-themed ones – and that’s great, because it makes things a lot easier for parents. But I am just so drawn to simple, classic costumes. Maybe that’s because my mom made most of ours, so I feel nostalgic about more traditional costumes with homemade vibes. And I have such wonderful, vivid memories of dressing up as a very handmade Little Bo Peep, and of my baby sister pretending to fly around the room as a truly adorable toddler bat. There’s just something I find so endearing about those kinds of costumes.
Last year, Essley asked repeatedly to be a pumpkin (as seen in the photos above). I found her this pumpkin costume for $ 29 and absolutely adored it – it’s so well made and I think Emmett will be able to wear it next year if he wants to be a pumpkin. I found a comfy pair of simple skeleton jammies (here’s a similar set for $ 14) and a little black beanie for Emmett to wear. I thought they looked so sweet together in their no fuss, classic costumes.
This year, Essley wants to be a mermaid, and I think we’re going to do a cute, no frills dinosaur for Emmett. I’m fully aware of the fact that sooner than later, my kids are going to want to pick out costumes that will likely be store bought and character-themed. (This could possibly even occur this year; if the dinosaur doesn’t work out, we’re going for Emmett’s second favorite thing: Elmo.) And that’s wonderful! But for now, I’m going to continue swooning over the more classic varieties. If you’re on the same page as I am, here is a list of ideas for simple, traditional costumes.
- Black Cat
- Simple Princess or Prince
- Simple Superhero
- Ballet Dancer
- Ladybug or Bee
- Animal (Lion, Dog, Bear, etc.)
If you have kids, what are they wearing this year? Do you have a costume picked out for yourself yet?
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From The Dog Lady’s mailbag:Collection of striking black-and-white portraits that perfectly illustrate the loving relationship between dogs and their owners. After over twenty years of working as a professional photographer, Sally Grace knows what makes a great image. One of the cardinal rules she has learned over the course of her career is that bringing […]
Swimming pools can be a lot of fun on a hot day, but they can also be dangerous. The Kennedy family on the Gold Coast of Australia had reason to be grateful for their smart dog when they were reminded of those dangers!
According to 7 News, The West Australian, Marilyn Kennedy suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. The Mayo Clinic notes that this progressive disease “is the most common cause of dementia.” It affects 1/10 of Americans age 65 and older, notes The Alzheimer’s Association. However, like many couples of all ages, Marilyn and Barry enjoy having a pet as part of their family. They have a beloved dog, Bob, whom they adopted from a shelter.
On a recent day, Marilyn was outside while Barry was doing laundry indoors. Suddenly Bob interrupted Barry. Barry told reporters, “Bob the dog came in barking and staring at me, and he was whimpering and I knew there was something wrong.”
Bob had been outside with Marilyn when she fell into the pool fully clothed and was unable to get herself out. Thankfully, he ran inside to find Barry and lead the concerned husband outside to Marilyn. Barry was able to help his struggling wife safely out of the pool. Despite the ordeal, Marilyn ultimately ended up being unhurt by her fall.
It was Bob’s quick thinking that saved her life. Barry told reporters that, but for Bob’s intervention, he “would have probably have been two or three more minutes in the laundry which would probably have been fatal.” Barry continued, to praise Bob, saying, “He saved my wife’s life, it’s fantastic. It really bonds us as a family.” We’re happy that Barry and Marilyn once saved Bob’s life by adopting him, and that then he was able to repay the favor by saving Marilyn’s life when she needed help. What a good dog!