When we took in Abby the hamster over a year ago, we knew our relationship would be fairly short-term: “teddy bear” hamsters live only two years on average, three at most, and we don’t know how old she was when we adopted her from the Korean girl who (regretfully) had to give her up.
Hamster-keeping is not difficult compared to other pets. Keeping the cage clean is the only part that’s like “work.” Abby slept most of the time – hamsters are crepuscular, meaning neither diurnal nor nocturnal, but active at dawn and dusk. So every evening Abby would arise, yawn, travel through her plastic tunnel from Main Cage to Auxiliary Cage, ramble on her wheel, and sooner or later come to the front door and rattle the bars.
That was my signal. The wild Syrian hamster from which Abby descended is a solitary desert animal. Living in burrows for safety from predators and the desert heat, she emerges in the twilight to travel around her territory, collecting imperishable food in her cheek pouches, and bringing it back to stow in her dry underground granary as a fallback for the all-too-frequent times of drought or famine. We tried to model Abby’s daily routine on this, and she soon learned to shake the cage bars in the evening when it was time to come out. I’d bring her out and put her into one of her play areas (one made from a 10-gallon aquarium, the other a collapsible fence “playpen” I could set up on the carpet) with a wheel and food scattered about randomly. She’d gather a few morsels, stuffing them into her cheek pouches with her tiny hand-like paws, and then run on the wheel for a bit before gathering more – an analog to the behavior of her wild ancestors. Sometimes she’d go for a ride in my palms to the kitchen for tiny helpings of fresh vegetables or a slice of apple or grape. Fresh food would be eaten on the spot, sitting up so she could manipulate it deftly with her “hands,” or shoved comically into the cheek pouches. Every couple of days she’d also get time in her hamster ball, but it was not a substitute for the play area.
How “interactive” hamsters are is a matter of opinion. Abby didn’t follow me around with the soulful gaze of my dogs, nor did she communicate her every whim like my parrots. She mostly just trundled around doing her thing. But she never rattled her cage door to come out unless she could see a human, so she definitely knew we were the key to getting “out time.”
Abby saved her most expressive communication for the end of her nightly rambles. When she was done, she’d come over to the side and look at me. As I approached, she’d stand up on her hind feet and streeeeeetch up as high as she could, anticipating the climb into my hands and the ride back to Hamster Base. “Pick me up!” she seemed to be saying. “Pick me up!”
Abby was the quintessential innocent. An amiable and inoffensive creature, she just did her thing unperturbed, never showing anything I recognize as anger or fear, despite the fact that her sometimes-clumsy human handlers weigh (according to the veterinary scale and a quick check of Google calculator) about 740 times what she does. Aside from one exploratory pinch when first getting to know me, which didn’t break the skin, she never bit anyone, even when I occasionally accidentally dropped her the last inch while setting her down, even when examined by the doctor last week, even when being medicated by syringe. Everyone’s commented on how sweet she was.
Recently Abbie stopped rattling her cage bars to come out at night. At first we wondered if she was just getting old, but after examining her and deciding it might be something acute (and thus treatable) we took her to our vet.
For a while, she seemed to recover her interest in food and her surroundings, but she was physically enfeebled.
In our efforts to give her a little more quality time, I took Abby outside into the fresh grass – something I’d not done before now, for fear of losing her, but there was no chance now that she’d evade my grasp. She sniffed everything with detached interest, and even explored a little, but soon settled down to nap. The weather was growing cooler, so I picked her up – like an object, no longer a little bright-eyed purposeful creature whose arms reached up to me.
We gave her a variety of soft foods, including “recovery mash” and human baby food, and fresh veggies. My wife prepared tiny glass plates of goodies twice a day.
But Abby was not really recovering her energy. And one night, she raised a tiny paw to push away one of the syringes of her medicine, turning her head, an intensely human gesture that sent a pang through us.
And we knew it was time. Abby stopped eating. My wife held her close all evening, and the next day took her in.
I too am going to miss our little pick-me-up.
Surprisingly, another member of our family might feel the same way. Our senior dog, Sadie, had always been extraordinarily interested in Abby, focusing on her intently the moment we brought her out, even to the point of being uncharacteristically pushy. Sadie has a history of being gentle with small animals she’s met on her walks. We were intrigued, but could we trust her not to hurt little Abby?
Sometimes dogs will lick their lips when they’re nervous, and sometimes they will lick their own noses when they’re sniffing the air (perhaps it helps them smell better?). When we held Abby near, shielding her with our hands, the way Sadie’s tongue came alive did not persuade us to allow her unrestricted access.
But now Abby is beyond any hurt. And so, for the first and only time, she permitted Sadie to touch Abby’s small body. Vibrating with eagerness, Sadie struggled to control herself and sit, her tail swooshing furiously, as the object of her long-restrained interest approached. And then, with great delicacy, the solid and muscular dog sniffed the body of her tiny housemate. At last, her tongue emerged. She licked Abby, gently, exactly once.