It is time for me to talk about the hamsters: the hamsters that run through the whirring wheel of my nightmares; the hamsters I wronged. They demand justice. They want their stories to be told.
My cousin and her boyfriend came to stay and brought two cages full of hamsters, dozens, of all different sizes and shapes. But the cages were covered in thick excrement, the water bottles were dry, and there was no food. I closed the living room door and took them out of their cages. Some of them were dehydrated and dying. Others scuttled off under couches and tables. I gave the poorly ones water and let the others roam free while I wrapped soiled sawdust in newspaper, scrubbed sudsily at plastic coated bars.
My visitors didn’t help; they sat in armchairs smoking fags. Now and again, they’d leave the room without closing the door, endangering many lives.
I got one cage clean and put some of the hamsters back. But every time I went to retrieve another little twitchy-nose from behind an armchair or under the carpet, I’d turn around to find that three more had escaped.
I was trying to figure out if I had any cable ties to secure the cage doors, when I looked up and saw a giant rat eyeing my fluffy charges hungrily. Oh shit, I thought, I’ve got to kill this thing before the carnage begins. But the rat looked me dead in the eye and threatened me, “my friends know where I am, and if you kill me, they’ll come looking.”
I awoke, scared, then relieved. I snuggled into my boyfriend, who asked if I was okay. “Hamsters,” I said, and he pity cuddled me.
I got my first hamster when I was 7. I called it Hammy because I was a bit crap at the time. Having Hammy taught me about responsibility. I had to clean out the cage once a week, keep him watered and fed, play with him regularly, and always, always close my bedroom door. Otherwise our dog, Lady – who expressed a deep carnivorous interest in Hammy – would kill him.
One day, when Hammy was about 1 and I was about 8, my older brother went into my room to get the tape player we shared because my parents scammed us into communal birthday presents for years. Clearly lacking my levels of responsibility, he left the door open. When I returned indoors from a competitive game of tennis against the side of the house, Hammy’s masticated body lay bloody on my bedroom floor, amid the wreckage of his tiny life.
I wailed and lamented. I almost kicked the dog. My brother was sorry. My babysitter Mary, said, “whisht now, can’t you get another one?”
When Mum got in from work that evening I began wailing once more, because the sight of Mums in time of tragedy will do that to a soul. “Sure she was grand for hours and she’s only taking on now,” remarked Mary disparagingly.
Mum made her way to my bedroom. She picked up Hammy’s crushed body, and – to her astonishment – felt his heart flutter. Hammy lived! She put him in a cardboard box and asked Mary to stay another half hour so that she could rush to the vet.
Three days later, Mum and I went to collect Hammy together. His hair was chopped short in places – for veterinary reasons, you understand. Otherwise, he looked well and happy. There weren’t even any scars.
I believed this story until I was 15. It’s the vet’s collusion that stings the most.
Sneaky replacement Hammy slipped seamlessly into the life of his predecessor, with one major difference. He lived high on a shelf, where Lady could not eat him ever again.
Until she did. About a year later, she did eat him again. She was a smart dog, Lady. The fact that I do not remember the exact circumstances of Hammy’s second grisly demise indicates that it was probably my fault and not my either of my brothers’. My mind has not filed replacement Hammy’s death meticulously under “times I was wronged,” but, rather, scattered it haphazardly into “things for which I should perhaps take responsibility.” Thus the particulars are hazy.
What was the cage doing on the floor? What was the dog doing in my room? These details are lost to me. I only recall another horror scene – another mauled tawny corpse upon the sawdust-strewn carpet.
This time, my mother allowed me to learn hard truths about dogs, hamsters, and mortality. However, Christmas was not too far away, and Santa, lacking a hamster death count column on his naughty and nice spreadsheet, put me down for another little scuttlebum.
On December 25th, I met Woppa. She was extremely fat and cute and quite cranky, but I was sure she’d come round when she realized what a responsible 9-year-old she had to take care of her. She was also inhabiting Hammy’s old cage, which, in hindsight, meant that my parents spent about a fiver on my Christmas present. I was delighted!
Woppa wasn’t into coming out to play and she didn’t seem to want to run on her wheel or, in fact, to do anything much. When I tried to pick her up, she bit me! She took the carrots I proffered, sucked them industriously into her check pouches and then returned to hiding in her hamster house.
This is because Woppa was pregnant. And two days later, she had a litter of approximately a million pups. She ate a few – the responsible thing to do – then reared four.
For the first week, baby hamsters are disgusting and it is little wonder their mothers eat them. I would certainly eat them rather than have them sucking at my titties. A Syrian hamster gestation period is just 18 days, so these things are basically embryos. They look like dry slivers of gammon with gaping mouths.
However, after about two weeks the creepy film of skin that covers their eyes disappears and they grow downy fur and start looking less like low budget CGI space maggots and more like, well, hamsters. Tiny hamsters! Adorable hamsters! I was in love with them – with Mama Woppa and her four bubble-headed, gamboling babies: Chewy, Cola, Spear, and Minty. I wanted to keep them all.
This tale of hamster horror could have ended here. My parents could have said, okay, that was fun, but it is time to find homes for four of your five-for-the-price-of-one hamsters. Instead, either because I was spoiled or because my parents bought into my delusions of responsibility, they acquiesced to my batshit demands.
Syrian hamsters are solitary creatures, which – along with their friendly temperaments, cleanliness, and outrageous cuteness – is part of why they make great pets. Your hamster loves to play with you in the evenings, but she will not get lonely all alone up high in her hamster castle. In fact, she likes it better that way. She is the Enya of the animal world.
Hamsters should not be kept together. I sort of knew this, but sort of ignored it, and, when the babies were sexually mature at 4 weeks, I bought just one extra cage. One for the boys – Chewy, Spear, and Minty – and one for the girls, Woppa and Cola.
There was also only one shelf in my room, so the cages were kept right beside each other. This meant that we had three sexually-mature solitary male rodents within pheromones’ breadth of two sexually-mature solitary female rodents, separated by only an inch of space and thin metal bars. We had unwittingly designed a hamster Guantanamo.
The hamsters, driven mad by unwanted company and unavailable sex, fought viciously. They ripped each other’s pretty moon-shaped ears to biteens. Spear developed a skin disease from the stress and his fur fell out in scaly chunks.
One day I took the boys’ cage down to find that Spear and Chewy had murdered sweet, flaxen-haired Minty. They had ripped open his torso with their able incisors, and pulled out his ribcage. Their cage had two storeys, and Minty’s evacuated cadaver lay lifeless on the lower level, his black eyes shriveled and glazed, while his bones and organs bled from on high, dripping pink down the dinky hamster staircase.
Now there were 4. Which is still too many hamsters for a 10 year old to take care of.
Once a week, the cages had to be cleaned. I’d let the hamsters run around the bathroom while I did this – boys first, then girls. When the summer came and my family went on holiday, my good friend from down the road kindly came over to mind the fur-babies. She took a little short cut when it came to cleaning time and just lobbed all the hamsters in the bathroom together.
When we came back from Connemara, Cola was up the duff, and a few days later, Woppa was a grandma. (Thankfully, she did not eat her grand-babies.) The incestuous spawn didn’t seem any the worse off for their improper parentage, and when they were four weeks old I sold them to Galway pet shop for a pound a piece. Seven quid, lads. Seven whole quid. This gave me an idea.
I decided to breed Cola again. I told Mum of this plan and she did not dissuade me. If I wanted to set up an incestuous hamster breeding business, who was she to dampen my entrepreneurial ambition?
The second batch of hamster pups did not bake as well as the first. They came out red-eyed and scrawny. The pet shop didn’t want them and the fact that I cannot remember exactly what we did with them is probably a protective psychological device.
I am 11. I wear nail varnish. I like Blur. I know all the words to Boombastic. Hamsters are not cool anymore.
I start to neglect them.
I no longer take the hamsters down every evening to let them run around or burrow, all ticklish, through the sleeves of my jumper. Then I no longer take them down every second evening. Or every third. Their water bottles start to run dry. Their cages start to smell.
I am busy, choreographing dance routines to Ace of Base, practicing make up with my friends. I do feel guilty, but I always tell myself that I’ll look after the hamsters tomorrow.
The hamsters were old by this stage, their little ears papery bald, their noses no longer twitching at techno speed. They spent less time running in their wheels at night and more curled up in their soft cotton nests. When I did play with them they were creaky and slow, like Play-Doh that needed to be warmed up.
Woppa died first. Poor, mangy Spear went next. Cola burrowed into a wicker nest I’d given her and wouldn’t come out. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but I thought I heard her moving around sometimes late at night. Schrodinger’s hamster. Eventually I cut the wicker nest open and found her curled cold, stiff and departed. Chewy was the only one who got to spend some portion of his life in blessed solitude.
My hamster dreams are soaked in guilt. I didn’t take good care of little creatures that were completely dependent on me. They were not properly cleaned, or fed, or watered towards the ends of their lives, because I was lazy and selfish. My nightmare is my own cruelty.
Lately, my dreams try to atone for things – I scramble to scrub cages or rescue little fluffies from perilous situations. But there’s always something to stop me. An open door. A talking rat.
I can’t go back in time and un-neglect the hamsters. All I can so is say sorry.
Hammy, I should have been more careful. I should not have let Lady eat you, twice. Although once was Ronan’s fault.
Minty, you were a caramel fluff explosion, the plucky runt of the litter, who could find his way through any toilet-roll maze faster than a gal can say carrots. I am sorry I let your brothers pull out your rib-cage.
Woppa, you were a good Mama, even if you did eat a few babies, and even if you spent most of your life tearing the ears of your adult daughter to shreds. I am sorry she never moved out. That was on me.
Spear, my little chocolate-brown odd-man-out, boy could you run in that wheel. I am sorry I hormonally tortured you until you got a skin disease.
Cola, my waddle-rumped little fatty, you sure could pack a lot of hamster food into those cheek sacs. I am sorry I made you have sex with your brother for profit and also that I left you to die in a wicker nest that you possibly couldn’t climb out of. You haunt my dreams.
And Chewy, what you could do with those teeth. You could open any cage door, crack through any nut. And you even managed to gnaw your brother’s thorax in two, which is gross but sort of impressive. I’m sorry I turned you into a murderer. I’m sorry if you were ever thirsty or stinky or bored because of me.
My golden, washy-pawed snufflers – I am sorry. I would appreciate it if you could stop burrowing into my brain at night, but I fully understand if you decide to continue. I hope that somewhere – in the next life, in a parallel dimension – you each have your own cage. And I hope that no one ever thinks they’re too cool to care about you.
If it makes you feel any better about what you suffered, please know that I will never get another fucking hamster.