Requiem for a Hamster

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Missy's runway (1)

Missy in better days, with her cheek pouches crammed full of food and ready for a day of adventuring.

In October of 2012, a hamster entered our lives. She got the name ‘Missy’, which I thought of as a ridiculous name for a hamster, but she became Missy, and I loved her.

She was a cautious hamster, and gentle. She explored slowly. When we played with her, she walked with the air of someone who is expecting at any moment to be eaten by a predator. Over time, she became more comfortable with our house and would zoom from room to room. Hearing her little feet pattering as she runs under my chair at the computer is all it takes to make me smile. After a few months she would sometimes escape her cage to roam around the house at night, and it was enjoyable to think of the adventures she may have had while we were all asleep. She improved her skills until eventually she escaped her cage every night, sometimes within seconds of being put back in. She would stuff her face full of food for later, then climb out. A few times she got behind the cupboards for days at a time. Finally we had to put locks on the cage doors so she wouldn’t accidentally leave our house and die outside.

She appeared to not have much interest in anything other than cleaning herself, eating food, and pooping every ten seconds. I’ve never heard of a hamster that wouldn’t run on a wheel, but she never did. We left it in for the first few months she was with us, but after discovering her just sleeping on it several times, we took it out to give her more room for cleaning herself and pooping. We bought her a cardboard hamster castle – she immediately left it. We bought her a ledge to sit on – she never did. A fluffy fur-lined warm bed – nope. After watching videos on YouTube of hamsters cutely cleaning themselves in a sand bath, we bought her a kilogram of sand. We placed her in the sand. She stepped off, never to return. Each unused gift was annoying, but also hilarious – “Oh, that’s just Missy.”

I often wondered what she was thinking, whether she loved us the way we loved her. It’s hard to say. But when a creature barely two inches tall makes an escape from a cage, climbs two flights of stairs unassisted, climbs onto your bedside table, and makes tiny noises until you wake up so it can look at you, it certainly makes you wonder.

For the past few months, she’s been slowing down a little. That’s natural – everybody slows down when they get old, and coming up to her second birthday she was certainly getting old for a hamster. She stopped planning escape attempts. We took the locks off the cage. We held her. We petted her. We gave her tasty hamster treats. We got her a new kind of bedding, something softer, easier for her to use.

This October, two years after she first joined us, she slowed down a lot. She didn’t run around anymore, not even outside her cage. Sometimes she made a kind of wheezing sound. We took her to the vet, who said she had a lung infection, an eye infection (not too bad for her, since hamsters don’t use their eyes that much), and a large tumor on her left side. He said there was nothing to be done about the tumor, but showed us how to clean her eye and gave us antibiotics for her lung infection with a tiny syringe to administer 0.1 milliliters of it twice a day.

Just this week, she has stopped eating her food. We cooked her scrambled eggs, which we were advised would be easy for her to eat and give her lots of protein for energy. For a few days, she ate it. She even seemed to be getting better. Sometimes she fought against it when we gave her her antibiotics, which she hadn’t done at first, and that seemed like a good sign. She had trouble reaching her water bottle, so we put a platform under it for her to stand on. Then she stopped drinking, and we used the syringe to give her water. Then she stopped drinking that.

Apparently she also had a stroke sometime recently. She can’t stand up most of the time. She struggled to make her bed, and then became completely unable to burrow in the bedding. When she was still drinking for the past couple days, her head shook so much that I had to hold her still so she could get a few drops. If I go for an errand, I find my eyes blurred by tears from thoughts of Missy, from the good times we’ve had, from how she can’t do anything that she used to do, not even pooping, which seemed to be her favorite activity.

This morning, she was lying still in her bedding, which we had torn into extra small pieces to make it easier for her. We gave her the antibiotics, although it seemed like just a formality at that point. I knew, and I believe she knew, what today would bring. Her breathing was much too slow, just one shallow breath every several seconds. My wife held her and stroked her, warming Missy’s cold little body with her own. She kissed her and told her we loved her, which somehow, incredibly, brings me comfort. Harriet Beecher Stowe said the bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid. At least those words were not unsaid.

When I was a teenager, I had six hamsters. I didn’t name them. One of them ate the other five and then died the next day – apparently eating five hamsters in one day is not healthy. I didn’t feel sad. A few years ago we had another hamster named Nibbles, who was the absolute opposite of Missy (other than that he, too, was a hamster), and was frankly a jerk. He was rough, rowdy, always biting, throwing his bedding out of the cage, and probably hated us. He died young, after a life likely filled with bitterness and planning our murder. I didn’t miss him then, and I don’t now. I didn’t expect to feel anything for Missy, based on my past experiences with hamsters. But this hamster, small enough that I could hold three of her in one hand, and unable in her last days to even burrow into her own bed, has burrowed into my heart and will live there forever.

Let me know your thoughts!