Elegy on a Rodent
American throw-away culture extends even to pet ownership
I was raised in a household that had few pets: a fish that lasted about a year, a cat that wound up moving in with the neighbors, and another cat that I insisted on adopting and then promptly left when I moved away for college six months later. Ours was not a household of “fur babies,” and that was something that I was always pleased with. We didn’t have to buy pet food, pick up poop, pay expensive vet bills, remove fur from clothes and furniture, or deal with beloved pets dying.
Now that I’m married and have four kids, however, it is clear that my children do not feel the same way. So, when the opportunity arose to pet-sit their cousins’ hamster, they were ecstatic. Frankly, I was ecstatic too, because this foray into pet ownership would only last a fortnight. The worst that could happen was the hamster doesn’t last the full two weeks in our care and we wrap up the lesson earlier than planned with enough guilt to prevent the topic of pet ownership from ever coming up again.
I kept thinking, “Oh well, the hamster likely won’t make it out of our house alive.” And that was acceptable to me. After all, hamsters only live for a year or two anyway, so it was to be expected sooner or later. As the refrain goes, “We’ll just buy another one” and “the kids won’t be able to tell the difference.” The hamster was completely replaceable and expendable.
But eventually I realized that my callous attitude toward the hamster was wrong. It was only after discussing the hamster cage, accessories, and amenities that I glibly remarked that the cage was worth more than the hamster. Then it clicked. Wait, the cage costs more, but is it worth more? The cage lasts longer, but what is the value of the cage versus the worth of the animal?
A little research on hamsters, primarily a 2011 article from Smithsonian Magazine, reveals that little is known of wild hamster populations. Most household pets (and lab specimens, for that matter) are Syrian hamsters which were brought to the United States in the 1930s. A mother and her 10 babies were collected from a wheat field near Aleppo, Syria, and their numbers quickly dwindled. The mother ate one baby and was then immediately euthanized. As hamsters do, five of the growing pups escaped from their cages leaving only four: a male and three females. Honoring family tradition, the male cannibalized one of the females, and then there were three. The male chose one of his sisters and, much to the scientists’ surprise, they mated and had a litter of pups. In all, they produced 150 offspring.
The hamster sitting in our porch (spoiler alert: it’s still alive!) is a descendent from this line of hamsters, meaning that the entire lineage is the result of inbreeding. This has resulted in high rates of congenital congestive heart failure, which makes hamsters a prime research subject for scientists studying human heart disease.
In summary, hamsters came to the U.S. as a research tool, subject to experiments and trials. They never established any wild populations and now are found for $15 each at chain pet stores. They are notorious for escaping from their cages and are genetically disposed to die early. Clearly my unfeeling attitude toward the animal has roots in the culture. And what culture is that? The throw-away culture that permeates the U.S.: from clothing and food waste to natural resource consumption and even pet ownership. We cannot be bothered to take care of our possessions; and they’re cheap enough that we don’t need to think about how or why they came to be, only that we need to buy more.
Immediately I decided to take this time with the hamster more seriously — yes, for the hamster’s sake, but as a way to communicate something more important to our children. We borrowed library books to learn more about what hamsters need and like. We treat the hamster with respect, not subjecting it to needless stress. We clean the cage, a little more often than necessary, but to everyone’s benefit. And there are no more jokes about returning to their cousins an empty cage.
While I may not be the one to cuddle and pet the hamster, I am going to make sure that it is well taken care of. I am going to make sure that my children don’t think that this creature is disposable. It turns out that doing so may be more radical than I ever realized it could be.
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