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Lions Roar : September 2019
Hamsters on the Wheel of Life JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG says hamsters show us the fleeting delicacy of life, and that even the tiniest lives have meaning. Three pet owners explore the joys, lessons, and sometimes sorrows of living with their animal companions. JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG is the TV columnist for BBC Culture and the author of Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. She’s a frequent contributor to Lion’s Roa r. A CHINESE DWARF HAMSTER, even fully grown, will fit neatly in the palm of your hand. Holding one, it’s as if you’re feeling the delicate ingredients of sentience itself. Beneath the hamster’s impossibly soft, gray and white fur, every feathery bone is palpable, especially the jutting scapulae. The little heart beats at electric-razor speed, even at rest, in a low vibratory hum. Jet-black eyes stare unself- consciously and breath cycles through a pink nose the size of a dewdrop. I have had various dwarf hamsters for about seven years now, and every time I scoop one out of the cage, I am awed anew. What trust these defenseless creatures place in me, a human who could crush them with one squeeze! It’s hard to fathom their role in evolution—their “point” in nature— beyond serving as owl food. They are. Yet here they are, so tiny and relatively docile. They trust me and they bring me joy, almost exclusively because of that trust (and their remarkable cuteness). The first time I saw a dwarf hamster, I knew I had to have one. Not only were they very cute and very small, they were also easy to care for and could be left alone for up to a week, as long as they had a full food bowl and water bottle. Even with this simplicity, caring for them comes with chal- lenges. They have a short life span—two years at most—and are prone to diabetes. I lost my first dwarf hamster, Simone, after just a few months because I didn’t yet know the signs of diabe- tes (drinking excessive amounts of water, for instance). When my partner Jesse and I moved in together in 2012, we began a cycle: Get two sister hamsters, then when both are dead, get two new ones. Two unrelated hamsters can’t live together—one will likely kill the other. Hence the pair system. We’re on our fourth pair, Gertrude and Hazel, right now. We’ve seen hamsters die of cancer, violent wheel-running acci- dents, and simple old age. Some pairs cuddle while some fight vocally with each other. (An outburst sounds like a squeaky toy.) One of our pairs had to be put into separate cages even though they were sisters because their fights got visibly violent. Over time, we got used to their tiny lifespans. While we still grieve every loss with a short Buddhist chant over a tiny card- board coffin, we are emotionally prepared. What’s remarkable is the way their short lives distinguish themselves. Mae, for instance, lived a long (just over two years) and glamorous life: she had distinctive white fur around her neck that resembled a stole, and she became a French model when a European web- site about hamsters asked to use a photo of her that Jesse had posted online. She illustrates its entry about Chinese dwarf hamsters. Mae also loved to build elaborate structures out of the fluff used to line her cage. Then there were Ada and Grace, the sisters who had to be sep- arated. They were estranged after Ada slashed Grace’s eye with her claws, but they died within weeks of each other, perhaps still emotionally connected, or so their owners like to imagine. Our hamsters have given us a new appreciation of imper- manence and the ways we impose our own stories onto life events. But these aren’t the only Buddhist concepts our ham- sters have helped illuminate for us. I am awed most by their Furry Friends on the Path LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 62