For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a dog.  From an early age, I regularly pestered my mother with three grievances:

  1. Quit! Smoking!
  2. Mooo-oooom, Freddy’s bothering me!!!
  3. Please, please, PLEASE will you let me have a dog??

The first plea was ignored until I was 15, when she joined a smoking-cessation group, went cold turkey, and ended up quitting successfully on her first try.  On a side note, I’ve tried emulating her success with my sweets addiction.  I’ve failed.

The second plea refers to my brother.  Four and a half years my senior, he was was an unapologetic, unrepentant, and exceptionally skilled little-sister-tormentor.  Though we get along now, he was a pain in my ass for years, and by association, a pain in my mother’s.

The final plea was met with a unequivocal “NO” each time I begged, impervious as she was to my beseeching tone, puppy dog eyes, and impassioned vows to do anything – ANYTHING – she wanted me to do in exchange for a canine companion.  Even my dad would have liked a dog – a hunting dog, that is.  I didn’t care.  Any member of Canis lupus familiaris would do.  Though my father probably could have pressed the issue and gotten his way, my mother put on a rare display of resolute intransigence, stating in no uncertain terms:

It’s me or a dog.  You choose.

Since my mother ran the entire house and my father could barely boil water, much less cook a meal, sew on a button, or lift a mop, he decided to keep her and I never got my dog.

Instead, we got a hermit crab.

HERMAN: I don’t remember much about our time with Herman – only that he lived in a small fishbowl on a shelf in the family room.   According to a recent conversation with the now-reformed little-sister-tormentor, the idea of getting a hermit crab was inspired by one of our family trips to Jamaica.  Despite the exotic heritage of his species, Herman didn’t have any grand adventures.  He mostly just sat.  He was pretty good at ignoring my obnoxious tapping on his bowl to get him to stir, and at some point, Herman died.

Then we took things up a notch.

WHISKERS:  There were several great things about Whiskers.  As a hamster, he was a bit more lively than Herman.  Also, he was all mine.  He got larger accommodations than Herman had had, decked out with his own running wheel.  It was always such a joy to see him use that wheel.

One day, Whiskers gave us a surprise.  Without speaking a word, Whiskers announced to the world that he was not a he but rather a she.  It’s not what you’re thinking – this was not a “What are your personal pronouns?” moment.  This was the right around the time that the bell-bottomed ’70s turned into the shoulder-padded ’80s, and I’m pretty sure just the just first three letters of LGBTQIA were in common use back then.  No, what Whiskers did was to give birth to a litter of pink, squirming, blind, hairless babies.  Thankful that I had given my furry friend a gender-neutral name, I ran to my mom screaming, “Whiskers had babies!  Whiskers had babies!”

If lesson number one was that pet store employees often mis-sex hamsters, then lesson number two was learned not long after: sometimes, hamster mothers eat their babies.

Sad and disgusted, but a bit wiser to Mother Nature’s mysterious ways, we rescued those who remained by selling them back to the very pet store that had so erroneously sexed Whiskers in the first place.

After those few weeks of childhood drama, homeostasis returned, but only for a while.  Sometime later, Whiskers escaped.  Maybe it was post-partum psychosis or the gender identity crisis that was not of her own making. Maybe it was the guilt over cannibalizing her own children or sadness at the sudden disappearance of her remaining brood.  Maybe it was being stuck in a cage with a running wheel as the only form of entertainment.  Whatever it was, it was enough for her to make a bid for freedom.

I never saw Whiskers alive again.  Someone – I don’t remember who – found her lifeless body in the closet under the stairs where we kept our luggage.  I’m pretty sure I bawled my eyes out.

And with that woeful loss, my childhood tenure as a pet parent of questionable competence came to an end.

22 thoughts

  1. O, my goodness, that’s a lot of emotions and also quite a lot of mental pictures stuck in my head, I didn’t know they wood eat their own young, how awful! For most kids, pets are more than just animals their families own — they’re members of the family and the best of friends, so it must have been heartbreaking to loose your hamster. Have a lovely weekend and thanks for sharing. Aiva

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  2. This post may seem like a fairly typical recounting of a journey through youth but it is actually a Shakespearean tragedy that belongs on the stage. I have contacted the Guthrie Theatre and it appears that there is a three week opening in June on the main stage. Casting is already underway. Meryl Streep has committed to play the adult Architect. Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler are eager to play the mean older brother. Donald Trump Jr. will do a walk (crawl?) on as the hermit crab. In a shocking departure from casting norms, Antonio Banderas will play the hamster as it struggles with its gender identity before delivering a double digit litter of little ones. The delivery scene is expected to bring down the house, as will the death scene amidst giant suitcases. Needless to say, ticket sales are brisk.

    Our family had a somewhat similar pet experience. Our mother fought valiantly against our efforts to adopt all sorts of creatures we found- baby birds, lost puppies, kittens and full grown cats. All were returned to their owners, a shelter or the forest preserve animal hospital. Finally, my brother was given a frog for being a brave boy at the dentist. (I suspect that the dentist snuck the frog out of his son’s room while he slept so that he could be “adopted” by a gullible patient). Tom brought “Froggy” home and he lived in a glass bowl expropriated from my mother’s family heirlooms. Froggy had sophisticated tastes. He preferred flies but he would not touch a dead fly. He was also too slothful to catch a healthy fly. My dignified, suit wearing father became an expert at stunning but not killing flies back by our garbage cans. Froggy grew fat and increasingly lethargic and his popularity with my parents eroded. He also proved a less than exciting pet for my brothers and I. He refused to respond to “sit” and “rollover” commands. We couldn’t make a collar/leash work so that he could walk off some of his girth. His demand for ever more flies was resulting in a budding repetitive motion issue for my Dad. And
    then, mysteriously, Froggy was gone. The family legend was that he had escaped, Houdini-like, into the wild, rejoining his family. We all wished him well, especially my Dad. The actual circumstances of his demise remain a Jimmy Hoffa-like mystery. While the sting of this tragedy has faded over the years, it is clear that the moral of the story is “beware of dentists bearing gifts.”

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  3. So did you ever get a dog? My sister had a cat and I begged and begged and finally got 3 white mice. My dad made a 3 story cage with many elaborate wheels and tunnels for them. Unfortunately he wasn’t good at making doors and one by one they disappeared and the cat got fatter and fatter. Childhood is an eye opener on life 😥😊

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  4. I had a hamster once as a teenager. He, too, escaped…and proceeded to chew his way through a Billy Joel record. Cover and vinyl! He could have at least had the decency to eat an album I didn’t care so much about…I think there was a Billy Idol record I wouldn’t have missed too much, but no such luck.

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  5. I had a pet Crawdad. It too lived in an unfair sized bowl. Adora (don’t ask me why) was taken good care of otherwise & lived what seems a long time. I’d spoil her (maybe him) if I had it to do over again.. toys in the tank & whatever : ) I think you would’ve been a good doggy mommy as a kid.

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