Pen Ultimate / Ode to a Rodent

Drawing some life lessons from hamsters.

Talents greater than mine discovered thousands of years ago that writing about animals can help reveal some truths to human beings by human beings about human beings. Hence so many fables, parables and stories featuring animals.

Looking back at my (un)collected works, I found that I, too, have written over the years some zoological-cultural-linguistic etudes about the ostrich, the crocodile, the rhinoceros, the raven, the chameleon, the dodo - and, of course, about my family's own beloved pets.

Having managed to pluck an emotional string in my soul when writing about our two bitches, Lady and Blanche, and that inimitable feline Rufus, and about the many things they have taught me about life, I felt obliged to confront a real challenge: Can I draw some life lessons from hamsters?

We had some of those, of course. They are ideal pets for kids: The relatively easy chore of caring for them can serve as a course in assuming responsibility. The children manage by themselves and will pet these pets willingly. The parents have only to provide some hamsters, a cage with all its paraphernalia, some special food (although these small rodents are omnivorous), and wood shavings from the nearby carpenter's shop to cover the floor of the cage and, by extension, all other parts of the house.

On one of the Web sites which discusses "How to care for your hamster," I learned that the animal's death can indeed be a tragedy for a young breeder, but the fact that it has a short life span (of two to three years) helps ease the pain, as the emotional attachment cannot become too intense. Indeed, that occasion may present an opportunity to speak with the child about the inevitability of death, and how it is an inseparable part of life.

But long before that you can talk to the child about life: The little furry hamster mother can already give birth when she is only about 11 weeks old, its pregnancy is among the shortest of the mammals - about 16 days, and the average litter is made up of eight naked, blind and helpless little hamsters.

This little rodent is very nimble. While cute and fun to hold (although it may bite), it is also quick to profit from a handler's brief daydream to escape and run for its - I don't know what, but it is rarely its life. Little ones can easily escape from any cage. Whenever we saw Lady sniffing around the 'fridge, we knew that there were hamsters under it.

This is when things get a bit awkward. Having told the child that hamsters go the way of all flesh, you now have to explain that one should remove Father hamster from the family cage after his offspring are born, otherwise he may eat them. And as Mother hamster can easily panic upon hearing a loud, unexpected noise (and these animals have excellent hearing) - such as a vacuum in the next room that is sucking up wood shavings - she may try to shove the baby into the pouches in her cheeks, accidentally beheading it. Such an eventuality will provide many parents and children with inexhaustible material for heartfelt talks about parental love for children.

The pouches in the cheeks give the hamster its common name, as it uses them to carry food and store it in a burrow: There is an old German word hamstern that means "to hoard"; it is said that "hamper" comes from the same root. Otherwise, for all intents and purposes, this animal belongs to the subfamily cricetinae and there are about 18 types, each with its scientific Latin name - cricetinae something.

The two most popular species of pet hamsters (out of 19) are the Winter White Dwarf Russian Hamster, and the Golden or Syrian Hamster, also known as the Teddy Bear hamster. The latter would have become extinct a long time ago if not for the work of the first Hebrew zoologist, Israel Aharoni (1882-1946).

The Syrian species had been described by zoologists and explorers early in the 19th century, and was thought to be extinct. But in 1930 Saul Adler, a parasitologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, needed hamsters for his lab, and the Chinese ones were too expensive to import. He spoke of his predicament with Aharoni, and the zoologist - who has to his credit the discovery of 30 formerly unknown species of animals, insects and birds (and is generally known as the person who gave animals their Hebrew names) - took him on an expedition to Aleppo, Syria.

There the two found a mother hamster with a litter of 11, but she panicked and killed one of her offspring. Aharoni and Adler then killed her to preserve the rest, and the two men nursed 10 little hamsters all the way back to Jerusalem. There they were put in a wooden cage, but during their first night, six managed to escape through a hole that they bored through the floor. One of the remaining babies was a female, who soon gave birth to eight little more hamsters, and they have since bred and multiplied into the millions who constitute the species to this very day as pets - and as unwilling participants in laboratory experiments. The last fact is something we usually don't share with our children.

I haven't dared to ask my children if they have any psychological trauma from having hamsters as pets. I do remember the hamsters running for hours in the wheel attached to their cages. Sometimes, to this very day, I see myself running (in my case, metaphorically, of course) in such a wheel, trying to go as fast as I can to stay in one place in the revolving wheel of life. And this is where the violins start to play.