It was a mistake, I later admitted. I like to think I’m not the kind of person who buys rodents out of spite. I had been left with the kids for the weekend while my partner partied in Kazakhstan. I was swept up by the sounds and tastes of the Italian market, drunk on my successful use of a few words in a new language. The children’s eager little faces canceled out my logical reasoning — they expected me to say no and I was tired of doing the expected, so I surprised all of us and said yes. Plus, the hamsters were only 8 euros each.
Our cat was thrilled. Within the hour he had shoved the plastic cage onto the floor, splitting it in half. The hamsters scattered, and we grabbed the cat and threw him out of the room just in time. The cage was scotch-taped back together, and I ordered a new one from a German website (another language I don’t speak).
Swiss post is delivered by postmen on eco-electric tricycle scooters, towing a mail trailer behind them. Somehow a scooter gives a postman more allure than deserved, while simultaneously limiting the sex appeal of the Swiss policemen I see motoring around on their little 100cc engines.
Too large for the scooter trailer, our hamster cage arrived by special mail truck. My lack of German, compounded with my American inability to think in centimetres, had resulted in a refrigerator-sized box. The postman was unimpressed. As I shuffled it down flights of stairs and corridors to our flat, my gut clenched at what I had done.
The reviews of The Skyline cage were all five-star. A hamster palace, with space to roam and exercise. But the problem with reviews is that the people who write reviews of hamster cages are, well, people who choose to spend their time writing reviews of hamster cages. (Possibly not dissimilar to people who spend their time writing articles about their hamsters?)
Once assembled, I had to admit the cage was magnificent. A cavernous space downstairs (large enough for a 40 year old woman to curl up in), with a labyrinth of hamster walkways and internal wooden structures for burrowing in. The whole thing was the size of your grandmother’s claw-footed bathtub. And the cat absolutely loved it. Now he could perch on the wire roof and wriggle his paws inside. Or lunge at the side of the cage when a hamster emerged from the downy bedding.
Snowy and Moose. Moose was cuter but hissed when you tried to pick her up — actually reared her head back and bared teeth. Snowy would barely tolerate being held, and looked more like a lab mouse than a hamster. The market guy had insisted that hamsters get lonely if not paired up, so we had two females. Later, after a protracted fight that left Moose with a ragged ear, I googled that advice and discovered the opposite was true. Hamsters are solitary creatures, happy on their own and certainly content with a smaller cage footprint than the Skyline.
Snowy and Moose took turns being top hamster. On several occasions Snowy shoved Moose off a high up platform in their palace — so violently that Moose ended up several hamster storeys below, on her back.
Hamster ownership has declined steadily since 2010, with ownership of cats, dogs, fish and indoor birds far outstripping hamsters. As the weeks wore on, my children’s interest in the hamsters waned and the cat’s interest grew, seemingly without limit. I began to think about small pets and the responsibilities they hid. There had been lots of other pets the market guy would happily have sold me. I could have gotten fish. Rabbits and birds were out of the question but what about a turtle? Hamsters only lived for a couple of years, I read online. But a couple of years with hamsters no-one wanted, felt like far too long. And, with all the fighting, I had an even darker thought: what if one injured the other to the point of a ridiculous vet bill?
The solution, I decided, was another cage — a third cage. Off we drove to the pet store. We arrived just after closing time, but the Italian shop staff were all outside smoking, and let us into the store anyway. In a rush, we chose possibly the worst cage for hamster/cat owners — one with a flimsy external tunnel, that led from their beds downstairs to the food upstairs. The original 16 euro investment was a speck in the rearview by now. My partner estimated that we’d spent 400 euros on hamsters. (The figure was actually much higher: I had lied to him about how much the Skyline cost.)
I like to take my first morning coffee sitting on the terrace of our garden flat with my face in the sun. Above me, the vast hulk of Mont San Salvatore and its tiny red train pulling itself up in an 85 degree vertical climb. One such Saturday morning, I was lost in thought when a blur shot past the corner of my vision. It was a white hamster, running for its life across the garden towards the tree border, our cat close behind. Close, but in a casual, toying way — he could have been on top of it, but chose not to be. I sprinted to catch up and grabbed the hamster just before it reached the edge of the garden.
The cat had broken the tunnel, presumably when the hamster was precariously trekking up for food and water. From then on, the tunnel cage had to be in the glass-fronted shower stall in the guest bathroom. The cat threw himself at the glass instead. That solution worked, until guests arrived and needed to shower.
At first, it was just short stints in the laundry room. A day or two, in the dark, the noise of their hamster wheel muffled by the cinder-block walls. I turned the lights on periodically, so they would know when it was time to sleep. They lost a significant amount of weight being in the dark for so long, in what I can only assume was a hamster-wheel marathon. Significant weight loss for a hamster is only a gramme or two.
After a few weeks, when he remembered that we had hamsters, my son said it wasn’t fair to keep them in the laundry room, that it was inhumane.
The laundry room began to smell, a combination of hamster poop and the alfalfa bedding I had bought them. They started using the external plastic tube as a toilet, stopping on their journey from ground floor bed to eating loft as if it was a motorway services. The tube went from clear to sticky yellow, and had to be pulled apart into sections to be cleaned.
For 15 euros I bought a hamster litter tray.
“Will they really use this?” I asked the pet store owner.
“Of course, hamsters are highly intelligent,” he replied. “Do you need any toys for them? We have a slide. They love slides.”
“How much is the slide?” I looked doubtfully at the tiny red playground.
“Twenty-nine francs,” he said, not at all embarrassed at this suggestion.
I left with the litter tray, a tiny bag of litter and the world’s smallest poop scoop.
The instructions said to put one of their droppings in their new toilet so they would know what to do. I tried to use the miniature scoop (the size of my thumbnail — as if they were going to be using it to clean their own tray.) In the end I pinched one turd between finger and thumb and chucked it in there. The next day they’d pooped next to their food dish. They filled their 15-euro litter tray with some of their bedding, and started sleeping in there. That’s when I googled “How to kill a hamster” — and got sucked into the vortex of Daily Mail headlines about a drunk college student who fried his hamster in his dorm room. With accompanying photo.
I thought about slipping something into their food, but what if the Swiss equivalent of PETA somehow found out? I was desperate at this point. The laundry room stank of hamster shit and my in-laws were visiting in a matter of days. I fired off a very cheery and, I thought, enticing message to both my kids’ class groups, gushing about the sweet hamsters and offering to pay for food (for life, if necessary. How much can that really be, over the promised 2-year lifespan of a hamster?)
Silence. Tumbleweed. After an excruciating 36 hours, one of mums replied that she really liked my message, but no thanks. Another said they’d been there before, and felt for me. A third relayed her troubles with a rabbit. But no takers.
I took some arty photos of the cages and hamsters, and advertised the whole lot on Tutti.com — a website for selling and giving away just about anything you can think of. Miraculously, I had a reply within minutes. As I opened the message, I mentally packed the hamsters into my car.
Is everything really for free? We only want the cages though. When can we pick them up?
Stunned, I reread the message and even put it into Google Translate.
I replied that no, they couldn’t just have the cages, because these were the hamsters’ homes. They weren’t just going to live in my bathtub.
So I should have been suspicious right away when I read a keen message, in English, from a woman called Kirsty. But I was so grateful that someone was actually interested — and in a language I could understand — that I sent back a gushing reply to all her questions. More questions came in, about the suitability of the hamsters for her toddler. Oh, they’re lovely and cuddly, I lied. Perfect first pet.
Do they have all their vaccinations, she asked?
My stomach lurched. What kind of Swiss law had I violated by bringing them across the border from Italy? The market stall guy (“only 8 euros!”) hadn’t said anything about vaccinations. I looked it up online. Nothing conclusive. I replied to Kirsty that yes, their vaccinations were up to date. I dialled our veterinarian and had a very confusing conversation in Italian with the receptionist. But I didn’t mind; I was closing in on a new home for the hamsters.
So I was gutted when the next message came in, and the wording made it clear that “Kirsty” was winding me up. My husband had mentioned to colleagues that we had a hamster problem, and that someone on Tutti had asked if they could take only the cages. His colleague had used his wife’s email account, and had spent the day corresponding with me. The real Kirsty sent me an email that evening, apologising for the unsanctioned use of her email account. My husband denied all knowledge, but I’m still not convinced.
We finally did get rid of them. A nice hamster-loving family who couldn’t believe their luck at getting free hamsters and cages. They couldn’t come to Lugano, so I offered to drive to where they were — Geneva if I had to.
As my daughter and I drove the thirty minutes north to the meet, hamsters and cages in the back of the car, I had a twinge of guilt about the life I might be consigning them to.
“Here’s the plan,” I said to her. “We drive up, park, and look for the family. If they look like snake people, we bail.”
“Snake people?” she asked.
“Yes, if they look like they’re taking them just to feed to their snakes, we bring the hamsters back home. Ok?”
“Mummy, what do snake people look like?”
I explained that they were usually lanky young men with long stringy hair. She nodded solemnly.
They weren’t snake people. They were a very sweet family with a teenage daughter who loved hamsters. Her hair was long and a tiny bit greasy, but they clearly weren’t going to feed them to their snakes.
On the drive back home, elated and free from the burden of unwanted pets, I had a chat with my daughter about stereotyping people, and I rowed back a little bit on my assessment of lanky, long-haired teenagers.
Yes, the hamsters were a mistake. What this family needs is a Basset Hound. I’ve found a breeder in nearby Italy who will have puppies available. They’ve even offered me their own e-book on the delights of Basset ownership. And Piedmonte is lovely: picturesque foliage, crisp walks, truffles.
I’m just researching whether Bassets are a truffle-hunting breed. If they are, I think I can get my partner on board.