Homage to the Syrian hamster

golden hamster

Photo by Robert Maier.

It should be little surprise to readers of this blog that I have always been a bit into animals. My childhood dogs have featured heavily on this space, but the truth is I’ve had a wide variety of animals when I was a kid.

From grades 4-6, I was a hamster fanatic. At the time, it was very difficult for North American children to buy dwarf hamsters. The mainstay of the hamster world was the golden or Syrian hamster, and there were very few people breeding for docility in pet hamster strains. The goal was to produce as many different morphs as possible with very little regard to the temperament of the hamster.

As a result, many children from my generation have horror stories about biting hamsters.  Over my years of hamster keeping, I came to accept their bites as part of keeping them.

I got into hamsters rather on a lark. I was always reading the Barron’s pet guides, many of which were translations of German pet manuals, and the one on hamsters was written by Otto von Frisch.

hamster otto von frisch

This book created my hamster obsession.

The book was not just a pet care manual. It was full of anecdotes about pet hamsters, as well as discussions of scientific studies on their behavior.  It also talked a lot about the Central European ideas about hamster, for as I learned from that book, that there are hamsters native to Germany and Austria (the very large common hamster).  The species was well-known to farmers in the region as an agricultural pest and as a rather vicious creature that shouldn’t be messed with.  As someone who predominant ancestry is from that region, I was quite fascinated by these accounts.

And I knew I had to have a pet hamster.

After much pleading, I was given permission to get a hamster, provided I kept it at my grandparents’ house. My mother was an extreme murophobe, and I had to accept her conditions.

The first hamster I got was what was called a black-eyed cream. I named her Linda, because I was a child and thought that was a nice name.  And her variety may have been black-eyed cream, but her tendency to bite led to her receiving the moniker “the black-eyed bitch.”

I soon found that it was very easy to get hamsters. People were quite literally giving me new ones, including an old long-haired female that live for about two weeks then fell over dead from old age.

I longed, though, for a true “wild type” hamster.  I wanted one that was marked just as the wild ones are in Syria, with white cheek flashes and sabled golden coats.

I never was able to purchase such an animal. The closed I got was what was called a cinnamon hamster. She was marked just like a wild type, but she had no black hair at all on her pelt.

She had come from Walmart, where she had been kept in a cage with several banded hamsters. The banded ones were wild type in color, but they had a white band going through their mid-section. I had managed to get two females from that cage:  this cinnamon one and a banded one.

Two weeks later, the cinnamon hamster dropped pink babies all over her cage. Apparently, a male hamster had been kept with her, and she was just in the early days of her pregnancy when I got her.

In five days, their fur started to grow in. 9 were wild-type but banded, but one was wild type in full!

I didn’t understand my Mendel in those days.  The banded trait is dominant over the non-banded, and the wild-type markings are dominant over the cinnamon. Cinnamon bred to a banded wild-type would produce young that were banded wild-type, but if the wild-type were a carrier for a non-banded hamster, it is possible to get at least one in the litter that lacked a white band.

That’s what this hamster was, and I was instantly transfixed. I spent my summer that year handling hamster babies, knowing fully-well the stories of mother hamsters eating their young if they were stressed.

The young wild-type hamster was a male, and he became the tamest hamster I ever knew. I named him Houdini, after a children’s book I had read, but he really didn’t live up to his namesake. He escaped a few times– always because I left a latch on the cage a little loose– but he was easily recovered.

One time, he did escape and was gone for several days. I was certain that he had wandered out of the house and had eventually fallen prey to some nocturnal predator.

I had all but given up on him, so I sat with a heavy heart in my grandparents’ guest room watching Nature on PBS.  I heard some rumbling sounds in the wall.  I thought I was hearing things, but the rumbling sound grew louder and louder.

I then caught movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Houdini crawling along the side of the wall. He stopped and sniffed the air, and he scurried right up to me and let me pick him up.

My childhood mind said that Houdini came to me because he loved me. My adult mind now recognizes that Houdini recognized me as a source for food. He had spent several days wandering around the walls of my grandparents’ house and had become famished in his freedom. He caught my scent on his evening travels, and he came to me to figure out if I might have some food.

But a child’s mind saw Houdini as the Lassie of the hamsters. He’d come home out of the walls just because he loved me.

Despite that childhood flight of fancy, the hamsters taught me much. I learned what it was like to be around an animal that utterly has no use for humanity.  Dogs and horses are personable animals, but a hamster is solitary, remote, and mostly nocturnal (at least in captivity).

The world they reveal is a world in which territory matters the most. The males have greasy scent glands on their hips that they rub along their tunnels to mark their realms.  The females have a musty odor, and when they are receptive to males– every four days if not bred–they get quite stinky indeed.

I got to where I could tell if a female hamster was receptive just by the intensity of the odor. This odor is an adaptation to a species with such hyper territorial behavior that they are forced to live pretty far from each other. The strong estrus odor of a female hamster is necessary to announce to the male that it is okay for him to enter her territory and mate with her. When she is not receptive, she will attack any hamster, male or female, that comes near. In this species the females are bigger and fatter than the males, and males that don’t heed the odors wind up with a dangerous situation indeed.

These captive hamsters– all derived from a single litter captured near Aleppo in the 1930s– opened my eyes to another world.

The solitary Syrian hamster lives and breeds well in captivity, but it is still mostly a wild animal. In the past few years, breeders have produced truly more docile strains of hamster, but I knew them in the raw.

In fact, I think that if I were ever to be a hamster keeper again, I would try to get a little more of the more rugged strain. I would not be buying a cute pet for the kids. I would be be buying an animal that I wish to appreciate as a wild being with its own instincts and drives and desires.  I would want to be the naturalist hamster lover again. I would keep them with the cool detachment of an adult who understands animal behavior and not the childhood anthropomorphism or “cynomorphism” that turned them into furry people or severely debased dogs.

The Syrian hamster will always mean a lot to me. They were terrible pets for the typical child, but they were the ideal subjects for a budding young naturalist who needed to know animals that weren’t dogs or horses.

They opened my mind to something else, and I will always appreciate them for their indifference and their solitary grumpiness and their general remoteness.

***

This is my contribution to Rodent Week.

 

 

 

 

 


Natural History

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Classic Halloween Costume Ideas for Kids

Classic Halloween Costume Ideas for Kids
Classic Halloween Costume Ideas for Kids
Classic Halloween Costume Ideas for Kids

I’m a sucker for good ol’ fashioned classic kids’ Halloween costumes. There are so many options available these days in comparison to when I was growing up, especially character-themed ones – and that’s great, because it makes things a lot easier for parents. But I am just so drawn to simple, classic costumes. Maybe that’s because my mom made most of ours, so I feel nostalgic about more traditional costumes with homemade vibes. And I have such wonderful, vivid memories of dressing up as a very handmade Little Bo Peep, and of my baby sister pretending to fly around the room as a truly adorable toddler bat. There’s just something I find so endearing about those kinds of costumes.

Last year, Essley asked repeatedly to be a pumpkin (as seen in the photos above). I found her this pumpkin costume for $ 29 and absolutely adored it – it’s so well made and I think Emmett will be able to wear it next year if he wants to be a pumpkin. I found a comfy pair of simple skeleton jammies (here’s a similar set for $ 14) and a little black beanie for Emmett to wear. I thought they looked so sweet together in their no fuss, classic costumes.

This year, Essley wants to be a mermaid, and I think we’re going to do a cute, no frills dinosaur for Emmett. I’m fully aware of the fact that sooner than later, my kids are going to want to pick out costumes that will likely be store bought and character-themed. (This could possibly even occur this year; if the dinosaur doesn’t work out, we’re going for Emmett’s second favorite thing: Elmo.) And that’s wonderful! But for now, I’m going to continue swooning over the more classic varieties. If you’re on the same page as I am, here is a list of ideas for simple, traditional costumes.

  • Pumpkin
  • Ghost
  • Witch
  • Bat
  • Skeleton
  • Black Cat
  • Scarecrow
  • Angel
  • Devil
  • Mummy
  • Simple Princess or Prince
  • Simple Superhero
  • Ballet Dancer
  • Ladybug or Bee
  • Pirate
  • Fairy
  • Vampire
  • Frankenstein 
  • Clown
  • Animal (Lion, Dog, Bear, etc.)

If you have kids, what are they wearing this year? Do you have a costume picked out for yourself yet?

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Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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Should You Let Your Dog Sleep in Your Bed?

Sleeping with dogs?

My two dogs sleep in my bedroom- Wanda likes her soft-sided “hut” and Maisie stretches out on the chaise longue which is designed as “hers,” but neither of them sleeps on my bed (partly because, as a widow of two years, I have a crazy idea I might one day have a man in my life again and certainly don’t want him to have to wrestle my dogs for a space next to me!)

My sister, on the other hand, has her two little Brussels Griffons sleep on and in her bed (each of them is approximately the size of the head of my big Weimaraners, Maisie and Wanda!) One of the little ones sleeps on my sister’s shoulder (sort of like a prone pirate’s parrot) while the other often burrows down under the covers by my brother-in-law’s feet.

I have friends who have many variations on our bedroom sleeping habits with their dogs – and I’ve always wondered whether that canine scratching in the night, licking paws, changing position, can interfere with sleep. We’re all conscious of how important those hours of beauty rest and REM sleep are to our wellness – so does having a dog in the bed improve or undermine good sleep?

A Mayo Clinic Study Shows Where Dogs Should Sleep
Dr. Lois Krahn, a sleep medicine specialist at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, is the author of a recent study which asked the question: “Does having a dog in the bedroom, or in the bed, disturb sleep?” The researchers studied 40 dog owners who did not have a sleep disorder.

Drum roll for the answer: The results indicated that “sleeping with dogs helps some people sleep better ? no matter if they’re snoozing with a small schnauzer or dozing with a Great Dane,” the Mayo Clinic News Network reported.

However, there was a caveat: do not let your canines crawl under the covers with you. According to the study, the sleep benefit extended only to having dogs in the bedroom, not in the bed itself. Owners who cozied up to their pups in their bed sacrificed quality sleep.

Human Life Quality Validate the Canine-Human Bond in Bed!
“The relationship between people and their pets has changed over time, which is likely why many people in fact do sleep with their pets in the bedroom,” the Mayo Clinic study concluded. “Today, many pet owners are away from their pets for much of the day, so they want to maximize their time with them when they are home. Having them in the bedroom at night is an easy way to do that. And, now, pet owners can find comfort knowing it won’t negatively impact their sleep.”

And for myself (since being a sister means there is always a bit of a competition) – I relish knowing that my dogs and I are doing our shared sleep the “right way!”

Tracie HotchnerTracie Hotchner is a nationally acclaimed pet wellness advocate, who wrote THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. She is recognized as the premiere voice for pets and their people on pet talk radio. She continues to produce and host her own Gracie® Award winning NPR show DOG TALK®  (and Kitties, Too!) from Peconic Public Broadcasting in the Hamptons after 9 consecutive years and over 500 shows. She produced and hosted her own live, call-in show CAT CHAT® on the Martha Stewart channel of Sirius/XM for over 7 years until the channel was canceled, when Tracie created her own Radio Pet Lady Network where she produces and co-hosts CAT CHAT® along with 10 other pet talk radio podcasts with top veterinarians and pet experts.

Dog Film Festival - Tracie HotchnerTracie also is the Founder and Director of the annual NY Dog Film Festival, a philanthropic celebration of the love between dogs and their people. Short canine-themed documentary, animated and narrative films from around the world create a shared audience experience that inspires, educates and entertains. With a New York City premiere every October, the Festival then travels around the country, partnering in each location with an outstanding animal welfare organization that brings adoptable dogs to the theater and receives half the proceeds of the ticket sales. Halo was a Founding Sponsor in 2015 and donated 10,000 meals to the beneficiary shelters in every destination around the country in 2016.

Tracie lives in Bennington, Vermont – where the Radio Pet Lady Network studio is based – and where her 12 acres are well-used by her 2-girl pack of lovely, lively rescued Weimaraners, Maisie and Wanda.

Halo Pets

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Sep 4, Our pawesome dog food guide!

Did you know that most stores currently carry brands of dog food that have been linked to recalls, class action lawsuits, and serious health consequences?
Dog Food Blog | Best Dog Food Guide

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A wall can’t stop this

irma

The most pernicious delusion of our species is that we are somehow above nature. Ever since we chipped away at flint to make spear points or domesticated fire to do our bidding, we’ve contriving hard against nature.

But for the past 10,000 years or so, we’ve been in the process of wall-building. Domesticating grain species is a wall built against hunger that could come from depleted game herds.

But grain grows best only in certain areas, and thus, we’ve become sedentary and possessive. We’ve become better fighters to defend our lands. We’ve built better tools of war. A gun is a finely crafted rock-chucker.  An ICBM with a hydrogen bomb is little more than a super rock-chucker that throws a very deadly rock.

When diseases have developed as a result of our great concentrations of population, we’ve created sewage systems. We’ve developed medicines to defend ourselves against disease.

We have made it so our average lifespans are at least double what they were just centuries ago. The planet now teems with us.

And we all want walls to protect us.

We’ve spent so much time designing and contriving new ways of security, new ways of comfort, that in these wealthier countries, we live almost as aliens upon our own planet.

In the United States, we live in a sort of fairy tale fortress. The nuclear triad and our advanced airforce mean that no enemies are going to get us.  Most of us live in cities, where the only predators we’ll ever know are those belonging to our species. Air conditioning and mosquito control make the South livable, and insulation and fine furnaces make the North’s winters pass in comfort.

We have power, but that power is finite.

Very simply, there is isn’t a wall we can build of any kind that can stop a hurricane. We cannot nuke our way out of this threat. We are totally at its mercy.

Harvey, which dumped all that rain on Texas and Louisiana, ruined the best-laid plans of cotton farmers and urban planners.

The boiling seas off Africa are now sending us another.  This one is a vortex of water vapor and wind that no more cares that it is going to hit West Palm Beach than it would Winnipeg. It is mindless force of nature, and it is about to humble the sunny lands. It will cost billions of dollars.

And no presidential act, no bluster or official act, can stop what is coming. True, the warming planet makes these superstorms more likely, but the contribution our carbon-addicted economy did to create this storm was already cast into the atmosphere. Whether we elected the denialist or the one who didn’t deny it,  we were going to warm and warm anyway, and the storms will still come.

We are laid out vulnerable now. The millions of years of evolution and the thousands of years of civilization are but a veneer.  Before this coming storm, we are the Taung child, and the great eagle is stooping from the sky, talons poised.

We’ve spent much of our political energy over the past year or so engaged picayune squabbles. We’ve become obsessed with immigration, especially of how it relates to our so-called “national character.” We’ve elected a man who will keep us safe from the scary Mexicans and Muslims, as if those were the greatest threat we had to face.

We lost our minds about who gets to refuse service at the bakery and who gets to use what bathroom. We fought those wars of culture so long that they are so well-worn and threadbare that we no longer have a body politic. We have our factions now. That is the United States. States that are united in law but no longer in national purpose or understanding.

But while we were worrying about all these things, the planet warmed a bit more. We landed, then, one year on a bad roll of the dice, and the big storms are coming.

We could have spent this time working on building up a post-carbon economy, improving infrastructure, and developing innovative ways of flood control and evacuation procedures.

That’s what a rational people would have done with these past few years. The debate of the last presidential campaign would have largely been based upon those issues and not the worst sort of nationalist fear-mongering.

But we build the walls. We imprison more people in the world than any other, and yet we do not feel safe. We are armed to the teeth with more guns per capita than anywhere else, and yet we don’t sleep easy at night.

Income inequality and job insecurity eat away at our sound minds. We might have spent the last election fighting over those issues.  We chose differently.

Now the poor  are exposed to the drowning waters and the howling winds. It won’t be as bad as Katrina, we hope.

But no wall can stop what is coming.  It is coming. People will die.

No matter how advanced we are, the fortress cannot protect us.

We are vulnerable, exposed. And this is truly frightening for such a walled-off species.

 

 


Natural History

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How to Choose a Dog Groomer

When you need to find a dog groomer to keep your pet looking its very best, a good place to start is with your regular vet. A lot of veterinarians, especially those with larger facilities or animal hospitals, also offer dog grooming. The groomers employed in facilities like these are professional dog groomers, trained in the correct methods of grooming …
Dog’sHealth.com Blog

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What I’m Wearing Now: September

Early Fall Style Essentials

  1. Linen V-neck Top, H&M  //  2. Love Bird Sunglasses, Free People  //  3.  Classic Date Black Watch, Lord Timepieces (take 10% off with code BEAN)  //  4.  Silver Hoop Earrings Set, H&M  //  5. Loveland Wrap in Cargo Green, prAna (use code F17CGMW for 15% off everything on prAna’s website through 10/17!) //  6. Skinny Low Jeans in Black, H&M  //  7. Embroidered Linen-Cotton Tank, J.Crew Factory (on major sale!)  //  8. Rene Sandal, Trask  //  9. The Perfect Jean Short, Madewell  //  10Splash Gabi Sneakers, Minnetonka  //  11. Chuck Taylor All Star Low Tops, Converse  

It’s fall’s first What I’m Wearing Now post, guys! Everybody is all “pumpkin spice sweater weather!” the second September hits, but in truth, it was still summer until last Friday. And at least here in Chicago, it felt pretty summery (hello 93 degrees this weekend!) until today, aside from some cool days earlier in the month. I am not complaining about the heat, mind you. I think it is magnificent. But the back-and-forth temps did make getting dressed a little challenging – hence the extreme mix of seasonal pieces you see here.

There have been days I’ve worn a lightweight tank and cut-offs, and then needed to pull out jeans and a sweater the next morning. (And as much as I adore summer clothing, I have not minded wearing these jeans on the regular. I’m into them.) More often than not I’ve worn these shoes this month, regardless of whether I was decked in full on summer garb or more cozy fall pieces.

I’m a very casual dresser, but I’m looking forward to dressing up a little more in October (our wedding anniversary, a wedding, and a party are all in the works). And while I’m not ready to say goodbye to my summer wardrobe (I never am), it will be nice to get to layer again. What have you been wearing this month?

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Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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Human Health Irritations Due to Pets

Some people are unfortunate because they have allergies to dogs and will never be able to enjoy the love, devotion, and companionship a human receives from a pet dog.

The symptoms of dog allergies are very similar to the symptoms of other types of allergies or the symptoms of a cold. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, …
Dog’sHealth.com Blog

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WELCOME HOME, RELAY

The Poodle (and Dog) Blog

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Update: PetsitUSA Accepts Credit Cards

New and returning members of PetsitUSA can now purchase memberships with credit cards.  In the past, members could only pay with checks or PayPal.  Members will also automatically have their accounts activated.  Our ‘Welcome’ and ‘Thank you’ emails will also be automatically sent.  We hope this makes it easier for members to join and continue to stay with PetsitUSA!


PetsitUSA Blog

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