We all have stories about our past that become part of our repertoire, the set pieces we haul out when there’s an awkward silence at a party, say, or when we want to put others at ease by being self-deprecating, amusing, relatable…
One of my favorites has always been the tale of my childhood hamsters, Leba and Niac.
In case you’re wondering, that’s Abel and Cain spelled backwards. I wasn’t fixated on the Old Testament or trying to invoke Satan by inversion: The hamsters’ parents, who belonged to my friend Rivi, were called Adam and Eve. Naming the offspring Cain and Abel seemed logical — until I discovered that they were girls. I don’t know how I discovered this. I can’t imagine I was keen on examining hamster genitalia at age 10. I’m still not.
But I digress.
My mother hated Leba and Niac, as she hated all pets except, perhaps, the innocuous dime store turtles that my father brought home and replaced when necessary — necessary being whenever I observed, “Daddy, the turtle isn’t moving.” My father would assure me, “It’s just sleeping,” and sooner or later that somnolent turtle would rise, Phoenix-like, from the dead.
This next part is a bit hazy. I don’t think it became common knowledge that the 5 & 10 turtles were salmonella riddled until much later. I suspect my father just got tired of replacing them. In any case, their departure precipitated my graduation to warm-blooded creatures. Perhaps they were pity hamsters because I had discovered the facts of life (or death). Maybe they were I-can’t-stand-that-whining- anymore hamsters. I just know that Leba and Niac’s entry into the Jarolim household must have been under duress, because my mother declared early and often that they resembled rats.
I recall a very long day when one of them escaped their shared cage. It finally emerged, dusty but unharmed, from behind the refrigerator. I’m not sure which my mother feared most — finding it dead or alive.
Not only did my mother hate Leba and Niac, but Leba and Niac hated each other. I was going to say they fought like cats and dogs but it’s more accurate — and slightly less cliched — to say that they fought like rabid hamsters.
We lived in a small apartment, which may be why I didn’t resolve the problem by getting another hamster cage. Or maybe my mother simply discouraged it, waiting eagerly for natural selection to take its course.
But things finally got sufficiently bad for one of them — let’s say Leba — that something needed to be done. I don’t believe it would have occurred to any of us to take a hamster to the vet, even if we could have afforded it.
So I called the ASPCA.
My mother worked outside the house as a seamstress so I arranged to have the man from the ASPCA come over after school. He was friendly enough, until he approached the cage and peered in. “Girlie, that hamster is dead,” he said. “We don’t take dead hamsters.”
That was my story, and I stuck to it for as long as I can remember. I even put a shorter version of it as a comment on a hamster post at Pawcurious.
I never thought to question its veracity. In my defense, neither did Dr. V, who noted that the story had a Monty Python quality to it.
Recently, however, I began examining the details a bit more critically.
Here is my analysis, in outline form:
What is Unlikely To Be True
- That a man from the ASPCA would come over to a child’s house in Brooklyn to retrieve an injured hamster. The ASPCA may not have been as busy when I was growing up as it is now, but surely they did not have the staff at any time to make house calls for injured hamsters.
- That my mother would have allowed me to let a strange man into the house when I was alone. His being part of a humane organization would not have impressed her. Quite the opposite. She thought an admiration for animals, including among members of her own family, was suspect.
What is Likely to be true
- That my father bought me a series of replacement turtles. He was remote, but usually kind, and turtle replacement would have been an easy gesture that didn’t require a lot of interaction.
- That Leba and Niac inflicted grievous bodily harm on one another, even though my recent research into hamster behavior suggests that females from the same litter should not have had problems with each other.
What made the story plausible
If a man from the ASPCA were to have come to my house under those circumstances, he is likely to have said, “Girlie, that hamster is dead.” We’re talking Brooklyn.
All comments from the ASPCA are welcome.
How about you: Are there stories — pet related or not — in your repertoire of childhood memories that you never examined but that seem implausible, now that you think about them a bit more critically?