No relation to Leba and Niac

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?

32 thoughts on “Hamsters, the ASPCA & the Elusiveness of Memory”

  1. Interesting. I wonder what the truth is? It seems strange that your mom would let a strange man into the house without her there, but maybe it’s true and he was from the ASPCA. Interesting to ponder and wonder what the real story was behind your memory.

    I tried to think of of a story from my childhood that matched your question, but thankfully I couldn’t think of one! You would think every child would have at least one that was implausible in retrospect, but if I do, I don’t recall it.

    1. I can’t imagine that any part of that ASPCA memory could be true — even stranger to contemplate, though, is how/why I came up with it and held on to it. It was only when I looked at the ASPCA site recently that it suddenly struck me how implausible it is. I guess the question I posed is a tough one: Most of us assume our childhood stories are accurate, especially after telling them for years and years.

      1. Pretty much none of my childhood stories are accurate. I learned this the hard way during my twenties when, during a series of visits home, my mom told me each memory I shared with her was untrue. Hilariously, this was the case because my mom herself had told me the untrue version throughout the years, so I’d naturally believed the stories and integrated them as memories.

  2. I loved this–could totally relate! The stream of replacement turtles and goldfish… and I wasn’t supposed to know (and didn’t, until years later, when it came out at a family dinner). No hamsters, but my mother hated pets of all kinds. My dad had a secret rendezvous with an Airedale–I caught them sharing a sandwich in his car when I was walking home from school one day. “Don’t tell your mother!” I later learned the Airedale’s owner let my dad take the dog on fishing trips, etc. Very weird, but my dad was starved for animal companionship, as he had them when he was young and lived in the NY streets.

    However, my mother did rewrite history many times with regard to the pets that I had brought home and mysteriously disappeared. Except for the birds, who were allowed, as they were caged… My father was always silent on the matter. No ASPCA person showed up!

    1. That is such a sweet story about your dad and the Airedale — cheating on your mother with a dog! I wonder about pet-hating mothers… Maybe it’s because they knew the fathers would never have to clean up after the pets…

  3. This dredges up the following memory, which I still have dreams about: The summer after high school I adopted a dog from Orphans of the Storm, a private rescue shelter in the Chicago suburbs, and a girl volunteer showed up at our house unannounced the next day to check on the ‘home situation’ and make sure it was ‘suitable.’ Our yard was not fenced and I had just staked the dog, a malamute with white-blue eyes, on a rope in the backyard and was watching it. I had fallen asleep under a tree. I woke up startled by this girl, who was standing over me demanding I fence the yard (-so, this was in 1970, they made house-calls). My father begrudgingly helped me put one up, a garden variety, but as it turned out, Nicomas was a digger. She dug out every day and we’d get a call from Ft. Sheridan, a few miles north,where we surmised she had lived with a military family who had moved on. A few weeks later I was out all night with ‘friends’ and we had gone down to the beach to watch the sun rise. We had just been harassing a couple of ‘nerds’ who were trying to document the sunrise with a film camera on a tripod, when she showed up on the beach and bounded across the group I was sitting with, scattering sand over all of us, which disrupted our gang bugging the guys with the camera. This appearance was quite unbelievable and from then on I began to temper my reckless behaviors. Gee, I’m not sure this was what you had in mind. Maybe there’s a turtle/goldfish/hamster heaven somewhere for all those little guys who sacrificed their little lives for children. ouch. by the way, I have a recent post I hope some of you guys will visit and maybe share similar experiences too, about eagles and hawks appearing around a near-death experience when I just missed being killed by a drunk driver on the highway

    1. I guess things haven’t changed that much, as far as home visits are concerned — except that they are usually done before adoptions, not after.

      That’s a wonderful story about the dog who changed your wicked nerd-taunting ways — and maybe your photographer’s karma. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; thanks for sharing this memory (and the link to your terrific story).

  4. Or maybe some nice person at the ASPCA felt sorry for a 10-year-old girl calling about her hurt hamster.
    Unfortunately, my best not-plausible childhood pet story was traumatic either way. I was in the almost-6 range, and had just undergone the major trauma of having my mother split with my stepfather and take me (leaving three siblings behind) across country to re-unite with my father. No one seemed to consider this would be a world-shattering experience for me — I didn’t remember my father, and didn’t even get to take my dolls. An old guy who was renting a little house on my father’s property had a little female spaniel named Babe. The black, miscellaneous breed with an underbite that every kid seemed to have at some point (This was nearly 50 years ago.) When old guy moved out, he gave me Babe. Who I adored. Then I came home from school one day to be told that Babe had snapped at someone, so they had given her back to said old guy to go live at his new place at the local dump. No good-bye, no visiting privileges.. She was just gone. Kinda like kept happening to everything and everyone I cared about.
    In retrospect, the story was full of holes. For one thing, the reason I had gotten Babe in the first place was that her previous owner (who had a bottle problem) could not care for her anymore. I don’t know that the rural island where we lived even had a dump, but my favorite children’s show involved a clown at the city dump, so I can at least figure why my mother thought that might prove a suitable residence in my mind. And I don’t know how they could have gotten her out the door that fast.
    In restrospect? I would bet on a small, unmarked grave somewhere on our 10 acres of farm and woods.
    Hey, Edie, I know this is supposed to be a guilt-free zone. Sorry if it’s also supposed to be a tear-free one, because I still cry for the dog and for the child I was.

    1. Would a nice person really say, “Girlie your hamster is dead?”

      This is not a sadness free zone. I’m sorry all this happened. It is a fascinating detail that you were told that the old guy moved to the dump.

      You may be the only former child I know who has positive memories about clowns.

      1. This was a kind of unusual clown. We’re talking about the early 1960s, a time when every self-respecting local TV station had its own kid’s show. The one at the local CBS affiliate — which, curiously enough, was owned by the business end of the Mormon church — was J. P. Patches, the clown who lived at the city dump. His main sidekick/love interest was a transvestite named Gertrude. In real life, J. P. was ad director at the station and Gertrude, in her persona as Bob, staff. When the show was finally canceled, years after I outgrew being a Patches Pal, the Seattle area went into mourning. As late as the 1990s J.P. and Gertrude were still in great demand for local appearances of every sort. I know this because Gertrude was my makeup man at the local PBS station, where I appeared on a weekly public affairs show. Folks there did reign him after the morning he moussed my eyebrows………
        I may have positive memories of that particular clown. But, when I met him at the age of 5 or 6 and he asked me if I wanted candy or a kiss, I unhesitatingly replied, “Candy!” Clown kisses. Talk about food for nightmares.

        1. Oh my — between the city dump, the transvestite and the eyebrow mousse, that’s quite a shaggy clown tale. And I AM glad I asked…

  5. I read this on my iPhone before prying myself from bed this morning and it’s stuck with me all darn day long. I couldn’t wait for a spare moment at a real keyboard to comment!

    I love so much more than the story, Edie. I love the way you tell it. I wish I lived with the imagination that existed in your household.

    What I remember most about animals and family is that, when I wondered where baby rabbits came from, my father drew me a diagram on a piece of paper the size of a Post-it. (I’m sure there weren’t real Post-its back then.) Too young to understand, I made him draw it again about a week later. Something about those internal diagrams didn’t jive with what I knew a white, fluffy rabbit to look like so I discarded my lessons and went on about my day.

    True story? Knowing my father, his talent for diagrams, and his inability to cope with uncomfortable situations, I believe this went down exactly as I remember it. Like I said, imagination wasn’t highly prominent in my house – but we had hand drawn diagrams and maps for everything.

    1. What a nice thing to say, Kim! It’s as much editing as imagination in this case — I have the details in my head but it takes me a long time to get the presentation right. So I appreciate your appreciating it.

      And that story of the diagram of the where rabbits come from — priceless! Now I’m wondering of course which view he presented of the birth canal and rabbit uterus.

  6. I’ve read a bit about false memory syndrome; I’m no expert, but they have shown that it’s possible to plant a totally false memory in someone’s mind. I think it needs to be someone you’d trust, and the lie would have to be plausible, but it’s been done. Now the question is, who’s been messing with your mind? 🙂

    I also had a turtle name Timmy, when I was about six. One day, it passed on to where good turtles go, and my parents (well, my dad– why is it always dad who worry about their little girl’s fragile feelings?) ran out and immediately bought a replacement. When I came home from school, I took one look at the new turtle and demanded to know where Timmy was. My parents tried in vain to reassure me that this was, indeed, Timmy, but I could not be convinced. “But what makes you think it’s not Timmy?” they asked.

    Timmy, I informed them, had a red dot on his head. And this turtle didn’t. You can’t fool a kid.

    1. That’s an excellent question — who indeed would insert memories, especially ones involving sadistic guys from the ASPCA.

      I’m sorry to report you CAN fool some kids, at least some of the time. I never noticed that my replacement turtles were replacements. I’m hoping Timmy was larger than my dime store turtles; that would make me feel better for being so unobservant.

      1. Now I’m seriously starting to wonder if I ever had replacement turtles and didn’t realize it. This post is making me question my memories!

        On a side note, I named them all George. Even when I had multiple ones at the same time, they were all named George. I’d love to ask my 5-year old self why.

  7. I’ve started wondering about this myself. My first dog, Duchess, came from a litter my grandparents had. I strongly remember his (yes, his; I didn’t know Duchess was a girl’s name at 5) mother as a pure-bred collie. I remember his father as 1/2 German Shepherd, 1/2 wolf.

    I have very strong memories of Duchess’s dad in a dog run. He was so fierce that my grandparents’ foster kids would have to throw a piece of meat in the opposite end of the run to open the door wide enough to put his food in.

    Duchess was very tender with me but vicious with others. He ended up biting my parents’ friend and doing serious damage.

    I always thought of him as 1/4 wolf. But I wonder if that is true or just a term my grandfather used to describe him.

    Of course, I doubt my remembrance of anything and always assume my memory isn’t trustworthy. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I doubted myself all these years but actually was remembering things accurately?

    1. It’s sweet that no one told you that you couldn’t name a boy dog Duchess, don’t you think? Especially one with wolf genes. And yes, it would be ironic — though unlikely unless you have some of those scary total recall genes — if you were to discover that you have accurate recollections.

  8. While I can’t say that I have any “questionable” childhood stories, I’m pretty sure that I can top your story with one from my BFF’s Dad.

    George (BFF’s Dad) is of Greek heritage and did live in Greece, as a child. He had a few pigeons that he tended to and loved, I think that he even raced them. George’s mother HATED the pigeons! They were messy, noisy etc..

    One nite, they had a yummy stew for dinner. George asked what the stew was made of. Mom said “your pigeons”. True story :O She was a mean woman!

    1. Oh dear. That definitely puts my mother’s intolerance of my pets into perspective. Of course, she also hated to cook…

      1. To this day my dad won’t eat chicken… apparently he adopted a “pet” chicken from the chickens in the yard. One day, he came home to find chicken soup and that particular chicken missing. I always found that story so sad!

        1. Nobel laureate and Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer always said he was a vegetarian for health reasons– the health of the chicken.

  9. My mom and I always have disagreements over childhood memories. We never seem to remember any story quite the same way. I remember being an energetic tomboy animal rescuer that brought home snakes, rabbits, birds, mice and ducks. Rescuing these animals from some horrible fate. She remembers it more like a bratty tomboy that spent more time in the woods than wearing a dress and bringing disgusting rodents home just to drive her to an early grave. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

    1. Hmmm. Rescuing animals from the woods is a little suspect… But it sounds like you both remember the dresses — or lack thereof — correctly.

  10. oh ms jarolim! this is such a funny story! your poor turtles, hamsters, father and mother. you sound like YOU had a fun childhood though!

    i won’t go into my childhood animal/pet stories [implausible or not] here because it won’t be a comment, but a novel. you know how i can get 🙂

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. Hmmm… I never thought of myself as having had a fun childhood. I’ll have to think about that.

      All novels are welcome in this comments section!

  11. Love the story. Poor little Leba and Niac. I love that you even would have thought of calling the ASPCA – you were obviously a lot brighter than I was at that age. It reminds me a lot of the tale of my two childhood gerbils. Both male. I maintain to this day that Frenchie killed Elmo and ate half of his decaying body before they could be discovered. Perhaps it is not entirely true after all?

    1. If it’s true even true that I called the ASPCA then it’s admirable.

      Your tale of cannibalistic gerbils does bear further scrutiny, I’m afraid. I always thought gerbils were vegetarian but I just checked and apparently they eat insects. Nowhere did I read anything about consuming the rotting flesh of other gerbils.

  12. Wow, your turtle story seems a bit disturbing… But I guess your dad was hoping to appease you and that you wouldn’t notice the turtles were “coming back to life”. Most adults don’t think kids notice things.
    I don’t know a lot about the ASPCA, but I also can’t believe your mom would have let a stranger in your room. It’s more likely that she asked someone she knew to come over, hoping that you would trust them with your hamster if they said they were from the ASPCA.
    It’s still a good story though, a bit odd in its own way.

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