the taming of the ham

For the past two years, give or take, I had a hamster: a black one-eyed Syrian, amiable and rotund like a miniature Buddha. One Eyed Jack was his name; he’d been a rescue from Craigslist, and the getting of him was one of my early victories versus The Anxiety. Driving plus new places plus strangers equals panic, unless you get a hamster out of it. Jack was more like a dog: he never bit, licked peanut butter off my fingers, never escaped, never excreted on me, came ambling up when I called for him, and was so lazy that he only took a leisurely stroll in his wheel about twice a week. His one vice was bar-chewing, late at night, for hours.

The problem with these guys is that they do not live nearly long enough. A urinary problem appeared in January, and while the trip to the vet was highly entertaining it didn’t cure anything — given his age and the rule-out of infection it meant various terminal things. About two months later a tumor appeared on his right hip. A week later he died, obliging to the last; he kept breathing until I was there to hold him when he relaxed and let life go.

An act like that is hard to follow. It was a good month before the dismantled and sterilized cage on the top of my bookshelf looked empty instead of mournful. Then I started thinking about Another Hamster. It wouldn’t be Jack, but none of them ever could be; it’d be a new little critter with a new little critter-brain to mold and shape, new behaviors to coax and condition. Eventually that sounded good, so I started checking the internet and the local shops.

What I found was a dove-grey rodent with creamy rings around his eyes and along his snoot, all of two months old and as small as a (particularly robust) mouse. I found myself asking him “So, pal, what do you say? Wanna live with me, eat the snow peas from my moo goo gai pan?” At that point there was nothing for me to do but have them box him up and bring him home.

It took a few days for the little bug to adjust; new world, no littermates. I called him ‘little mouse,’ tested out several names, and loomed benignly in the distance so that he’d get accustomed to the sight and sound and smell of me. By the time he was acclimated enough to run on the wheel even if I was standing next to the cage and talking to the dog, I’d settled on ‘Myshka’ as a name – which is “little mouse” in Russian. Interestingly, ‘Mishka’ would mean “little bear,” if I have the -ka suffix correct, and little mousebear seems like a very good way to explain a hamster.

So: I have a young impressionable hand-shy hamster, now what? Jack had come to me fully and amazingly tamed, though he wasn’t too fond of being out of the cage. I refreshed myself on How One Tames A Rodent, but privately I wondered if I’d be able to pull it off.

This morning I woke up and peered into the cage, as I do, on my way to the bathroom. No hamster. I popped the door open, dug around in the bedding, removed the furnishings. Still no hamster. I looked around on the floor. No hamster. I considered myself very fortunate to have shut Beloved Dog out of the room for the evening (she’d been more interested in prodding me and wriggling when all I wanted to do was fall asleep) so that little Myshka hadn’t become a tasty snack.

I found him by waiting in silence and then following the scuffles: he’d worked his way into my nightstand, where he was tucked into a corner and nibbling the last lonely piece of my Emergency Chocolate. I checked the cage for various points of egress (the cage was designed for rats but is perfect for a full-grown Syrian, being three square feet) and identified a few spots that Myshka’s tiny self could probably have wiggled through. If the skull can fit through, so can the rest of the rodent. I set a sheet of cardboard on the top to block the seams where everything fit together, added a nearby book to keep it in place, affixed a pair of binder rings to the door corners, and then gave that a test run, leaving ham and cage alone in the closed room all day. He stayed in, so it worked.

I couldn’t be too upset about The Great Escape. The little guy was experimenting with his environment, which meant he’d traded fear for curiosity. Some objects in the cage move, and some make sound; some are porous and good for chewing, while others are not. Some things he can fit inside, or under, or on top of. Some things involve climbing. It’s been fascinating watching him test objects: is it food? can it be chewed?  climbed into or under or on? dug in? carried? is it stable or does it move? Hamster priorities are different, and it’s interesting to see how he approaches the objects I give him.

Tonight I balanced a yogurt drop on the tip of my finger and laid my hand in the cage, near enough that he could take the treat if he wanted. He sniffed until temptation overruled shyness, took the treat, and ate it. I carefully petted him with a finger: he cowered when I stroked along his spine, but sides and belly were all right. Big moment. Big, big moment. I’d earned some major points with little Myshka; I’d gone from the potentially scary giant ape to the potentially snack-bringing giant ape.

Pretty much any animal can get to like you if you have the right snacks to offer.

After that he kept looking outside the cage, which reminded me of the way Jack used to beg for treats. So I went back over, spoke softly, let him know I was there. He’d climbed up the bars again and hung there, watching me with ink-drop eyes. I offered him a seed. He dropped it. I picked out a different seed. He dropped that one. I picked another; that got shuffled into his face-pocket.

Then we were pals. I was a potential source of delicious treats. I dutifully fed seeds, one at a time, and he stuffed them away in his pouches for later. It was like a Pez dispenser, but backwards.

I’m amazed that in five days this tiny animal went from spooking and running if I made a sound to accepting food from my gigantic scary hands. (More than that; as I type he’s climbing up into the cage corners again, likely to see if that is the correct behavior to make me give him delicious mango seeds.) Taming a hamster is not a particularly big thing, but I’m fascinated. He’s showing new behaviors, trading fear for inquisitiveness. His little brain is molding itself in response to things I do.

Clearly, the next step – after getting him used to being handled – is to see what’s been done with rodents and operant conditioning. He’s all potential and fuzz. I wonder what he can do.

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