10 NOVEMBER 2004
If you keep hamsters and you might one day find that one has escaped: in that situation, this may be the most important thing you will ever read.
This article is dedicated to the memory of my lost sister, Baby Doe, who died a most unfortunate and unnecessary death at six weeks of age. It was a tragic loss that should never have happened. And we are all the wiser for it. I tell this painful story because I hope that we can share with others the tragic lesson of my sister's death.
Typically, a three-week old hamster is just barely weaned and weighs about an ounce. The weight can be a bit more or less, depending mainly on the size of the litter. Young hamsters from very large litters may weigh a bit less than their counterparts from small litters. Also, a mother's first litter occasionally will produce offspring who grow a bit slower than later litters born to the same mother.
Diddley and Bupkes and I (Didi), along with our two brothers and nine sisters, came from a very large litter. Fifteen of us survived to the age of two weeks, and we believe that at least two (brown like me) were lost in infancy. We were also the first and only litter my parents had.
But we matured nicely, thanks to my mother having the benefit of a diet that was well supplemented with goat milk which she took three or more times daily from a dropper.
At the age of three weeks, we were fully weaned - right on schedule. It was at that time that we were transferred from the glass "maternity tank" in which we'd been born (see top photo) to a regular wire cage. Our mother would stay with us for at least another week, and then it would be time to separate us by gender, with the male children going to their own cage until they they reach adolescence (about 7 weeks), at which time each of us would be entitled to our own individual residential units.
But unfortunately, we were just small enough to slip between the bars of the cage. Four of us escaped. The first missing baby hamster was caught within minutes. One more was caught on the same night and a third the next morning. But one evaded capture. She was Baby Doe, the only surviving brown female besides me.
Tremendous efforts were made to capture my missing sister. One item of hamster equipment in the house (something everyone should have just in case) is a "safe trap" - also called a "live trap." See photo at right. These can be bought in most hardware stores, and they consist of a wire box with open ends that are attached to springs. The springs are released and the open ends snap shut if a small creature steps inside the trap. Generally, our experienced care-taker uses a small water bottle as bait. That's because a hamster who has been on the loose for a couple of days is going to want water more than food. In short, setting the trap with a water bottle works.
In addition to the trap, pieces of raw potato - another source of fluid for a thirsty young hamster - were placed at strategic points throughout the house, from a couple of corners in the basement to the main floor to each of the upstairs bedrooms. Small piles of seeds were left out, as well.
But two days passed and there was no sign of the lost Baby Doe. None of the seeds had been touched. The potatoes were undisturbed. And the trap had not caught her. Knowing that she was barely weaned and extremely vulnerable, efforts intensified. Furniture was moved. Brooms were poked into corners. No hamster.
On the third day, things began to seem hopeless. But still we looked. New potato pieces were set out, and several times a day they were checked. The trap was moved from one place to another.
Day four arrived. Still no sign of Baby Doe. Nothing. Hope was fading. But the trap, the potatoes, and the seeds were still there. They remained untouched.
By day five, it seemed hard to believe that Baby Doe could still be among the living. And over the next couple of days, the potatoes and seeds were swept up and discarded. The trap, still set, was put into a corner. Nobody imagined that she could still be alive. Her loss was deeply mourned.
But far sadder events were soon to unfold.
Another week passed. Baby Doe had been lost for almost two weeks. Then another week. No one imagined for even an instant that Baby Doe could still be alive. A memorial candle had been lit in her honor, and we all tried to find some sense of finality and get on with our lives.
One bedroom in our "hamster ranch" is just for hamsters. It's specially furnished and designed for us. There are no electric plugs or cords that a hamster can reach, and there is no heavy furniture behind which a hamster could hide. The door, if opened, automatically closes unless a doorstop is used, so that any escapes in that room are contained - and "safe" in the sense that there's nothing there that can hurt us.
But the babies that got out of the cage weren't in the hamster room because they were still small. They escaped in a bedroom belonging to our "GFO" (or "great furless one") - our human caretaker, that is. In fact, the other three that were caught within a day all were found in that same bedroom. All but Baby Doe....
One thing the GFO hadn't done was vacuum the floor in the hamster room during the time Baby Doe was missing. There was always that faint hope that the tiny bits of hamster-scented litter that fell beneath our cages might attract the little one. But after nearly three weeks, we'd given up all hope.
So the room was vacuumed. There is a huge "shop vac" that sits in the closet. Whenever it is used, the GFO simply reaches for its electric cord and plugs it into a wall outlet right next to the closet. The body of the vacuum cleaner can stay put, as the hoses and attachments reach all over the room. And when that vacuum cleaner is turned on, with its extraordinary power, it sucks up everything, blowing air out a vent that is positioned toward the back of the closet wall.
But immediately upon starting the vacuum cleaner last November 5th, we knew something was wrong. The air being pushed out smelled of death. The GFO took it from the closet and opened it. Inside, we found Baby Doe's little body - not a skeletal frame or a withered piece of fur, but a full-figured, sturdy body.
And here comes the really awful part (you can have no idea how it hurts me to write this!). She was virtually the same size as the rest of us, or at least quite a bit larger than she had been when she escaped. And her body had only begun to decompose. Visibly, she was whole. She had been alive, in other words, until maybe a day before she was found - two at the very most!
Poor Baby Doe! She had somehow crawled up the hose into the vacuum cleaner and was unable to get out. No one heard her making sounds. Perhaps by then she was too weak. But that young hamster, who was lost from her cage as a newly-weaned child, lived on her own for more than two and a half weeks - long after we had given her up for dead!
She was placed on a white cloth and wrapped for a burial which took place the following day. Friends came down from another state to attend the funeral. And overnight, some watery blood stained her white burial shroud - further proof that the process of bodily decomposition was in its very early stages.
We were horrified. We were in shock! Oh, the agony she must have suffered! Our dear Baby Doe will never be forgotten. And we ask you, our readers, to remember her, too.
If a hamster should get out of his or her cage, whether adult or baby, please don't make the mistake we made. Keep looking for that hamster. Be creative. Looking under furniture is not enough. You have to look inside things a hamster might get inside - vaccum cleaners, clothes dryers, dishwashers - everything. Look - and listen! If a just-weaned youngster who weighed barely an ounce can survive for almost three weeks on her own, there's no telling how long a more mature, stronger hamster can live.
Here are a few things you can do to prepare for the possibility of a missing hamster:
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