I had written about the experience of losing one hamster days before Christmas, and bringing home another nearly identical golden Syrian hamster for my son. Wooly 2 was a good first pet. C enjoyed feeding him every morning and being responsible for changing his water. If Wooly was awake, he’d stand on his hind legs, seeming to wait eagerly for my son to give him his pellets. If he was still in his nest, my son would ring a bell and Wooly would poke his snout out, sometimes yawn, and emerge to get his meal. Wooly wasn’t entirely tame – when we took him out to play in his pen, he’d climb up the mesh sides so fast you had to make sure he didn’t escape, and sometimes he still nipped your fingers. But we all loved him.
Then, one morning in late February, when my son rang the bell, Wooly didn’t emerge. C said resignedly, “I think Wooly died,” almost as if he’d been bracing for this moment ever since Wooly 1’s demise, which just made the moment that much sadder. I didn’t have the heart to check right then, but when I got home from work, I found Wooly curled up in his nest, dead. Yes, you read that right. Two dead hamsters in as many months! Like the first Wooly, this Wooly went quite suddenly. The night before, he’d been active and very much alive, no sign of illness.
My husband was out of town, about to give a talk, so I refrained from texting him that evening. With my two boys, we wrapped Wooly up, said our good-byes, and deposited him in the compost bin to “return him to the earth.” My son almost immediately started lobbying for a turtle, but I insisted that we pause before committing to a new pet. Over the next few days, we talked about how much we missed Wooly – he’d been with us just long enough to have integrated into our family life and shaped our daily routines. As my son observed, even the things that had been annoying or bothersome (cleaning his cage, how noisy he sometimes was) we now missed in their sudden absence.
A couple of weeks later, in mid-March, we were all house-bound, as activities and trips were cancelled one by one. My son talked about missing Wooly even more insistently than before. He must be mourning all the other things he’s missing, I thought: his teacher and classmates, the planned field trip, the mealworm unit for science, recess and lunchtime, all the things of his pre-coronavirus life of which Wooly had been a part. But it was also about the pet. He was angry that I hadn’t let him get a turtle before everything shut down. It’s true that I didn’t want to have to shell out for all new equipment and food to keep another species alive and I was trying to buy some time.
But here we were, stuck at home for who knew how long, the world having become a dangerous and frightening place. A pet to help pass the time didn’t seem like such a bad idea. The pet store was open as an essential service and they were offering curbside pick-up. So, I suggested that maybe if we wanted a pet now, we could simply get another hamster, since we had all the necessary supplies and we could order and pay for the hamster over the phone. When I called, the nice young woman, Yuli, offered to send photos of the different breeds they had available. Understandably, my son seemed uninterested in getting another golden Syrian who looked like the previous Woolys.
Enter “Potato,” our new teddy bear hamster. So far she seems less busy and energetic than the Woolys, but she was described as “sweet” and less in need of socializing, which to us sounded like less likely to bite. We’re still getting used to each other. The kids seem happy to have another creature among us to care for and dote on and keep track of. We tried to prepare my son by acknowledging the obvious risk we were taking in getting another hamster. He decided it was worth the risk. Whatever happens, I will be grateful if Potato gets us through this pandemic. And if there’s a lesson here, I suppose it’s that in this season of sorrow and loss, we chose love instead of fear. I hope my children will carry that with them.