The Tale of Two Elsas

My daughter had been begging for a pet hamster for a long time.  She wanted a little white dwarf hamster that she could name Elsa.  I brought home Elsa I on a Thursday evening.  There were no females available, but it’s not like you can really tell them apart anyway, so we just pretended.  He was so sweet and docile and K loved him.  He would curl right up in her hand and go to sleep. Awww … sweet little fuzzy white hamster.

By Sunday morning he was dead.

K was absolutely devastated.  At only five years old, this was her first encounter with anything dying other than her goldfish and she sat there holding the little corpse, tears running down her cheeks.

We put Elsa I in a box and went back to the pet store to take advantage of the ‘if your hamster dies within a week’ return policy. The pet store folks inspected him and they found that basically, he was a sick hamster to begin with. K chose a specific replacement hamster after holding about 7 of them, all identical white dwarf hamsters with creepy red eyes. Oh, and again, all male. He was christened Elsa II.

Want to know a little interesting tidbit about hamsters? They are not meant to curl up in your hand and go to sleep. That is not normal. I remember even talking about it at the time, reasoning that he was so calm during the day because hamsters are nocturnal. We were so pleasantly surprised – wow, hamsters are calm and cuddly! Yes, they are…when they’re sick and dying. [facepalm]  Every time I think back on it, all I can picture is that scene in Dumb & Dumber where the little blind boy is petting the dead parakeet that has its head duct-taped on. “Pretty bird. Can you say pretty bird? Pretty bird…”

Elsa II was a normal hamster. He ran away – fast – and he was wiggly and squirmy. He took teamwork sometimes to even catch him in his cage. He bit our fingers.

Despite being a normal hamster, he still was able to be petted and played with, and for almost a year, he was a pretty decent family pet.  He was very entertaining to watch, and the intricate network of tunnels he dug in his bedding were quite amazing.

This past Sunday afternoon, we found Elsa II curled up in a little ball sleeping. The reason it caught our attention was that he never slept aboveground. He was always in his tunnels or under his little half-log. We picked him up and immediately knew the worst. He was lethargic and barely opened his eyes, exactly as Elsa I had been like when he breathed his last. We couldn’t believe it. Just the night before, he had been zipping around his cage, running in his wheel, drinking water, munching food. Now, less than 24 hours later, he felt like a skeleton covered in hamster-fur. I could feel the little bones in his back and rib cage.

K was away at a birthday party, so we had a bit of time to try to figure out how to break the news. I wrapped Elsa II gently in some soft tissues and cradled him in my hand. I couldn’t bear to just leave him alone while he was dying.  I held him for an hour or so, watching him slowly slipping away. He would occasionally have what appeared to be a seizure, then would gasp a few times, then curl back up with his eyes closed.

Saying goodbye is never easy, even if it is just a hamster.

Saying goodbye is never easy, even if it is just a hamster.

When K got home, Elsa II was still hanging on. She wanted to cuddle him, so I set her up on the couch with him. I started preparing her, telling her that he was very sick and he might not make it. Her worry over his sickness turned to grief that he may die. In a sweet, heartbreaking moment, K leaned over, gently kissed him, and whispered goodbye.

Less than 5 minutes later, Elsa II seized again, which freaked K out a little, and I took him back. His eyes were wide open, and I held him as he finally took 3 last gasping breaths. I have to say, I know that it was just a hamster, but there is just something so awful and sad when you are watching something small and helpless that is sick and dying and there is nothing you can do about it.

I looked at my husband, gestured at the hamster, and shook my head. He took Elsa II from me and I pulled K into my lap.  “I’m sorry, baby.  Elsa died.”

K burst out crying, and I may or may not have had a few tears myself.

It is mid-winter and the ground is frozen. My husband and I texted each other about burial options so that K couldn’t overhear until we knew what to do. The flower bed near the foundation seemed the best option to be the least frozen and we asked K if she wanted to help find a little box to put Elsa II in. She did not, and when we told her where we would bury him, she cried harder.

“I want her to be buried under my favorite oak tree!”

We have no oak trees. We only have one tree, a small red maple in the front yard. The very frozen front yard.

I texted my husband that we could just put a marker up and dispose of the body some other way. He wanted to make sure that K was part of all this if she wanted to be. He asked her if she wanted to bury something with him, like maybe a little picture she could draw or a note.

“But she is in heaven!” K wailed, tears streaming down her face. “If she’s up there and my picture is buried down here, she won’t ever get to see it.”

It was at that point we realized that she really did not want or need to be part of the burial process. That was confirmed when, as my husband gamely went out the front door with a shovel, she buried her face in her hands and cried harder, sobbing that she didn’t even want to see him outside.

I led her to her playroom with her eyes covered, and I settled her in on a cozy sheepskin rug with her Kindle Fire and a blanket. By that time, my husband had discovered that there wasn’t a chance of digging even a hamster-sized grave in the frozen ground under that tree. He was able to hollow out enough dirt in the flower beds near the foundation of the house to insert Elsa II and call it good.

I took down the hamster cage, washed it, and packed it all away. By the time we had finished erasing the house of hamster-related paraphernalia, K had settled down considerably.  By bedtime, with no reminders around, she hadn’t even mentioned it again.

Two hamsters down in barely a year. For some reason I was under the impression that dwarf hamsters can live up to 10-15 years. Do you want to know how long they really are supposed to live? (Those of you who already know this are laughing at me right now.)  On average, a dwarf hamster lives about a year; if you’re lucky, maybe two.  So, unless you want to subject your child to the annual death of their pet, get a guinea pig.

I informed the dog and cat that due to the shocking pet mortality rate in our house, they might want to watch their step.

As for getting a new hamster?  If there is to be an Elsa III, she will have to come in the form of something like this:


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