My daughter, Sasha, started asking for a pet when she turned 6 last June. Not another fish, she insisted. She wanted a real pet. A pet with fur. She started big. A dog? A cat? No? She downscaled. A rabbit? A ferret? A guinea pig? Really, no? A hamster? Maybe? How about two?
Acquiring a pair of hamsters became her steadfast goal. She begged, pleaded, negotiated. She promised she would clean the pets’ cage, tear their cabbage into tiny morsels, take them out for free-range play, and let them whirl across the hardwood floors in those clear plastic hamster balls. How could I say no to such earnestness, such sincerity — even when I could see, with a clarity usually reserved for soothsayers, that, despite my daughter’s reassurances, I would eventually end up the sole caretaker of the critters?
Soon, we were bringing George and Joe home from our local pet store, along with their 10-gallon glass habitat, a squeaky red wheel, and enough bedding and food to last for a few months. Sasha and her 3-year-old brother, Joshua, were instantly smitten.
They obsessed over water bottle placement and the number of wood chews needed to grind down hamster teeth. They manhandled George and Joe, posed for pictures with them, held an inaugural race down the foyer. They clashed over whose room their new pets would sleep in, until Sasha smugly emerged victorious. The next morning, she staggered downstairs bleary-eyed. Who knew hamsters were nocturnal?
Days passed. Weeks. With their cage shoved in a corner of the breakfast room so that the all-night treadmill workouts wouldn’t interfere with the humans’ sleep schedule, George and Joe became just a bit less fascinating. Some days, it seemed, Sasha and Joshua all but forgot about them. But the little furry guys still needed to eat. And poop. Which meant somebody had to feed and clean up after them. And, of course, that somebody was me.
Then there came a day when I was on a work deadline and trying to clean the house and cook for dinner guests, and do about 60,000 other things on my to-do list. Nevertheless, I found myself outside in the heat of a Texas afternoon, supervising George and Joe as they rolled around willy-nilly in their hamster balls. That was the day I dreamed up the concept of hamster-sharing.
I knew that many of our friends’ kids, since meeting George and Joe, had been begging for hamsters of their own. So I sent out a group e-mail with a proposal: we would happily share our little pals with other families longing to live with a furry creature (or two).
Within a half hour, I had eight eager families signed up.
After some discussion among the group, we decided that each family would take George, Joe, and all their belongings — the cage, their exercise gear, and so on — for a six-week period. During that time, the current “owners” would be responsible for the hamsters’ care and feeding. When that family’s turn was over, they’d pass the pets along to the next family, with instructions and fresh bags of food and litter.
The most difficult part was getting Sasha and Joshua to sign on.
“It’s like sharing your toys with your friends, only better,” my husband, Harris, explained to them. “This way, everyone gets to know what it’s like to have a hamster.”
“But we’ll miss them!”
“I know,” I said. “But just think: when your turn comes around, it’ll be like having new pets all over again!”
This idea carried some weight, since Sasha and Joshua knew that they always enjoyed their toys much more after they’d been stashed away for a while.
When the time came for us to do the first handoff, the kids were on board. After all, the hamsters were headed to the home of close friends, where Sasha and Joshua would see them practically every day. The biggest difference, they realized, was that they’d no longer have to listen to me reminding them to clean the cage. Let the hamster-sharing begin!
So far, George and Joe have lived in four different homes. The six-week period seems perfect. The families have time to get to know and enjoy the hamsters, but the critters move on before the kids’ fascination with them wanes.
Our turn to host the furry duo is coming up soon. Sasha and Joshua are getting excited about having their pets home again. And because, mercifully, the squeaky wheel was replaced by one of the other families, my kids are already arguing about whose room George and Joe will stay in while they’re here.
The author offers these tips for keeping shared pets and their host families happy.
— Grant all of the kids visitation rights at the other pet-sharing homes so that they can see and play with the animals from time to time.
— Clarify who will cover vet expenses. Are such costs the responsibility of the current caretakers, or should they be shared by all of the families?
— Consider creating a pass-along journal. Each family can add to it with pictures and stories of the pets’ adventures. Eventually, it will be a wonderful keepsake.
—By Chris Cander, FamilyFun magazine