Growing up, the pet my sister and I wanted more than any other was a puppy.
If puppies had PR they’d have the kind that turned Robert Downey Jr the downward spiralling drunkard into Robert Downey Jr, Iron Man. His image about-turn has to be one of the most impressive Hollywood has ever seen. Before Iron Man he’d pissed away any goodwill he’d built throughout the eighties; now it’s difficult to remember he was ever a has-been hitting the rocks, and not the A-list megastar he’s since become.
Good for him.
Puppies have an image Robert Downey Jr or any other Hollywood star would kill for. Pixar have pretty good track record when it comes to making films but with every new release there’s a cruel sense of eagerness from the waiting audience. What if their new film sucks? Surely no studio can churn out hit after hit of such consistent quality. Sure enough, when Cars 2 was released to mixed reviews certain self-satisfied critics marked this as the beginning of the end, the bursting of the Pixar bubble.
The puppy bubble will never burst. Puppies have no legacy to live up to and they’ll never be in any danger of disappointing. When mummy dog gives birth (in my mind’s eye this process is as clean and as painless as the Pound Puppy mother squeezing out foam-filled weans in the adverts) nobody asks if the puppies are ugly because it’s a given that they’ll be appealing. A sack full of newborn pups wriggling against each other, mewling, their eyes not yet opened, their fur just beginning to fluff–why, it’s almost a shame to pop in a couple bricks beside them and hoof the whole lot into the river.
I kid, I kid! Isn’t that a horrible image? Why is that?
Because we love ickle wickle puppie wuppies; we wub them in their wittle nosey woseys.
If the Internet has proved anything it’s that baby animals are inherently cute. Contrary to what Hans Christian Anderson had to say about cygnets, thousands of websites document baby critters of all species, and every one is cuter than, I don’t know, one of those stupid Texan comparisons that never makes sense, cuter’n a bed bug in June, or something.
Top of the pile, just above baby pandas are puppies. Cat owners will disagree with me but as with so much else in life, they’re wrong. Kittens are cute, I know. Not as cute as puppies obviously but cute nevertheless.
But where puppies continue to be cute as they grow out of their newborn phase kittens do not. Kittens quickly become young cats, a little leaner and more spry than they’ll eventually be, a little more inquisitive, a little more playful, but recognisably cats.
Puppies, on the other hand, remain puppies for a long time. Once opened their eyes widen adorably. Too big for their mouths, their tongues loll out. Their legs stay stubby while their paws grow large, and while kittens are swanning around in a state comparable to the gawky adolescence human girls go through, puppies become like boy toddlers: stocky little things with big heads and big feet, forever running into walls.
This image is perpetuated by the media. I’ve no idea what prompted Andrex to decide the best way to market toilet paper was a golden retriever puppy running about a house unravelling bog roll everywhere but dang it if it doesn’t work. If you’ve seen one of the recent Andrex adverts in which real puppies are replaced with CG facsimiles you’ll probably have been as aghast as I was. “That’s not a real Andrex puppy!” we yell–and the phrase has slipped so effortlessly into our vocabulary, we’ve hardly noticed.
My sister and I wanted a puppy–not an Andrex puppy, not specifically, but considering how few real world puppies we saw in our youth I’d be very surprised if television marketing hadn’t impacted on our choice of pet.
And let’s not forget that puppies like sweets were bait set by villainous Strangers in public information films that taught generations of us British kids to beware of Stranger Danger. “Do you want to see my puppies?” Doesn’t the phrase put you in mind of a certain kind of man? One in a dirty raincoat perhaps, with bottle-bottom glasses and sparse hair slicked back with stinking pomade? And you shouldn’t go with him–you mustn’t!–because Strangers do horrible to children that, though never explicitly defined, may result in you never seeing your parents again–and that’s as good a threat as any.
But the Stranger has puppies. Don’t you want to see them?
Fearing Strangers and being tossed–snicker-snack!–into the back of a van to be driven away and disappear forever, my sister and I wanted a puppy of our own. It was safer that way, we reasoned. Really, if our parents loved us at all–and if they didn’t want us to be kidnapped–they should buy us one.
They didn’t. Instead we had rabbits, stick insects, and a fairground goldfish that didn’t last a single night once it was moved from its leaking polythene bag to a glass bowl. One by one all of our pets died or–in the case of one extremely lucky black bunny–escaped to the countryside.
And then we had hamsters. Who were not so lucky.
But first, let’s talk about rats.
Rats have a bad reputation, one on par with Robert Downey Jr. during his wilderness years. Everyone knows they’re smelly and disease ridden; everyone knows they bite and spread fleas. In the darkest corners of sewers rats teem together so tightly their tails knot together, leading to Rat Kings patrolling the under-city like stink-scuttling octopuses. Sightless baby rats aren’t cute: they’re vermin suckling at their mother, a plague in its infancy, waiting to run wild.
But ask rat owners what they think of rats and you’ll hear only good things, Rats are smart, affectionate, social creatures. Rat owners have been known to wear their pets as scarves and take them out on the town–one person I knew, later mentioned in an interview with the man himself, even took her pet rat to a book signing, to meet Terry Pratchett. People who like rats like them, and lament that the rest of the world doesn’t feel the same way.
Hamsters, on the other hand, are universally adored. So cute! Picking things up in their little paws, stuffing food into their little cheeks. They run on wheels, they run in balls, they climb up and down tubes in Rotastak villas more luxurious than the houses they’re homed in. They’re perfect pet fodder–why, you’d hardly think they were rodents at all.
Do not be fooled. For all their cuteness, hamsters are the inverse of rats.
Unlike rats, hamsters are vicious. Sure, they look fluffy and pet-able, and they’ll happily run across your hands in the patented Magic Wigglee double hand stroke affecting an air of playful innocence–but place one vulnerable fingertip in their way and you’ll discover their true nature the hard way.
Hamsters are biters. Generally hidden behind puffed-out cheeks, their incisors become evident when they gnaw at their cage bars or–if you’re unlucky enough–your finger. It’s the kind of bite you might associate with something that has the decency to look dangerous–a moray eel, perhaps. You wouldn’t expect teeth of such wickedness to reside within a cute, apparently harmless ball of fluff, but once bitten you’ll always remember they’re there, hidden beneath the hamster’s innocuous exterior.
Do you see the twinkle in your hamster’s bright, shining eyes? That’s malice.
They smell as well. Not in general–no more than any other pet, so long as you keep their cage clean–but when let loose onto the carpet or up your sleeve they’ll secrete a milky urine with an unpleasantly savoury smell, as if the hamster subsists solely on a diet of Roast Beef Monster Munch. They save up urine and crap until you let them loose, whereupon they piss and shit on everything they see, leaving so many dark poop lozenges on the floor you’ll swear someone spilled a bag of black rice.
They’re escape artists the likes of which not even turn of the century America has seen. Often we’d visit our pet’s Rotastak palace early in the morning to find it empty; the hamster had managed to lift the entire construction at one end and slipped through the gap. Once escaped it hid beneath the armchair or the TV stand, making it look like it’d never been caged in the first place.
We had two hamsters: Volta (the bright spark) and Flash (the speedster). Neither was particularly amiable but Volta was by far the more vicious of the two, biting my sister’s unsuspecting fingers on a number of occasions. We owned them years apart, the first dying and being buried a long time before we bought the second. I can’t imagine we looked after them particularly well, but at least with Rotastak’s modular components it was slightly easier to switch out bedding and refill the food bowl than it had been when tending to our rabbits, meaning we might have done so a little more frequently.
I’m not sure how we ended up with Flash, so long after Volta had passed on. Perhaps our parents thought we might have matured and become more responsible; just as likely, they might have thought the hamster home was going to waste and they ought to make it useful once more.
It was the Rotastak housing that made me want a hamster in the first place. My friend Sam’s hamster Bilbo lived in a Rotastak cage the size of an apartment complex. There were lofts and slides and basements and wheels–it looked like a water park designed by Heath Robinson. Sam boasted that the whole shebang cost in excess over £100, an unimaginable sum for kids of our age. This was Walt Disney World for hamsters, an adventure playground where, so long as you could afford to keep piling cage on top of cage, the sky was literally the limit.
Upon seeing Bilbo’s crib I realised that I, too could have my own plastic sky-city in my bedroom. All I needed was a hamster to live in it.
Fortunately Bilbo’s mother–or one of his other relatives–was pregnant, and when she gave birth to horde of baby hamsters I along with all the other kids in class trooped to Sam’s house to pick out our new pets.
We fed, cleaned and looked after Volta in a half-assed manner, and when he died, though we were sad it was with a modest disappointment, the kind you feel upon opening a sachet of Panini stickers and discovering you already owned all but one them.
The same could be said of Flash’s life and eventual death. Little separates them in my memory, although I’ll always remember Volta as the biter, as well as the hamster whose testicles inflated to alarming size, as if he’d put a peanut inside each of his cheek pouches and slipped them both down to his rear end.
There is a horrible sting in the tale to this, the last of my pet stories. When Flash died we made certain he was dead, not by prodding him but by putting him into the airing cupboard. Hamsters, we learned, hibernated during cold weather. They could be roused by placing their cages near the radiator, and on a couple of occasions we’d done this with Flash, ensuring we had a pet in the corner of the room in colder months, who’d run on his wheel while we ignored him. We put him in the cupboard to make sure he wasn’t sleeping. My dad didn’t bury Flash until we were certain he’d no longer wake up.
But–and even so many years down the line, it’s rather embarrassing admitting this–we didn’t learn about hamster hibernation until long after Volta had died. When we found him lifeless in his Rotastak attic we tearfully buried him in the back garden. He was stiff–he certainly felt dead–but we didn’t know to put him in the airing cupboard, to be absolutely sure that he was, in fact, an ex-hamster.
It was awfully cold the day Volta died.
Do I think my dad buried a living hamster, thinking it to be dead? I don’t, but I can’t be sure. I feel guilty in the abstract way we all feel guilty about things we’ve done and can never change. I’ll never have an answer to this question and though I’m probably the only member of my family who remembers this was ever a matter to feel guilty about, I still feel guilty.
And I wonder sometimes, when it’s dark and I hear a frantic and faraway scratching in the night, that might be a tree branch swayed by wind rubbing against a fence . . .
. . . or little ghostly paws, digging in vain for freedom.
Snowflake, Sooty, fairground fish, Volta, Flash and stick Insects: these are the pets who’ve come and gone–oh, and the stray cat kept in the shed, fed cat food (which I reiterate did not taste good) who was ours so briefly it probably survived longest of all.
And Lilo the puppy, my dog, our hairy child, waiting in a distant land for me, the bringer of chicken. Better than every pet put together, I look forward to seeing her again soon.
These are the animals that helped shape my life. Thank you for reading.