Four years and eight months ago my daughter and I went into our local pet shop for supplies for our cat. As usual, she disappeared off to look at the various smaller pets that are sold there, while I chose what we needed. She soon came running back, quite distraught, and dragged me over to a small cage that had a huge sign on it: ‘FREE to a good home.’
Inside, removed from his brothers and sisters and therefore completely on his own, a tiny fluffy marmalade and white hamster sat with his back to us, shivering in the corner. I looked at the other cages where tiny hamster families snuggled and played together, then I looked again at this creature that had been so ignominiously isolated from the others. ‘Why?’ I asked myself, my heart going out to this little bundle, just as my tender daughter’s heart already had.
I had no plans on having another hamster. We’d already had one; Harriet, who had lived for a respectable three years, so we’d been there, done that and cried when she left us to cross the rainbow bridge along with the gazillions of other creatures that make their way there on a daily basis. I didn’t want another one. Not really.
“He’s only got one eye, and the other’s no good, so he’ll never be tameable,” a gloomy voice told me. I turned to see one of the proprietors of the pet shop. “The others were trying to kill him, that’s why we took him out. I think it would have been best to leave him in there. Survival of the fittest and all that. No-one else will even look at him. He’ll only last about six months anyway. A hamster with one eye has other things wrong. Who’d take that on knowing they could never hold it or play with it?”
It turned out that we would. The tiny creature turned round and we could see the space where his eye should have been. His other eye was glued shut. A fierce protectiveness shot through me and I was determined he’d have the best six months a one-eyed (if not totally blind) hamster could have.
The man put him in a small cardboard pet transporter box, and then had to get another, slightly bigger one, as this tiny thing immediately started to chew his way out. By the time I’d paid for his bedding, (he needed special stuff to protect his remaining eye – and obviously this cost twice as much as the usual sawdust and fluff!) food and a new water bottle, we needed a third…
I drove us home like a bat out of hell, sure that he’d be running loose in the car long before we got there. Funnily enough, by the time we were halfway back, he’d settled down. He knew he was on to a good thing, obviously.
So Rocky came to live with us. I called him that because I thought a tiny thing with the odds stacked against him needed a big name. He may have been tiny, and he may not have had his sight, but he was one determined creature. He sat patiently (okay, probably in utter shock at being touched) while I cleaned up his remaining eye and as I gently wiped it clean, it became apparent that he had some sight after all. After that, when I opened the cage to feed him and he spotted my enormous (to him) hand coming his way he would turn his head to one side, raise his front paws, lay on his side and make this God-awful screeching noise. It scared the heck out of me the first time he did it, but by the end of the first week he’d stopped screaming and had begun to sniff my hand instead. Within a fortnight he was taking food daintily from my fingers and stuffing his pouches until they bulged and made him look twice, if not three times, his actual size. Then he’d squeeze his way back down the tube and hoick it all out again, hiding it in various places for another time. Within three weeks he was up in the top cage, his little face stuffed between the bars, waiting for me to bring him titbits. If I was ever late in getting to him, he’d rattle and gnaw on those bars until I did. Then he’d open his mouth, ready to take his favourite foods and would reach out his tiny paws to touch my fingers and daintily take whatever I offered. He rattled and gnawed against those bars every night from then on, sometimes hanging from them upside down, or just by his teeth. He got himself into some really odd positions, and made me laugh regularly. I’d lay in bed at night listening to him until the sound was so familiar I couldn’t sleep without it.
After we’d had him for about a year the cat, frustrated at Rocky’s nocturnal antics and the fact that he was up too high for him to get to him, made a superhuman leap and knocked the cage down. I found it, empty, the following morning while the cat sat with a smug grin on his face, toying with Rocky’s playthings. Upset, I shut the cat out of the room while I cleaned up, all the time believing that Rocky was no more.
As I sat having a little cry a bit later, trying to console myself with the fact that he’d had an extra six months on top of what had been predicted for him, a slight movement caught my eye. From a hiding place between the freezer and the wall, a gap of about an inch, Rocky was waiting patiently for me to notice him. How he had found the gap and squeezed into it I will never know, but he let me pick him out and put him back into his little home quite happily. I locked the cat out of that room at night from then on, but Rocky had developed the taste for adventure. Somehow his little hammie brain recognised that if he pushed against a certain part of the bars he could shift the top and escape. It took me AGES to discover how he was doing it! In the meantime, he found the cat biscuits and developed a liking for them, leaving various trails as he pulled the bits out and took them to whatever hidey-hole he had decided on, on that particular night. He was always waiting for me behind a piece of furniture in the morning – I just had to figure out which piece he was behind. Oh, what fun I had pulling out units and hunting him down…! To be fair, when I found him he was quite happy for me to put him back into his own home for his daytime sleep, but he could never quite bring himself to let us give him a proper cuddle, and would squeak and struggle against it.
Once I learned how he was escaping I bought another cage for him, and that put a stop to those escapades. (I know, what a spoilsport!) But when I put him in his little rolling exercise ball he would work his way around the rooms until he found the kitchen and the cat’s bowl where he would try to pinch the food through the tiny slits. At night, he went back to gnawing on the bars, trying frantically to escape on a nightly basis, and back I went to drifting off to sleep listening to his rattles and smiling to myself.
Fast forward another three and a half years and our one-eyed chance rescue had reached four and a half years old – somewhat better than the six months life expectancy he’d been given! Rocky was finally slowing down a bit. He still asked me for food every evening, and he still lulled me to sleep with his nightly gnawing noises, but now it wasn’t for as long. He was spending more time sleeping, and it happened so gradually that it took me a while to realise – perhaps because I didn’t actually want to.
On Tuesday this week he waited until I called him before he came out to see me, moving stiffly and with a slight lurch in his steps as he gently took the food I offered him and helped him to take a drink. He did the same again on Wednesday.
Last night he didn’t come out at all. I opened the top to his bed and softly called his name, gently stroking his old man’s fur as my eyes began to leak. He dragged himself up and lurched down to his feeding area, then, for the first time ever, he crawled back and onto my hand, where he curled up, breathing very slowly. He was saying goodbye in the only way he knew – by allowing me to cuddle him.
I held him and stroked his little warm body as I told him what a grand boy he’d been. How I was glad we’d rescued him, how he’d proven himself to be the most wonderful pet and how much fun he’d given us. I told him I was glad that he’d lived for so long and that I hoped he’d been happy with us; then I laid him back in his bed, covered him with his special bedding to keep him warm and told him I loved him. Stupid, I know, saying all of that to a hamster. But he knew. He knew. And he went to his final sleep knowing, four years and two months older than we ever anticipated.
Sleep well, my brave little one-eyed boy.