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April 22, 2009

A Death in the Family

We had a death in the family this week. My son’s hamster Nibbles died, a mere nine months after we found him in a local pet shop. Nibbles was a good hamster. He enjoyed doing all the classic hamster things: running on wheels, climbing in plastic tubing, chewing cardboard, and of course, nibbling. One habit he had would have been amusing if it wasn’t so desperate: he used to hang from the top of his glass aquarium by his teeth, clawing and chewing at the plastic which encased the perimeter. It was always unclear whether he just liked chewing that stuff or if, like a Cuban refugee, he was willing to risk life and limb simply to escape.

From the beginning, I was against bringing a hamster into our home. The way I saw it, I had enough lives under my care: I did not need to add another. Plus I suspected it would come to a bad end. Small rodents tend not to live very long. When I was five, I awoke one morning to find my own guinea pig lying on his side at the bottom of his cage, stiff as fiberboard. Bringing a hamster into the home, I tried to argue, was like inviting in the Grim Reaper. We knew he would come for the pet; it was just a question of when.

But my son wanted a hamster, and my wife wanted my son to have a hamster, and my daughter wanted cupcakes, which didn’t really affect the decision one way or the other. So I was out-voted and one morning I took my son to the pet shop to buy a hamster. The selection was somewhat limited: I think they had two. We decided on the one that was slightly more brown than white because he seemed a little spunkier. So we purchased him (we called Nibbles a him because we did not how to determine his gender, and so allowed my son to assign him one, which must have seemed unfair to Nibbles but I wasn’t going to poke around for hamster bits to try to determine the truth) along with an aquarium, a wheel, a little house, some bedding, a water bottle, hamster food and hamster treats, which are like little honey drops. Total outlay for Nibbles and Nibble accoutrement: around a hundred bucks.

I assumed incorrectly that my son would forget about Nibbles as soon as he was safely ensconced in his room. He did not. Although I would be lying if I said the two became fast friends, my son often played with the hamster, spoke to Nibbles, and even gave him an endearing nickname on top of his already too-fucking-cute regular name: Nibs or Nibbies. When Nibbles cage needed to be cleaned, he complained about it less than I did, and to his credit, enjoyed spraying the Windex onto the glass and helping to wipe it off. My son was a much better pet owner than I was at his age, which makes it even sadder now that Nibbles is gone.

Nibbles had been fading for days, so his death was more annoying than unexpected. Can death ever be annoying? In Nibbles’ case, yes. It was annoying because we knew he wasn’t doing well: his eyes were closed, his nocturnal wheel-running had ceased, and he suddenly looked old. Yes, a hamster can look old. They get kind of grey around the muzzle and they start asking you to speak up. We didn’t know what was going on with Nibbles. As is often asked with people, we found ourselves wondering “Is Nibbles old or poisoned?”

We had no way of determining Nibbles’ age. The lady at the pet shop told us that hamsters live anywhere from one to three years. We’d only had Nibbles in our lives for nine months, but it’s possible he was geriatric before we even got him. We did not know his age. We did not know his gender. Nibbles, there was so much about you we did not know.

So it as annoying that he seemed be dying because we did not know what to do. We agreed that we were not going to bring the hamster to the vet, which may seem cruel, but we once spent over five thousand dollars on chemotherapy for our dog and we did not want to start heading down that road with a rodent. So our options were limited. Neither of us knows hamster CPR, and it seemed like we were going to have to rely on traditional medicinal techniques. When I say “traditional,” I mean we were going to do nothing and see what happened. My wife did clean the hamster’s eyes in an effort to get him to open them. When she did, she reported that one eyeball now seemed much larger than the other, giving our hamster the look of Marty Feldman on a bad day.


No, it was obvious to us that Nibbles was on his way out. My son kept saying things like, “I don’t want to think about it,” which I believe is the correct way to approach any problem. Denial. He also retained a certain amount of optimism about the situation. His diagnosis: “Maybe Nibbles is tired.” Indeed. Tired of life, boy. Tired of life.

Because I am an absentee father, I was not home when my wife broke the news. At first, our son said he was okay with it, that he did not miss Nibbles that much, which was more disturbing than if he’d been upset. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross teaches us about the Five Stages of Death: Step One, of course, is denial. The tears came soon after. He started crying, which made my daughter cry. Soon they were both keening over the dead hamster. Mourning in the free way that children mourn; their tears feeding other tears, following by desperate exhortations ot the Gods: “why?” my son asked. “Why?” (Anger) Why, indeed. I spoke to him during the throes of his agony. He was choked up and tearful, which was very sad and very cute. (Depression) Of course I felt terrible for him, but I knew that there wasn’t much I could do, and my Diet Dr. Pepper was getting warm, so I kept the conversation brief. My wife said he was miserable for a good long while, but after she suggested he eat dinner in front of the television, a never-before granted privilege, he cheered up immediately. (Acceptance)

(It should be noted he skipped over the Third Step: Bargaining, in which the bereaved attempt to bargain with God. I guess he didn’t think of it.)

We will bury Nibbles in the backyard, under a flowering bush I planted there a few summers ago. He will be returned to the earth, a boy’s beloved pet and friend. He will view it as a solemn rite of passage; I will view it as another weekend chore. Will we get another hamster to replace Nibbles? In time, perhaps we will find our hearts sufficiently healed to contemplate another pet. (I should note we also have a dog, who is nine and in fine health, which should be enough for any kid, but that argument never held much water pre-Nibbles, so I’m guessing it’s not going to work post-Nibbles, either) My daughter is already speaking of getting a bunny rabbit. Not going to happen. It’s too soon for my son to contemplate another hamster, I suppose, which is fine with me because I hate cleaning the goddamned cage and truth be told, Nibbles smelled like pee.


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This story brings two things to mind.

a. the guy I overheard Sunday at Wal-Mart: "You can't make bacon from a hamster."

I would consider this an awesome opportunity to test that theory, but it seems inappropriate, what with your Jewy opposition to ham and this being a beloved family member (that smelled of pee).

b. this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=491KMo-Ckg8

The Naked Redhead

I, too, believe that kids are often cutest when they are sad and crying. Sometimes I just giggle with joy at their little tear-streaked faces. This is why I really enjoy all those Christian Children's Fund infomercials. Poor little Juan, no parents, so hungry, so many flies in his eye...so cute.

RIP, Nibbles, RIP.


My sister & I had hamsters when we were kids. Mine started biting people and than it ate 1/2 of my sisters hamster and left it right in front of the cage for all to see it. That was really gross. I'll never have hamsters again.


Guest appearance by Ken Marino on the comments board, everybody. This is like some sort of The State / subsequent common projects reunion. I, personally, am mollified.

Oh, and condolences on the rodent passing. Gone but not forgotten.


For the first time, thanks to your hamster story, I am "okay" with you spending part of your life with other people you call, you call, "family." But it's only okay because it still made me laugh. And cry, a little.


My 7 year old daughter begged for a few months and we finally relented and went over to the pet store and picked one out. Kylie (my daughter) insisted on a girl hamster so the clerk picked one out for us...a Russian Dwarf hamster that Kylie named "Sasha". We thought that she would tire of the hamster after a while but she hasn't....they watch tv together, Sasha enjoys climbing around in Kylie's hair and of course running around in her plastic ball. Which the cat seems to enjoy/hate. Last night I went into Ky's room to announce bedtime and she was watching tv with Sasha and she had a tiara on and she had found a little barbie tiara that she wedged onto Sasha's head. Hopefully we won't have to deal with Sasha's death for a while (we were assured she was a baby when we got her) but when we do, I will handle it like it's a sitcom and just replace with a look alike.

Alyson Burgess

Don't listen to Ken Marino. Xbox is the devil.

Particularly so if your kids aren't even allowed to watch TV during dinner... which in my opinion is a wise decision. ;)


My condolences.

There's basically no such thing as an easy pet (unless it's, like, maybe a hermit crab). You would not believe the kind of money I have spent on the health and well-being of my now-10-year-old goldfish.


You should watch this:

watch to the end. so great.


My hamsters were fratricidal cannibals. One bit his brother's head off, then ate it. Then HE died, presumably from skull shards in his cute little hamster tummy.


Try a pet rock...you can have as many as you want and you never have to inspect their bits and pieces. It may be difficult to replace one though, should it die, as finding an identical rock is akin to only dating women who wear your wife's perfume. Even with your best efforts, you're bound to get busted. I suggest finding several rocks of similar shapes and sizes and then painting them. If they’re all white, it’ll be much easier to make the switch.

Oh, and an added bonus…they don’t smell like pee and you never have to clean their cage.

PS My husband flipped his lid when we had to shell out over 2K for our cat’s eye (I will save the few choice words he had)…thanks for blowin’ so much on your dog, it makes my decision to save my cat’s life appear so economical now.


I understand your pain, Mike. Have you entertained the idea of interring your hamster in the Indian burial grounds behind the Pet Sematary? It's a long walk, but worth it.


After losing assorted pets (including hamsters) to the Great Animal Kingdom in the Sky, I'm wary of getting attached to new ones. So, even though our cat, dog, and parrot ought to live some 15 years, I continually remind my kids, "Don't forget, they could die any time!"


I'm thinking Windex was a bad idea. :( RIP Nibs.


I had 2 Russian Dwarf hampsters when I was younger. I boy and a girl. Sir Humps-alot- and Jezebel to be exact (their names were very suiting to their personalities.) Well I came home from school one day to see that Jezebel had given birth. Not only had she given birth, but she also murdered her brood by eating them. The only reason I knew she even gave birth was because she was "finishing" on off when I looked in the cage.

I then noticed that Sir Humps-a-lot was very still in the corner of the cage. Too still. Apon further investigation, I came to find that he was, in fact, dead. Gutted to be exact.

Fast forward to the next morning. I woke up to find that Jezebel was now deceased; she, in all of her homicidal rage, chewed her own foot off and bled to death over night. Seriously.

Talk about PPD...


Enjoyed this story very much.

Every kid needs a rodent. A gerbil might actually live longer. I had 2 gerbils in a wire cage - which helped with air circulation. (Good for gerbils, not so much for humans). They will be 23 yrs old this July.

I agree wtih Aimee. No more chemicals.
Always remember: WWDDD?



oh michael ian black
i check your blog everyday
never am i disappointed
but i must admit that the first person to comment on this is a complete dick
i wasn't aware that safari spell check was a fan (or not) of your blog as well
i think you forgot one "w" from "was" but no reason for us to go jizz our pants from the anxiety


You are not *either* an absentee father!


This is the sweetest and saddest blog. Very funny but I've held my daughter as she has buried pets and buried my own so the feelings are mixed in. Thanks for taking a "normal" situation and making it light and warm. (sorry if that goes against your grain, I'll try not to next time :-)

awkward boner

when i was 5 or 6 years old all of my gold fish died one at a time in span of about 45 minutes. this all happened while me and my brother were watching The Little Mermaid. that was pretty traumatizing.


@gretel - mice are like, really cheap, right? they're about $2. so my friend and i bought a couple on a whim. three weeks later, i noticed that the mouse cowering in the corner had a good amount of exposed musculature. and was still alive. and the other one, the cannibal, was burning off his illicit meal on the wheel. i took pictures to show anyone who wants pet mice.


It could have been the windex....I'm just saying. Poison maybe. Haha.

It's a good thing you didn't do the vet. Last month I spent 30 dollars to save a 4 dollar Betta Fish I've had for almost two years.

Waste. He's still dying.
Goodbye Dr. "Tommy Two-Tone" Seuss.


I had a Teddy Bear hamster when I was little. My mother used to put a blanket over his cage at night and he would pull some of it in and cover himself with it. Miss that little guy.

Flippy Dinkleson, Rodeo Clown

The best thing to do is to let him have two hamsters, and supply the pair with tiny, adorable weaponry. There can be only one.

Stacey E

You should have been drinking the Cherry diet Dr Pepper, truly delightful.

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