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09 october 2007

The Rodent Phase
By Sasha Aslanian

We are entering the small rodent phase in our household. You already know the ending don’t you?

Seasoned parents are giving me their sympathies. Stories of untimely deaths, mysterious disappearances, and bloody clashes with other (feline) pets abound.

But how can I deny my daughters all the fun I had with my gerbils?

Butterball and Tiny came to live with me in second grade. They were pretty to watch in their dry aquarium home. I researched the lives they might have lived in a Mongolian desert: their tails could drop off to escape the jaws of a predator and they needed little water—making them convenient pets for clumsy and forgetful elementary-schoolers.

The newcomers intrigued my cat, too. One morning after I left for school, my mother found the cat running upstairs with a gerbil in its mouth. She startled the cat into dropping his prey and the stunned gerbil managed to crawl inside the bathroom radiator. My mother spent her morning coaxing the gerbil back into the cage so I wouldn’t be upset when I got home from school.

Then there was the time our boy babysitter wickedly dropped Tiny from the second-floor laundry chute into the basement. Tiny never was as robust as her sister after her giant fall. My mother never invited Michael Watkins, or any other boy, to babysit us again.

Early one Saturday morning I decided my parents would love to wake up to a gerbil nuzzling them. As I crept into their room and held a gerbil to my mom’s chin, the frightened gerbil sank its curved incisors into my thumb. Instead of the cuddly scene I had envisioned, my parents woke to screams as I windmilled my arm trying to dislodge the gerbil. It finally flew off leaving two pinpricks of blood through my thumbnail.

Gerbils are nocturnal creatures and I found their gentle thumps and wheel rattling comforting. They masked the creaks of an old house.  But there was a mystery. Tiny and Butterball both had bloody patches behind their ears. My mother peered into their cage and determined they must have a vitamin deficiency. Perhaps the pet food company didn’t know everything about the Mongolian desert diet?

Some months later I awoke to find Tiny stiff in a pool of blood. Butterball didn’t live much longer herself but the joy was gone for me. They had been at war in their 10-gallon aquarium. The thumps in the night were them fighting.  The “vitamin deficiencies” were them beating the crap out of each other every night.

I think now of what hell their existence must have been.

Controlling the worlds of these tiny creatures is heady stuff for an elementary schooler. People who have no power over bedtimes suddenly wield life or death. Are these gateway relationships? If we succeed with rodents, we deserve better pets? As tiny humans, do we identify with the weakest little pets?

I’m struck now by how few good memories I have of the gerbils. I only remember the close calls, the injuries and my guilt over their warfare I didn’t prevent. Yet tonight, I drove my 6-year-old daughter, Kaia, to pick up her new hamster, a black and white beady-eyed beauty named Gabriella.

She already got loose and nipped Kaia tonight. She’s climbing her cage bars and digging like crazy in her cage. I’m worried about the smell. Or when the kids get bored with her. Then I console myself: she won’t live long. These pets fit into our lives for a small window of time. 100 hamster lifetimes from now, Kaia will give in and buy her daughter a small pet. And shake her head at the memories.

—Sasha Aslanian is senior producer for American Radio Works and was the producer of the pilot “How’s the Family?” for American Public Media.




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