Hamsters? What Hamsters?

Daily Encounters

The Handbook for Students’ policy on student pets is succinct: “No student may keep an animal in a building owned or leased by the College.” I never knew the specific rule; I always figured that a friendly pet would add light and cheer to the sun-deprived dorm life of Harvard. My 13 roommates over the years agreed. Oh how wrong we were. For future reference, although pets are fun and a great distraction from schoolwork, they are also expensive, hellish to move on vacations, and incredibly time-consuming. College students have no permanent housing, no car to drive to the vet, no other room in which to put said pet and not enough time to appropriately care for pets. In addition to light and cheer, pets add a good deal of stress to dorm life. The Handbook knows what it’s talking about.

It began with the hamsters. Lovester and Annie, two female hamsters in a little cage above the bathroom heater. We gave them a wheel, balls, and all the dining hall carrots they could eat. All was well until the day eight baby hamsters mysteriously appeared in our bathroom. Annie was a boy. We responded with a week of ogling the babies, and then sold all but one back to Petco, along with Annie. We thought we had the situation under control.

“Are you sure the baby we’re keeping is a girl?”

“Yes, positive.”

The girl turned out to not only a boy but Oedipus the Hamster, and our smartest roommate turned out to have a 100 percent error rate in sexing hamsters. Oedipus went on to father 11 inbred brethren in our bathroom. Two of the adorable albino puffballs soon escaped when a friend decided to open up the whole cage; our adorable rays of light and cheer were now “somewhere in Leverett House.”

In the ensuing calls from the superintendent—one after a janitor mistook Oedipus Jr.. number seven for a mouse and killed him; another when a fellow Leverett student captured one in his room—the party line was, “Hamsters? What hamsters?” Obviously, we knew nothing about it.


The next pet was an adorable baby lamb, here on a visit. For the record, baby lambs do not “baaah.” It’s more like a screeching honk, which echoes incessantly day and night from the blanketed trashcan in which he slept. In between the honks, he required bottles, lullaby singing and constant supervision. Though adorable, Harvard the baby lamb (its sister, Cornell, lived in Ithaca) was thankfully soon sent home to a family farm.

But I was still on a mission for a worthwhile, less time-intensive pet, to love and care for and play with during those depressing all-nighters. In a sudden flush of benevolence, I adopted Charlie the python from an emergency pet center. He was a quiet and portable pet who traveled in a pillowcase, enjoyed silently slithering around my room while I studied, and had an affection for one of my roommates, whom he followed around. The perfect dorm pet. But looks can be deceiving. It was a nuisance to hide evidence of Charlie during room inspections, including his two-yard long 80-gallon glass tank, blue heating lamp and large supply of frozen dead rats, which filled the freezer. One day my roommate needed ice for a bruise, and I announced that we had no ice, but that she could use a “big fat dead frozen rat” if she wanted. She declined. Never own pets that eat mammals.

And pets get sick, as did Charlie, whether or not you have the time to deal with it. It was a respiratory infection. The treatment: two sets of seven shots. One has not experienced the true hellish potential of dormlife until one has spent the night before two final exams chasing a four-foot long ball python with a syringe hanging out of its abdomen around a dorm room. Charlie was not amused. Neither was I. After 12 more shots, hundreds of dollars on vet bills and many subway trips to the vet hospital with a snake poking around my backpack, Charlie passed away. I breathed a guilty sigh of relief.

I thought I was done. I donated Charlie’s tank to a recent Harvard graduate who was re-living the adventures of Oedipus with mice, and swore that I would never own another pet. I advised fellow students to do the same. Then my roommate found the internet.

To combat the emotional trauma of killing a hundred ducks for her biology thesis, she ordered 15 duck eggs on the internet, and spent the next 28 days rotating the eggs. The adorable babies pecked their way out of their eggs and started walking around. Our room turned into a campus petting zoo, with a steady stream of pet-deprived students from all over campus peering in to “see the babies,” including the nightly swims the 15 baby ducks took in our shower.

All grew huge except Midget, who was doubly adorable. But like all dorm pets, there was a downside: as the ducks grew, they started to reek, and they ate incredible amounts of dining hall fare—ten daily cups of rice and vegetables—and were eventually shipped off to live a happy farm life with Harvard the Lamb. Finally, a pet-free suite. I breathed a not guilty sigh of relief because—clearly—no student should keep an animal in a building owned or leased by the College.

They say that college is a time of experimentation. I suspect that they are referring to more low-brow activities than frantically trying to shush a baby lamb, but I learned quite a bit from my reptile, bird and rodent adventures: I know how to administer a shot to a squirming python, that microwaves are not to be used in defrosting frozen rats, and that you should never help a baby duck peck out of its shell. And my college stories are more hairy (feathered, scaled, etc.) than most.

Arianne R. Cohen ’03 is a women’s studies concentrator in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.