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Little Feet

It's a dwarf hamster - what's not to love?

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Not all animals make good pets. Just ask any disappointed 10-year-old who thought that birthday turtle would be his new best friend. Some critters just aren't hardwired for human interaction, let alone a game of fetch. But my dwarf hamster and I get on just fine. And she doesn't slobber or shove her nose in my crotch.

To be honest, I wasn't in the market for any kind of varmint. But fate intervened six months ago. My girlfriend and I were on a multi-errand mission when we popped into PetSmart to grab some chow for our two fave felines.

It was supposed to be an in-and-out kind of thing. It wasn't. On our way to the kitty aisle, we passed a handful of rodent cages. Most of them were uninhabited, but in the center of one stood a bitty fur-ball, its arms outstretched in desperate greeting. Clearly, this critter the size of a chicken nugget was asking us to save it from its big-box nightmare. Naturally, we sympathized.

Unlike the not-so-helpful store clerk we turned to for help. "I don't know why anyone would want one of these as pets," she growled. "They're extremely vicious." I pictured the "killer rabbit" scene in Monty Python & the Holy Grail. Better stock up on holy hand grenades, then.

The store didn't carry them. It did stock cages, though, and choosing one proved trying, as our embittered guide offered little in the way of assistance. Certainly an animal this tiny wouldn't require much living space, I figured. Inspecting her current digs, we concluded that a metal mouse cage would suffice. She'd definitely need an exercise wheel, though.

"Oh, you can't use a wheel like that for a hamster," the clerk scowled. But it was the exact model the store provided their captives, I pointed out. "It's not the same," she curtly replied. Although I failed to see the difference, I had no time to engage in a debate about rodent workout equipment.

Or about anything else, though the employee still had plenty to say. The animal would not tolerate being held under any circumstances, she assured us. And stroking was out of the question - if we valued our fingertips, that is. In spite of these warnings, the fuzzy bugger was far too adorable to pass up. And she certainly seemed eager to go home with us. Why else make such a play for our attention?

At last, one studio-apartment-sized cage, a pound of shavings and a bag of dried seeds later, and we were ready to introduce the as-yet-unnamed creature into our household. Needless to say, we had some reservations. A chief concern was our cat Brando, a 15-and-a-half-pound lug every bit as handsome as his silver-screen namesake. We imagined our other kitty Natascha would be fine with the new addition, as her animal-shelter background gave her almost Zen tolerance.

Turns out we had it backwards. Brando was agitated at first, circling the cage with dilated pupils and emitting the odd growl. But within a week, he'd completely fallen for the little thing. Most hours of the day, he could be found sprawled on his back in front of her cage, showing off his irresistible physique. Their bizarre, inter-species love affair continues to this day. My girlfriend likens the lovebirds to Fay Wray and King Kong. If you ask me, it's pretty accurate.

Relations were less cozy between the hamster and Natascha, who sadly died of leukemia a few weeks ago. She considered the hamster a potential dietary supplement. Luckily, she never managed to figure out a way into the cage. I guess thumbs come in handy.

Naming the little lady presented another hurdle. Several days in, we still hadn't found a suitable moniker. Inspiration struck while watching one of our favorite TV programs - a show about a vertically challenged family called Little People, Big World. It tells you something about us that Molly, the pre-teen character whose name we borrowed, is one of the only members of the clan not afflicted with dwarfism.

This made for some unanticipated awkwardness with a real-life friend named Molly. We tried to explain that we hadn't named the hamster after her. I'm not sure she bought it. Stranger still, the sole person rodent-Molly has ever bitten is human-Molly. Fortunately, the only scarring was emotional.

Suitably housed and named, the wee hamster soon became a fully integrated member of our household. It wasn't long before we were playing with her nearly every night, letting her run through our hands and up and down our arms. Confounding the store clerk's prediction, Molly thrived on such intimate contact. At the sound of our voices, she'd run to the side of her cage, scaling the metal bars in a desperate attempt to get closer to us.

No question, she was smitten. And so were we. Although she was still super-tiny, we decided that a gal this special deserved finer living quarters. Does the housing bubble apply to hamsters?

There's an oft-repeated adage about how couples who don't have children tend to spoil their pets. Nuff said. Reluctantly, we made our way back to the same store to fetch a bigger abode. The experience was far less taxing, however, as there was no need for employee interaction. Overnight, Molly's estate went from modest to ostentatious. She moved into a posh cage equipped with a giant tower. At the very top is a running wheel that rotates in three different directions. Makes me dizzy just looking at it.

Of course, this wasn't enough. Before long we added a second home, a giant wheel in its own right. Tunnels connect to a mid-level lounge stocked with a beverage dispenser and a staircase/hidey-hole. When Molly wants to go mobile, she cruises the apartment in a specialty rolling ball that's the hamster equivalent of a Mini Cooper. All she needs now is a personal trainer.

Rodent behavior can be hard to fathom. Sometimes Molly will do something completely bizarre, such as moving all her bedding and food into one of her three wheels. Then she starts to run. It's always good fun to watch the stuff tumble back down on her tiny head.

Another favorite game of hers is chasing our new kitten, Nadja, while running in her ball. Molly, who has been positively scarfing the seeds since colder weather set in, isn't all that dwarfish anymore. She's not scared of a damn thing, and hurtles at Nadja like a NASCAR driver with a mean hangover. With entertainment like this, who needs TV?

Molly isn't as responsive as, say, a golden retriever. And unlike a dog, she's never gonna be the sort of pet that kisses our ass. But she does enjoy running on our body parts, and doesn't mind being stroked. And we wouldn't trade her for anything. The cats love her, we love her, and that's pretty much all there is to it.

The only negative about our relationship? Knowing it's not built to last. There isn't a lot of info about dwarf hamsters, since they're pretty new to the pet market. But the best estimate I've found puts Molly's lifespan at about a year or two. So the clock is already ticking. Guess we'll have to carve out some extra cuddle time tonight.

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