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OK, You Can Have a Pet!

I'm not really an animal person. So why am I crouched in the laundry room, holding a garbage can filled with paper shreds and rodent poop?

"Look! I think this is her stockpile of food!" my 10-year-old exclaims, grabbing handfuls of dirty hamster bedding.

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The critter, a Syrian hamster we've named Ursa, is rolling around the house in her plastic ball. We adopted her a few days ago from a Humane Society station in a pet store. Yes, adopted. After a friend tipped me off that rescue groups handle these small mammals, we drove 10 miles to a store that had a display not only filled with kittens, but hamsters—each with their own name and story. As the volunteer explained, one was the mother. The father, whose cute name "Curly" didn't reflect his tendency to bite, wasn't recommended. The rest of the tanks were filled with their offspring, the products of clueless owners who put two hamsters in a cage and watched them multiply exponentially within weeks. Eventually, those owners turned in 40 hamsters to the Humane Society, some of which we were looking at. We zoomed in on a russet colored 5-week-old female.

I'd spent the first few weeks of summer window shopping at pet stores, checking out books about animal care, and thinking up excuses of why we couldn't get one. They're messy. They're smelly. They inevitably chew on furniture and pee on your freshly refinished floors. They're too much work. And for what?

I'm not going to let someone pressure me into getting a pet that I'll ultimately end up cleaning up after.

Really, I don't hate animals. I had a few of my own as a child, beginning with the pair of extra gerbils my mom brought home from the lab where she worked when I was a preschooler. I pet them, I fed them, I gave them water. Then one day, as I slipped a gerbil back into its glass tank, the metal lid slipped out of my little hands, slicing off a long tail. I screamed. I cried. Meanwhile, the animal scampered around in its cedar chips, oblivious to its missing body part, horrifying me even more. I demanded that my father dispose of the entire tank, a task he was only too happy to oblige.

It's one of my most vivid memories of childhood, and a story my boys have heard over and over. As I we petted the various baby hamsters and listened to their family saga, the cynic in me wondered if it was all a ploy to emotionally soften people and get them to buy a pet. But if we were going to get one—as I had promised my son—I'd rather adopt a rescued animal with a great backstory, then one of the neglected pet store specimens who were trying to gnaw their way through the glass walls.

By the time I was 10, my brother and I had been the owners not only of the gerbils, but also three parakeets, a pair of lovebirds and two bunnies. Unlike me, my younger son truly is an animal person. As a toddler, he jumped out of his stroller to chase after caterpillars, and he now earns extra money walking the neighbors' dogs. A well-meaning acquaintance once told me it would be almost cruel not to get him a pet, something I bristled at. I'm not going to let someone pressure me into getting a pet that I'll ultimately end up cleaning up after.

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I don't know if Ursa will end up to be another child's passing fad, leaving the mom to feed it and clean its cage after he's moved on to another interest. But when I hear my sons cooing and doting over her, I see that she brings out a sweet and nurturing side that the boys don't often get to express. I guess I'll take my chances.

Image via Grace Hwang Lynch

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