Saturday, January 31, 2009
My "Plus Two"
Back in December, I decided I wanted a pet. I'd love to have a cat one day, but that is completely impractical until I am settled in one place -- or simply in one continent -- for the long haul. As I thought about it, it made more sense to get something small...and, practically speaking, something with a short life span. As cliche as it sounds, I wanted something cute and cuddly (proportionate to its size, of course) to keep me company. I mentioned this to one of my teachers, and she kindly offered to drive me to the closest thing Austria has to a pet megastore, located in a little village only accessible by car.
Right after school on our first day back after the holidays (also, coincidentally, on my birthday), we drove to Vogelfarm ("Bird farm"), which -- contrary to the image conjured up in my head of a greenhouse swarming with birds of all kinds -- carries everything from birds to cats to hedgehogs to monkeys to tarantulas. Just to name a few.
I went in thinking I'd get a mouse. Maybe a hamster. But as we found the rodent room, there were so many more choices to be made. Not only were there mice and hamsters of all kinds, but there were also gerbils and rats and things that weren't gerbils and rats but looked like gerbils and rats. The chinchillas were adorably tempting, but much too large and sporting much more longevity than suited my needs. So we stood around looking at the mouse-to-rat-sized creatures for awhile and then finally did what any good Austrian would do: we let ourselves be advised. (Apologies for clunky yet literal translation.)
We flagged down a sales associate who looked about 20 years old, and I explained to her that I wanted something small, maybe a mouse, that was cute but wouldn't live very long. My teacher was horrified at my wording, but the girl didn't even blink and promptly started pointing out various rodents on the wall, explaining their particular traits and qualities. The mice quickly lost their appeal when she explained that that were relatively stinky creatures, but the dwarf hamsters -- the same size as mice, and similar in appearance (though markedly cuter) -- were relatively odor free.
The sales girl left us to decide what we wanted, and now I had three different kinds of dwarf hamster to choose from. After another 10 minutes or so of observation, I was ready to make my decision.
And this is where the fun started. I knew I wanted a pet, but I didn't know how much that simple decision entailed. For a creature no larger than a mouse, there were already pages of government-mandated animal rights laws governing every aspect of my decision.
First, I had to take not one but two hamsters -- they are creatures of companionship and can only be bought in pairs (see 1. Article § 31 Paragraph 2 below). Secondly, I couldn't pick and choose from the different types...apparently the different breeds have a tendency to kill each other. So I chose the cutest (and the ones I saw playing in their sand bath): the Dshungarischer Zwerghamster. (After nearly 20 minutes of searching on the Internet, I found its English name: the Winter White Russian Dwarf Hamster...say that 10 times fast!) Then, after I chose my hamsters, I had to get all of their supplies...oh boy.
According to Austrian law (1. Article § 31 Paragraph 2 of the Animal Protection law to be exact), my Winter White Russian Dwarf Hamsters need a cage that is at least 23.5" x 12" x 16" (60 x 30 x 40 cm )...and this for a creature that grows to be 3" - 4" long! This is a BIG cage in comparison. And they have 3 levels, which is way more than I have. Then I HAD to get a hamster potty. ...Wait, a what?? That's right--hamsters in Austria are so advanced that they use a litterbox!! I've seen it with my own two eyes! And when they don't use it as a litterbox, they play in it and take sand baths...so advanced! Then of course there was the water bowl (yes, they also drink water from bowls, not bottles), the food dish, the food ,vitamin supplements for the water, the salt lick, the chewy gnawy thing so their teeth don't grow to obscene lengths, and of course the shavings AND the straw for the bottom of the cage. They're pretty much outfitted for a nuclear holocaust.
Naming my new roomies was much harder than I expected, and it took me nearly a week to settle on their names: Holly Golightly and Cotton Ball. Holly Golightly is distinguishable by the lighter-gray stripe on her back and her curious and outgoing nature. But, like the Holly Golightly of literature and film, you can try to get close but if you get too personal, she gets spooked and runs away. But she's friendly and nice and doesn't mind being held (though she has a habit of giving love bites if your fingers are dangling in front of her like a carrot). Cotton Ball has a darker gray stripe down her back and is relatively shy. She doesn't mind being held, but she's hard to catch! When she eats, she squinches her body up and looks like a cotton ball -- you could just pick her up and dip her in astringent and clean your face with her. She runs -- a lot -- and my roommate jokes that Cotton has trained more for the half marathon than she has!
Holly and Cotton have a life expectancy of 2-3 years....a little longer than I'd bargained for, but maybe things will work out and I can stay longer in Austria after all...