Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

When we gave our youngest child Jacob a hamster for Christmas, we felt pretty sure that he would name it Hammy. After all, Jacob it was who named our black cat Sooty. He doesn't go in for unconventional names. At least we didn't think he did, which is why we were surprised and rather pleased when he announced, after some deliberation, that he wished to call his hamster Ralph. Maybe he was inspired by his brother Joe, who was given a corn snake last year and called him Nigel.

It is perhaps as well for Ralph that Nigel escaped from captivity several months ago, and has joined our lengthening list of missing, presumed dead, which also includes several chickens and a rabbit.

We think the chickens were nabbed by a fox, although we could find no sign of a struggle, and the rabbit was last seen four fields away introducing himself to the indigenous mammal population. It's only a matter of time before wild rabbits hereabouts have white fur. As for Nigel, nobody knows how he escaped, only that Joe wailed like a banshee for hours after he found that the lid of Nigel's tank had somehow been dislodged. We looked for him high and low, especially low, but his whereabouts remain a mystery and we can only hope that he is not under the floorboards eating the mice and growing into the size of an anaconda.

Come to think of it, there is no doubt that mice have been less in evidence in our house this winter. I'd better not present that theory to my mother-in-law, who has been more perturbed than anyone about Nigel's disappearance, and not out of concern for Nigel.

The thing is, you never know when or where an escaped pet might turn up, which brings me back to hamsters. After acquiring Ralph, we found that almost all our Herefordshire friends with children older than ours had hamster stories. Our friends Steve and Joanna kept hamsters for years, invariably named by their sons after characters in Star Wars or Thunderbirds. I think it was Brains who escaped from his cage and couldn't be found, much to everyone's distress. But in bed that night, Steve woke up to find Brains sitting quietly on his bottom. I suppose he can count himself lucky that he sleeps face down.

Other friends, Ali and David, had a hamster called Sherlock who lived in their daughter Amy's bedroom. One day Amy reported tearfully that Sherlock seemed to be developing a growth, and sure enough there was a large round protuberance emerging from what Ali genteelly describes as his rear end. An emergency appointment was made with the vet, and Sherlock was carried there in a box, but when Ali opened it, Sherlock's growth had miraculously gone.

Like Basil Fawlty removing the silver dome to reveal his duck à la orange, only to find that it wasn't there, she did a bewildered double-take. But the vet calmly pressed Sherlock's little tummy and out popped the growth. "Was this it?" he asked. Ali confirmed that it was. "Those are his testicles," explained the vet.

Apparently, Amy's bedroom was in the attic where in the summer it got rather warm, and male hamsters, when feeling a little over-heated, have a tendency to drop their testicles, which helps them keep cool. We're not going to tell Jacob that, in case he puts Ralph on the Aga to see if it's true. At least we can be sure that we won't experience Ali's other hamster-related drama, because they also had a female, Clover, and when they went on holiday one year they asked some friends to look after Sherlock and Clover, who lived in separate cages. Unfortunately, their friend's daughter thought it might be nice to let the two hamsters play together, and a couple of days after they got home - on account of the fact that a hamster's gestation period is only slightly longer than the duration of a holiday on the Costa del Sol - they found that Clover was a mother of 13.

What on earth, I asked Ali, did they do with them all? "We kept three, found homes for nine, and she ate one," came the reply. I should have known that it wouldn't be an altogether happy ending. Keeping pets is an emotional rollercoaster.