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Furry Friday: Ivan the Terrible Packs Peanuts

I never had a hamster until I was an adult and realized that the little nocturnal furballs were the perfect companion for a journalist who worked a night news desk, would come home around midnight and crash by 4 or 5 a.m. My first two hamster experiences weren't that successful because, well, I wasn't experienced in hamster ownership and didn't know the cues of how to spot and select a healthy hamster. My first, Hugo, turned out to be sickly and died in his cage after a few weeks. With my second, Moammar, I was told by the Petco staffer that he was four months old; when he suffered a stroke a month later the vet told me that he was an elderly hamster. The lifespan of a Syrian hamster is generally 1.5-3 years, and my third hamster hit that upper number: Boris, a fluffy white guy who loved puffed rice and would feed shredded kleenex into his cheeks like spaghetti. Another long-haired hamster like the two before, I would comb out his tangles with a soft toothbrush (they can't exactly get rid of ingested hair like a cat does).

I learned more about hamster ownership with Boris, including the great tip from a vet of keeping a bag of chopped mixed vegetables in the freezer and thawing out a few pieces for him in the evening for his sensitive tummy. I ditched the plastic playland-looking cages for a good wire cage with a solid bottom and real upper floors instead of just platforms. A squeaky hamster wheel (solid plastic running surface for tiny feet) is fixed with a drop of canola oil. And straw mats are great to cut up and cover the upper wire floors. Shortly before Boris passed away, I got Genghis from an animal shelter. He made the long trip to DC with me, and passed away about a year later. As I had an empty smaller cage used for travel, I branched out beyond Syrian hamsters for the first time for a Kazakh: Peanut, a long-lived winter white hamster who, yes, changed fur color with the seasons. He sat on my desk as I worked and would dangle from the top bars like a jungle gym to get treats. Though super-friendly, he wasn't one to be held, though; unlike my Syrians, this breed was quite nippy.

To fill Genghis' deluxe hamster condo, I got a brown bear hamster I was going to name Attila. She looked just like the bear on the flag of my home state, though, so I called her CaliBear. She was quite shy and lived about a year and a half. After Peanut died, I filled the small cage with another small variety, a Chinese dwarf hamster named Ham Jintao. They don't bite, but he's also quite shy and I don't see him much. My next Syrian hamster, however, would be anything but shy.

Enter Ivan the Terrible.

As you've seen, there's somewhat of a dictator pattern in my hamster names. I went old-school with Ivan because he reminded me of the research I'd done once on the tsar, and one crazy dramatic story in which Ivan grabbed his spear and started directing the choir with it at church. Ivan the hamster is still pretty young, judging by his round body (trying to catch Syrian hamsters when they're young is like trying to hold on to a water balloon -- they flatten out as they age) and size. I've only had him for a little over a month. But he is wild-eyed crazy.

When Ivan runs on his wheel, it's not loud in a squeaky-wheel sort of way (otherwise, I'd get out the canola oil) -- it's loud in an elephants-running-through-the-room sort of way. He knocks around and rearranges the furniture, so to speak, that I've just finally had to leave all the cubbys and mats where he wants them. He hasn't shown any defined preference for food yet, besides Anything and Everything But Pellets. He's not exactly big on being handled at this point and shoots around the cage like a fuzzy bullet when I try, but he's gregarious to the point where he comes and takes treats out of my hand (and, obviously, likes a photo shoot).

A little wild and very lovable, I'm looking forward to Ivan growing up and taming a bit more. Not so much that it saps his crazy-czar spunk, though -- can't wait to see how he'll drive a hamster ball. Hamsters are such great pets (especially if you're a night person) and have to be one of the most adorable critters out there, from the teeny tail to pink nose.