Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The empty cage

On my wife's dresser rests an empty cage.

Well it isn't completely empty, and it isn't a cage. It is an aquarium tank that was converted, eventually, to a hamster habitat enclosure. It was a room, an apartment for a beloved pet.

The enclosure has housed three previous pets. A corn snake named copper lived in there when he was 2-3 feet long. He's now about five feet long and has a much larger room.Then the enclosure sat empty with some bedding in the bottom. We entertained using it as a feeding tank for copper. His meals like to climb the screen walls of his current enclosure.

Then one of his meals survived for much longer than expected. So, the little mouse went into the empty cage. copper was shedding the next feeding day. So, the mouse was kept alive another week. Then we named it. We decided to keep it as a pet, but it died the day we bought all the stuff to make the tank a small rodent habitat.

A second mouse replaced the first as a pet. After a couple of weeks of treating the little bugger like a pet, it became mean. While buying copper his meal we found an adolescent Syrian Teddy Bear hamster that we instantly fell in love with. We took her home with us. We sanitized the enclosure and set it up.

I never thought I'd get emotionally attached to a rodent.

Over the next 7 months or so, we enjoyed our lives with Truffle Bear. We learned her habits. My wife would complain about Truffle's nightly marathons. She would run 6-8 miles a night on her little wheel. She also loved to rearrange her habitat. So, after weekly cleanings, we'd leave it a shambles and wait to see how she'd arrange things. She's move everything but her water bottle and her litter box. Yes, she was litter box trained. She wasn't really trained so much as we bought her a litter box and she knew exactly what it was for.

Every other day or so, she would get fresh vegetables. She loved them. She had some treats we bought at the store, sure. But if we handed her one of those, then presented her with a leaf of fresh kale, she'd drop the treat. She liked carrots and other vegetables on the "safe" list. Kale was her favorite by far.

The enclosure was not a cage, not like a cell. It was more like an apartment. It was set up to give Truffle her own space, secure and safe from our other pets. It was a place she could set up as her own. But we petted her often and put her in a run-about ball. When she'd have run of the house in the ball, she had a habit of chasing the cat. 

She was gentle, easily the most gentle creature I've had as a pet, a member of my family. The dog and cat are playful and you an pet them. But they do not always play "nice". The cat attacks toys like he's hunting prey. The dog loves to play tug-of-war when he's not chasing a ball. He's also been known to kill garter snakes and square off against possums. The pet snakes kill live prey for dinner. Truffle didn't bite, didn't attack. She'd enjoy back rubs, being hand-fed treats, and demonstrating yoga poses.

That was the reason she was named "Truffle", because she was so sweet. The "Bear" part of her name was for two reasons. The first is her breed. The second was the look on her face if you woke her. It was just like our kid, and my wife. She's look at you with that "who are you and why are you bothering me" form of stink-eye. It it was me, that look would fade when I pet her or gave her a treat or just did the daily cleaning of her litter box or refilling her food bowl. Despite the initial grumpy look if I woke her during the day, she always seemed happy when she realized it was me.

In her last week, after she got sick, she would walk up to her wheel and take 2-3 slow steps. Then she'd get off and curl up in one of her two favorite sleeping corners. We had to bottle feed her while she was recovering from the sickness that came on so suddenly. It swelled up her tongue, making it difficult for her to chew on the hard food and seeds that were her daily diet.

The morning she died, I had just fed her and watered her just after midnight. I watched her go on her wheel for a few steps, then she walked to her corner. At 2 am, I woke to the sound of her wheel squeaking. I looked but didn't see her on it. But I went to get her food and water syringes. When I opened the cage, she was curled up a little looser than the tight ball she normally slept in. But she had snoozed a little looser on some occasions over the past week. I leaned in and pet her. I noticed she wasn't breathing. I picked her up. She wasn't moving. She was cool.

Now, on my wife's dresser rests an empty cage, except it isn't empty. Inside is Truffle's wheel, her favorite chew toys, her water bottle, and empty food bowl, and her litter box, still unused from the last cleaning, done just a few hours prior to her passing. In that empty cage lives fond memories of a gentle old soul that lived 10 months, 7 in this little room. In that empty cage is the spirit of a little four-legged aerobics instructor that I loved.