Caution About Hamsters – Ode to Mr. Dimples

Several years ago I had two class pets, more specifically two teddy bear hamsters, named Mr. Dimples and Mr. Smirk.  They were brothers and lived together in a ten gallon glass aquarium I had set up for them in the back of my classroom.  Of course as a teacher my greatest concern was that a student might feed them something they couldn’t have or do something that could lead to the hamsters’ injury or deaths.  So I was careful in every way possible to be certain the top was secured on the aquarium and that the aquarium was placed in a part of the room not easily accessible unless I allowed student access.  However, as many of you probably know, things do happen regardless of the best-intentioned plans.

One morning in early October of that year I entered my classroom and turned on the lights.  The room was a bit cool, so it was no surprise to me that the hamsters (nocturnal animals that they are) were buried in the deep cedar shavings of their glass home.  First and then second period classes came and went, with students taking their usual glances and making their usual comments about the hamsters.

One comment, at the end of second period, didn’t set well with me.  “Hey, that one’s buried his head in the shavings and his butt is hanging out.”  As the students left class, I moved toward the tank and noticed the back end of Mr. Dimples hanging out of the shavings.  At that moment, I remembered the years in college raising hamsters to trade to a local pet store for extra pet food for my other hamsters and guinea pigs.  I had never seen a hamster do what this one was apparently doing.  So I decided to quickly investigate.

After carefully lifting the top off (Mr. Smirk was nowhere to be seen and I didn’t want him to escape) I slowly reached for Mr. Dimples.  Just as I feared, his little backside and feet felt cold.  I either had a dead or hibernating hamster in the tank.  Just then, Mr. Smirk poked his nose out of the shavings.  He wasn’t hibernating from the chilly night in the classroom, so Mr. Dimples probably wasn’t either.  What could I do?  I began to lift the dead hamster from the shavings.  It was then that I made the horrifying discovery; there was no front end to Mr. Dimples anymore.

Caution about hamsters! New factoid for those of you wanting to keep hamsters: they do eat other hamsters that happen to die in the cage with them.  I suppose it’s a process to clean out the cage environment.  I haven’t had a pair of hamsters in the classroom since that day.  Mr. Smirk died just a month later, probably from something given to him by a student (I found a pencil eraser in the tank).  Strange, but true!

The Good, the Bad, and the Weird

I am somewhat of a strange guy.  Let’s face it, to be a high school science teacher there has to be something a bit strange about a person.  As a science teacher I have to take a subject that many students find less than attractive and turn it into a real “page-turner” for them academically.  Many teachers, me included, sometimes fail in this attempt.  In order to do this, I use humor to an extent to get to my students while trying to introduce and reinforce important science concepts.  This humor often involves stories that are a little strange or disgusting.  I like disgusting; so do most high school science students.  The following story represents one use of humor through a story I tell in my classroom.  I have to warn you, it’s a bit disgusting while conveying some basic science information.  Enjoy…or be grossed out.  Maybe it will be a little of both.

While discussing symbiotic relationships with my biology students every year I touch on parasitism both in humans and other organisms.  The human parasites seem to really get the attention of the majority of my students, so I convey a story told to me by a friend who is now a nurse.  First, allow me to give a little background on this subject.  Pin worms are tiny parasitic worms that cause lower intestinal infestations in humans and several other mammal species.  The fact is that a large percentage of people have an infestation of these worms at some point in their lives and many never know.  Normally the infestation is short-lived and the body fights off the infection.  Small children, normally those who play in preschool sand boxes, come into contact with pin worm eggs that are in animal or human feces that sometimes finds its way into the sand.  If the eggs are taken into the mouth and ingested, an infection will occur.

Disgusting enough?  There’s more.  My nurse friend many years ago was working at a local hospital during her internship or “clinical” in order to finally obtain her RN license.  While there she was expected to do many of the jobs the doctors and other nurses didn’t particularly want to do.  One day an ER doctor approached her and asked if she could clean up and prepare a woman in an exam room for an abdominal scan.  This directive from the doctor to “clean up” the patient became clearer once the nurse in training entered the exam room.  The patient was a local homeless woman who had not taken a bath in at least two or three months.

Obviously, this caused some problems with hygiene.  While preparing and cleaning the woman, my friend noticed a strange substance appearing from beneath her gown.  The woman had one of the worst pin worm infections possible.  Her infection had become so bad that the worms were forced to evacuate from the intestine; there simply was no longer any room left for them to live.  The body, in its attempt to rid itself of the infestation, had produced a thick milky substance to help in its effort to remove the pin worms.

According to my friend the nurse trainee, it appeared as if the collection of pin worms and bodily secretions were cottage cheese with small wriggling worms working their way through.  No wonder the doctor didn’t want to deal with this patient before a serious cleaning!  This incident tested my friend’s commitment to the nursing profession.  Today, she is a successful nurse.  I doubt she’s seen anything like this infestation since.   Gross, yes; educational, definitely.