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April 8, 2006

The life and times of young Porco Bruno
Posted by Teresa at 10:28 PM * 43 comments

[Cross-posted from my LiveJournal.]

Porco Bruno is my new hamster, successor to the much-missed Arthur. PB’s young, high-strung, and athletic. Recently while handling him I noticed what may be a scar across his face, running upward diagonally from the outer edge of his right eye (which eyelid droops a bit) past the centerline up between his ears. If so, I’m mildly impressed that he survived it. I’m wondering now whether his tendency to go into sudden thrashing panics might be a bit of brain damage, or possibly the hamster equivalent of PTSD, or whether he came from a careless hamstery that wasn’t good about socializing their young. Hamsters have to be handled, just like kittens, if they’re to grow up to be human-friendly pets.

It could be that PB’s just young. I’m going with that theory, since it’s the one I can work with. I’ve been cultivating his acquaintance, establishing my character as Nice Human With Lettuce. He’s still twitchy, but he’s learned the “come here, I have a snack for you” noise. I’ve moved him to the old CritterTrail cage so I can get hold of him more easily. PB initially foiled this plan by moving his seeds and bedding up to one of the observation areas, from which he could instantly jump down and hide in the access tube. You’d swear he had bat in his ancestry. He’s perfectly happy hanging upside-down in his tube, eating sunflower seeds from his seed stash in its bottom right-angled curve.

PB’s antics in the tube were fun to watch, but he wasn’t getting socialized that way, so I temporarily put domed stoppers over the bottoms of his two access tubes. This limits him to the main cage area. He’s rejected the little dome-shaped hamster house I gave him, and instead has bermed up his cage litter and dug a foxhole in the corner under the wheel, with a thicket of paper towel strips stuffed in above it. He makes little noises while he works on it.

That’s one of the weirdest things about Porco Bruno: he’s vocal. Most hamsters are silent, or nearly silent except for an occasional squeak of dismay. The day I brought him back to Tor from the pet shop, he expressed his displeasure by I-swear-to-ghod roaring — sounding, as our intern Torie said, either like bad plumbing, or an extremely small velociraptor. He hasn’t roared much since he got here, I assume because he’s never been that upset again. But he continues to express himself with a wide variety of squeaks, growls, peeps, chirps, and other strange sound effects.

Yesterday afternoon, when I was working at home and he was curled up asleep in his nest, he suddenly let out a seriously distressed hamster-scream, followed by a series of loud squeaks. I went over to see what was the matter and found him hazily thrashing around, feet-up, obviously half-asleep. I cupped my hand around the corner of the cage and held it there so his nest would be dark and warm, and he soon went back to sleep.

I know hamsters dream; all mammals from the marsupials up exhibit REM sleep. Besides, I held Arthur while he was sleeping during his final illness, and he was definitely going in and out of dream sleep. What I want to know is, do hamsters have nightmares? Because that’s exactly what this looked like.

Comments on The life and times of young Porco Bruno:
#1 ::: Darice Moore ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2006, 11:24 PM:

You’d swear he had bat in his ancestry.

When I was in elementary school, a friend of our had a hamster who would climb to the top of his cage and sleep hanging upside down. They named him Batman, of course.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2006, 11:27 PM:

I can't think of any reason why animals that dream couldn't have nightmares as well.

My dog's dream-behavior is pretty consistent: Paws twitching, lips curling, low grunts, sometimes a muffled throaty bark.

No way to tell, but it's probably cat-chase- related, since that's the only thing she really gets worked up about.

#3 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: April 08, 2006, 11:34 PM:

Some of my cats definitely have nightmares, some of which seem to include mom|family going away[0], since they wake up from twitching and whimpering a bit, and make lost kitten noises, and a beeline for their nearest person to be cuddled and made much of for a while.

[0] ... and given that two of them were orphaned at 7-10 days, and two of them were abandoned, it's no great leap of faith

#4 ::: Cassie ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 12:23 AM:

My dog dreams a lot since he's gotten older. It's a lot of fun; he'll do the twitchy-feet running thing, occasionally bark with muffled, puffing cheeks (he's part Dane, so he has some jowls), once in a while howl, and once I saw him catch whatever he was chasing-- he started making very slight motions of holding something down with his paws and ripping bits off by pulling up. I tried not to wake him up laughing, but failed entirely.

#5 ::: Joel Wideman ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 02:46 AM:

He experienced some sort of trauma judging by that scar, so he's probably having nightmares about that.

#6 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 02:48 AM:

Our pointer dreams fairly often. If I say "Rabbits" loudly enough, she'll stop.

I had a hamster when I was about 8 or 9, but I don't remember it exhibiting behavior like PB. On the occasions when it got away (while the cage was being cleaned, I suppose) it would hide under/behind the refrigerator.

#7 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 02:55 AM:

It is obvious to me that he once got into a knock-down-drag-out fight with a cocky young American hamster who one day hoped to be a film star. (The other hamster did achieve some success, and was to play Templeton in Werner Herzog's sadly aborted version of "Charlotte's Web," but that's another story.)

I doubt Porco will speak of this, and I, as the saying goes, had the story from one with no business to tell it. It may, some time after those involved have gone to turn the wheels of a better world, be fictionalized as Wir Hamstern Geheimnisse (UK title, Hamsters at the Gates of Dawn, US title My Gun Has Fur).

#8 ::: elizabeth bear ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 03:59 AM:

Your hamster is indeed exhbiting classical signs of PTSD, as seen in many rescue animals. With a little luck, these will ease with time and security.

I don't see why hamsters can't have nightmares; dogs definitely do. I've had to shake the mastiff awake occasionally when he was crying in his sleep.

#9 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 04:20 AM:

Hmsters are smart little creatures for being so small, so perhaps he had something bad happen when he was a wee hamster.

then again, you don't appear to be an unpleasant household like Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon.... therefore he must NOT be Harry Hamster, doomed to do battle with the fierce Vole-demort sometime in the future.

(ducking and running like hell)

#10 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 04:47 AM:

My cats have all had nightmares. They sleep with me, so it happens that I am reading or napping and I hear distressed moaning come from the cat. Usually some soft stroking makes them relax and stop them dreaming of whatever they are having nigthmares about. They have all been shelter cats, so they have things to have nightmares about.

Wee cats often suckle in their sleep, which is totally adorable.

#11 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 05:10 AM:

OK, it's a hamster stress dream. I'm in a new place. I'm in the habitrails. There are lots of them, and they're all going different directions. And I am clutching a piece of paper that says I'm supposed to be in dance class on the third floor but the bell has gone. Nobody else is around. Reassuringly, I recognise one habitrail and take it. There's a wheel. But is it the same wheel? Suddenly I feel lost again. And then I realise my tail has fallen out...

#12 ::: Michael Weholt ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 06:41 AM:

...I'm supposed to be in dance class on the third floor but the bell has gone...

Not to mention I'm dressed only in my hamster underwear.

#13 ::: Jeffrey Smith ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 08:27 AM:

When I was managing a rodent colony at my college, I used to occasionally go get the outer leaves of lettuce discarded by the cafeteria as a treat. They all loved it. Then I hired a student aide who had worked at either a pet store or vet's office, I forget, and she put a stop to that, saying that was a very bad food for them -- leading to stomach problems and wet-tail. I don't know if she was right or not, but you might want to investigate.

#14 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 08:37 AM:

Maybe something like this happened to him:

(I got the link from Don't worry; it's not gross.)

#15 ::: Charles Dodgson ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 10:30 AM:

A bit of dreaming rodent research from MIT: Matt Wilson's lab implanted electrodes in maze-running lab rats, which were able to record from about a hundred cells at the same time. They found consistent patterns of neural activity associated with particular places in the maze. When they processed signals coming out of the electrodes during REM sleep, they found similar patterns of activity; the rats seemed to be running the maze in their sleep.

There's a popular-science here, which slides off into a humorists's idea of rat dream diaries about midway through; the original paper is "Temporally Structured Replay of Awake Hippocampal Ensemble Activity during Rapid Eye Movement Sleep", Neuron vol. 29, pp. 145-156.

#16 ::: A. J. Luxton ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 10:37 AM:

My partners once had a cat, former inner-city alley cat, very intelligent. She had nightmares sometimes about the hardships of her old alley-cat life: they could tell, because she'd twitch, meow, wake up, and then walk purposefully over to the food bowl, give it a long look as if to say "Yep -- still there, just a dream," and have a snack.

#17 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 11:29 AM:

[Examines photographs]

Greg Costikyan? I've played some of the games he designed. Small world, isn't it (but it still needs a big table for the map).

#18 ::: Keith Kisser ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 12:40 PM:

we recently got a kitten, named rupert to go along with our six year old cat, Lucy. Rupert is the most vocval cat I've ever heard, bursting into orations that would make Shakespeare envious. Usually at about 3 A.M., which make sme a littl eless impressed . He's now 6 months old, and as big as Lucy.

It took them a few weeks to warm up to one another-- Rupert came from a litter of five and was raised in a social groomng environment. Lucy was a stray we picked up form the street at about a month old and was an only cat until Rupert came along. She wants nothing to do with social grooming but soon, he'll be bigger so perhaps she'll learn to like it.

#19 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 12:47 PM:

With a scar across his face like that, I would probably have named the little guy Baron Strucker.

Perhaps he's dreaming of repeated defeat at the hands of Cap(ybara) America.

#20 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 12:50 PM:

Looks like it.

Chronic administration of melatonin reduces REM sleep in the Djungarian hamster (Phodopus sungorus).

Pyewacket used to whimper in her sleep sometimes, so there's another vote for cats.

#21 ::: Del ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 06:58 PM:

There's a popular-science here, which slides off into a humorists's idea of rat dream diaries about midway through;

Dr. Strauss says I shud rite down what I think and evrey thing that happins to me from now on. I dont know why but he says its importint so they will see if they will use me. I hope they use me.

#22 ::: Alan Yee ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 10:29 PM:

Oh, come on. Even I know where that's from.
(Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.) Not bad for a teenager am I?

My older brother always wanted a hamster, but my mom wouldn't let him. I always thought it would be fun to have something different for once. Sigh. I wish your new hamster a long healthy life (despite the poor thing and his nightmares).

#23 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 11:32 PM:

I've been signed up all semester for Advanced Seed Hoarding? I didn't know I was supposed to be taking Advanced Seed Hoarding -- I haven't gone, not once! I'm going to flunk! And why am I backstage? That's not my hamsterball. I don't have a hamsterball. Do I have a hamsterball? They're all acting like it's my hamsterball. I'm on after this next act. These are the wrong clothes I look stupid. Oh god oh god oh god ...

If I'd noticed the scar first thing, he might have gotten a different name. I was originally thinking of naming him Ash -- I got him a day or two after Ash Wednesday, and he has yellow black coloration, like toast with a light dusting of soot on it. But the name "Porco Bruno" popped into my head and wouldn't go away, so after a while I gave up and went with it. It's not a bad name for a hamster with a tropism for insanely fearless aerial maneuvers.

Charles Dodgson, I believe you've nailed the question. If rats dream of specific events, I have to assume that hamsters do the same.

Jeffrey, a little bit of greenery in their diet is a good thing. Too much is a problem.

Elizabeth Bear, thank you. Thinking of PB as a post-rescue animal pulls it all into focus. I've been getting advice on one of the hamster chat groups, and the most knowledgeable guy there casually refers to having to do animal rescues at NYC pet shops. I'd been wondering for some time now how pet shops could put more than one Syrian hamster in a cage and make it work. Apparently the answer is that they don't always make it work, which leads to fights, injuries, and occasional deaths.

Hard to believe they get that wrong. The first paragraph on the first page of the Notional Hamster Manual says "Solitary species -- one hamster per cage, period."

#24 ::: Lisa Goldstein ::: (view all by) ::: April 09, 2006, 11:53 PM:

The first paragraph on the first page of the Notional Hamster Manual says "Solitary species -- one hamster per cage, period."

Boy is this true. My brother and I each had a hamster when we were kids, and because we didn't know this (and a lot of other stuff about hamsters) we put them in the same cage -- and, well, unpleasantness resulted.

My dog whimpers in her sleep sometimes. Less frequently, she'll wag her tail, thumping it against her bed. I always wonder what she's dreaming of.

#25 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 12:18 AM:

Having met PB in the flesh, I can say he's a handsome fellow, but indeed rather skittish. Still, after some acclimation he was willing to play the hand-over-hand-over-hand-how-do-I-escape-there's-another-hand game with me, and I was much honored.

Me, I wonder if the scar doesn't hark back to his brief career as a student in Heidelberg. It's not surprising that they make dueling masks that small, but I imagine a hamster's seconds have the devil of a time getting the duellist into the thing.

#26 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 12:26 AM:

Hamster duelling? "The soup spoon of honor"?

And what of the hamsters of Jena?

#27 ::: Anna Feruglio Dal Dan ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 05:26 AM:

My friend Paolo gave me a book for Christmas that was titled "Pussy - for the cat that should know better". It's full of very entertaining sillyness including the centerpage spread about Melissa the Burmese supermodel, but hands down the funniest bits are the intrusions from sister publication "The Wheel", aimed at the hamster market. This has titles like, "Is three years enough for world domination?" and advice on how to slaughter the rest of the world's hamster males.

#28 ::: Jennifer ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 08:17 AM:

But the name "Porco Bruno" popped into my head and wouldn't go away, so after a while I gave up and went with it. It's not a bad name for a hamster with a tropism for insanely fearless aerial maneuvers.

Aerial maneuvers? ^^ That and Bruno's name reminds me of the movie "Porco Rosso". Are you a Studio Ghibli and/or a Hayao Miyazaki fan?

#29 ::: Aconite ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 08:31 AM:

Teresa, please delete this if it's inappropriate.

There are animal shelters that specialize in small pets such as hamsters, mice, rabbits, and the like. (One such is Red Door Shelter.) Anyone looking for a small pet may want to see if they can get one from a shelter rather than a pet store.

#30 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 10:38 AM:

Sounds like Porco Bruno has quite the personality going on. If you can borrow a video camera and put an MPEG of him "roaring", that would be quite cool. Can't say I've ever heard a hamster roar.

As for pet stores in general, my opinion of them in general has been going down since I got married and my wife who was a veternarian technician for a while and went to school for animal science started explaining the difference between a dog breeder and a "puppy mill".

#31 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 10:49 AM:

Now I can't help thinking about large, 21st-century dogs (as well as androids) dreaming of electric sheep.

#32 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 11:04 AM:

In other animal-related news, my wife's dog, Boscoe, a 16 year old schipperke, died in his sleep this weekend. She had known him since he was born. I've known him for about 8 years. It was a sad weekend.

#33 ::: MaryR ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 11:35 AM:

Memories of my beloved Hammy and Stir. Sigh.

The next time I get a yen to write some bad fiction, the sentence "I awoke to hear the hamster screaming" is going in there somewhere.

#34 ::: Mary Dell ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 03:13 PM:

Are all Tor interns named Torie? If not, they should be.

#35 ::: murgatroyd ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 03:59 PM:

Re: Lucy and Rupert
She wants nothing to do with social grooming but soon, he'll be bigger so perhaps she'll learn to like it.

I wouldn't bet on it. We have four cats, two about 13 years, one 6, one 4 (and if I'd known we'd wind up with these guys I definitely would have named them Bert, Nan, Freddie, and Flossie, but I digress). The 4-year-old is a Siamese mix female weighing in at 11 pounds; the 6-year-old is a former stray male, looks like a Bombay and weighs in somewhere around 15 pounds.

Long story short, little girl kicks big boy's posterior all the time. She thinks nothing of launching herself right at him, muckling on to his neck and bringing him down like he's about to be branded with a hot iron. And she was raised at a breeder's with a lot of mothers and kittens, so in her sweeter moments she functions as the glue for the bunch and head-butts all the others and us.

Personality has a lot more to do with it than size, at least at our house.

As for dreaming, I have heard her growling, almost yowling, fiercely while she dream-twitches.

The stray boy, who used to climb on shoulders expressly to suckle on earlobes, occasionally still does nurse in his sleep.

#36 ::: murgatroyd ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 04:24 PM:

I meant to add, but clicked the button too soon, that one of the older cats, an "applehead" Siamese male we named Cosmo, came from a pet shop. He was 4 months old when adopted, and had to spend a few weeks at the vet's recovering from calicivirus shortly thereafter.

He has always had a serious problem with separation anxiety -- we've worked on reassuring him, but even now he sometimes cries and puffs up his tail quasi-aggressively if he knows we're getting ready to leave. Occasionally he also licks bald spots on the inner surface of forelegs and hindlegs if there's a lot going on in the household.

I've always thought the pet store experience marked him negatively -- Siamese tend to form solid attachments to one or two persons, so it can't have been good for him emotionally in that pet shop cage, especially at an imprintable stage of life.

I hope Porco Bruno acclimates eventually. It takes effort, but working to calm Cosmo has also had a calming influence on us.

#37 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: April 10, 2006, 07:36 PM:

I'm so sorry to hear that, Greg.

My kitties are rescues (although one came directly from the breeder -- she has anxiety disorder and compulsive disorder) and they're all a little flighty. They all groom and chase each other, though. The sad part is when Shiva thinks he can tag me and I'll dash. None of them seem to dream in their sleep, but Shiva snores.

#38 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2006, 09:56 AM:

My cat was gotten from a shelter when he was about a year old--I was his fourth family. First one: idiot who had named him after a brand of motorcycle and dumped him because he (the idiot) was moving back in with his mom and couldn't have a cat. Said idiot also apparently used to hit him a lot, at least judging by his startle reflex six years later.

Second was an older lady who couldn't deal with having a male (though castrated) carnivore in her house; fair enough. Even now the chase-the-kitty game can be wearing.

Third family had other cats, and Ares does not deal well with other cats; it's not that he hates them in themselves, but he gets very jealous when they get the attention that he thinks is his due. (This is what short-circuited my mom's attempt to appropriate my cat, so I guess I should be grateful.) He went back to the shelter again when he attacked one of the children while she was holding another cat.

In any case, Ares was just starting to not have hissy fits every time we left the house when my boyfriend and I broke up and I moved cross-country. Three months later the poor thing was sent to me with someone he'd never met, by car.

He's much calmer now, but it took some doing and there is nothing that can make him not wet himself when put in the cat carrier. And I don't blame him a bit.

#39 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2006, 04:49 PM:

Thanks Marilee.

#40 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: April 11, 2006, 05:15 PM:

Are all Tor interns named Torie? If not, they should be.

"Torie 7*, Torie 9 is trapped on the 6 train between Hell's Gate and Highpockets. She's down to a life-or-death choice between using her phone battery for a sales conference or Warcraft Online. It's the bottom of the ninth with long yardage. You and Torie 14a are going to have to photocopy like your lives depended on it, because they do."

"Isn't this a job for Torie 22bis?"

"Torie 22bis and Torie 34.7 are still bleeding from the Cheney memoir, and Torie 4 MkII Mod 3 just threw a Naturalizer in the third furlong. We needya, Miz Doe."

"I am not a Torie! I am an unlisted number!"

"I hate this! I feel like a character in 1984! One of the rats, in fact!"

"You think that's bad . . . I'm starting to feel like one of the troopers in Zulu."

"Oh, well, if it's a war of numerical references you want . . ."

[Slowly rising cries of havoc]

*All numbers are ficticious.

#41 ::: Lis Riba ::: (view all by) ::: April 23, 2006, 09:20 PM:

I was at a pet store yesterday watching some hamsters, and I definitely saw one dreaming. She was lying on her back, and paws and cheeks were twitching. I think she might've been dreaming about food, because her mouth was making chewing motions.
It was so cute...

#42 ::: P J evans sees comment spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 25, 2006, 12:45 PM:

Make that six or seven threads.

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