Color photo of a tiny brown hamster sitting on a laptop keyboard.

Our Chinese hamster Shirley Chisholm Armstrong Davis died last week. She was indomitable as her famous namesake, guarding her territory against all comers. She explored the house boldly, ramming her clear plastic ball against obstacles, and when she was asked to edit Jennifer’s manuscripts her critique was pitiless.

Shirley and her sister, Fannie Lou Hamer Armstrong Davis, arrived in our New York City apartment in 2021. They shared a mutual affection and managed their domestic arrangements in perfect accord. Their filial harmony reassured us; several times Jennifer and I left the sisters alone for days when we traveled.

Color photo of two identical hamsters sitting side by side in a pile of fluff.

Once we left the pair for more than a week, with extra rations and two bottles of water. We returned to a scene of gore: Fannie was dead, and Shirley paced the cage frantically. Why Shirley was driven to such an act is a mystery to us. Perhaps she had deduced that we were the replenishers of the food bowl, and feared in our absence that rations would become scarce. Or perhaps we were the dominant hamsters, and our disappearance left a power vacuum she was compelled to fill. We were wracked and ashamed; by making a home for these creatures we had assumed total responsibility for their welfare, and we entirely failed them both.

Shirley, however, lived in a primordial state free of shame, free of regret. As soon as we had disposed of her sister and set her cage to rights, she settled in to a complacent solitude. She relocated to New Paltz last summer and we followed, establishing our household in a small town beneath the Shawangunk Ridge. Shirley, unlike her namesake, had no attachment to her neighborhood in the city, and she continued her customary pastimes in the country without interruption. She watched television with Jennifer, rambled the hallways in her ball, and landscaped the fluff of her cage into hillocks and gullies. In the afternoons she sat in her little house and chirped loudly, reminding anyone in earshot of her sovereignty.

We have forgiven Shirley her crime, and partly forgiven ourselves, but we are determined not to repeat our error. Shirley’s successor, Sojourner Truth Armstrong Davis, will be forever safe, and alone.

Color photo of a juvenile hamster in Jennifer’s hands.