One evening we saw something moving inside the wood burning stove. Luckily it wasn’t burning at the time and, when we opened the door, a little creature staggered out on to my husband’s hand. I hadn’t seen anything like it before but I had heard of little, squirrel-like creatures that live in barns and make lots of noise , gnaw through wood and, although protected, are considered fair game by a lot of people because they are considered a pest. Anyway, this little one had obviously fallen down the chimney and his eyes were still closed. We have four cats and felt that, if we put him back on the roof, the chances are the cats would get him before his mother so we dusted off the old hamster cage and put him in. We thought he seemed quite tame but, as soon as his eyes opened, he seemed to realise he wasn’t with his own kind anymore and spent a lot of time running in the hamster wheel, looking round and, when he realised we were still there, running again. Bless him, he thought he was running away.
When I went to the pet shop to buy food supplies for him, they told me off for keeping a wild animal as a pet and I had to explain that it wasn’t something I’d set out to do. Then, thinking that, like hamsters, the lifespan of the edible dormouse would be 2 or 3 years, he told me that they lived for about 9 years! At that stage I started wondering whether or not it was too late to put him back on the roof?
After a while we had to dust off our old pet rat’s cage as Santa had grown large with a lovely bushy tail and big eyes like a little bush baby. He also had rolls of fat which made it obvious why they were considered a tasty snack by the Romans (and still are today by some – see footnote). I hate keeping things in cages though and he always looked so sad – I think it was those big eyes – but we couldn’t really let him out as these creatures are extremely fast and can jump huge distances. With all my cats and dogs I couldn’t risk him running around the house. I cleared a shelf in the family bathroom for his cage and we would go in and keep him company from time to time but I still felt uneasy about him living in a cage. He had all manner of beds, toys, things to gnaw on, things to climb in, up and round but, even so. These animals normally hibernate for a long time – I think from October to April – but he didn’t and he wasn’t really nocturnal either – I guess normal patterns of behaviour go out of the window in such circumstances.
One day I went into the bathroom and the cage had been covered with a towel. My teenage daughter said that, whenever she had a shower, he would cling to the side of the cage and stare at her and it made her feel uneasy!
After about a year, we went on holiday and some friends looked after him for us. These friends have a son who keeps pet rats and is very good at taming and training them. On our return, he asked if he could keep Santa and try to tame him so, because I wanted to think that he would have a chance to run around outside his cage, I agreed. The inevitable happened and, one day, he didn’t come back into his cage and was never seen again. I like to think that he is living in a barn somewhere with loads of walnuts and can run around and jump as high as he likes.
The edible dormouse is a small dormouse which was farmed and eaten by the ancient Romans. The dormice were kept and raised either in large pits or (in less spacious urban surroundings) in terra cotta containers something like contemporary hamster cages. To this day, wild edible dormice are consumed in Slovenia where they are considered a rare delicacy and dormouse trapping an ethnic tradition. The edible dormouse lives in continental Europe. It was accidentally introduced to the town of Tring in England through an escape from Lionel Walter Rothschild’s private collection in 1902. As a result, the British edible dormouse population, now 10,000 strong, is concentrated in a 200-square-mile (520 km2) triangle between Beaconsfield, Aylesbury and Luton. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this).