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The death of li'l Anthrax

A more vicious little creature you could hardly imagine.
By Barbara Merritt
Fall 2007 8.18.07

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My oldest son, upon entering college, got a pet. I was appalled by his choice—a dwarf albino hamster. I have a phobia about mice. Full blown. We’re talking irrational terror. And a dwarf albino hamster looks exactly like a mouse, only without a tail. So to even see this creature made me hyperventilate. Purchased in September 2001, in the midst of all kinds of predictions about biological warfare, Robert named the tiny hamster “Anthrax.”

A more vicious little creature you could hardly imagine. With his sharp, little teeth, he bit everyone who put their hand in his cage. He was so fierce that he provided endless amusement, as one college student after another tried to tame him. He would have none of it! Not this hamster! Not li’l Anthrax! Human beings were the enemy and he furiously guarded his cage from any intrusion. His beady little red eyes were always on the lookout for anyone foolish enough to disturb the nest.

I began to feel some concern for the little creature during its occasional visit to our home. I bought him a larger cage and a mouse run that had plenty of warrens and chutes to explore. I found a soft old sock for him to sleep in. I would visit him in Robert’s room, just to make sure he was OK. All right, I’ll admit it—I even talked to Anthrax. But I didn’t touch him. And I didn’t like him. He always just looked like a mouse to me. But then the fateful day came when I checked on him and felt a wave of fear. There was no movement in his cage. He had passed on.

Here is the surprise. I was quite sad that Anthrax had died! Robert was more philosophical about it. He thought that the existence of a dwarf albino hamster was somewhat miserable, even in the best of circumstances. But he also was sad when he saw his hamster all curled up and no longer biting anyone. A tiny creature, with a highly aggressive, fearful temperament, incapable of affection, emotional responsiveness, or very much learning was, nevertheless, mourned.

One of the worst ideas to ever emerge from liberal religion, in general, and Unitarianism, in particular, was the concept of “salvation by character.” Eloquently championed by William Ellery Channing, this faith in excellence was embraced by those who believed in the perfectibility of human nature and the rational conquest of life’s most troubling aspects. “Salvation by character” meant we were going to be so good, so charitable, so wise, and so admirable that there would be little need for grace or mercy.

Li’l Anthrax has taught me something different. Something important. Being loved has nothing to do with character. Anthrax was unapproachable and never gave anything to anyone. But he was alive, and he needed help. Our characters are complex, contradictory, and layered with strength and weakness. But love doesn’t concern itself with the perfection of our personality or our resume. Love sees past the small flaws and the large ones.

“Every creature, great and small, the Lord God loves them all.”


Reprinted with permission from Amethyst Beach: Meditations, ©2007 by Barbara Merritt, published by Skinner House Books. Available from the UUA Bookstore.

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