Nicki Cusumano stumbled upon two hamsters in need of a new home on Craigslist this summer. She decided to take them in because her own hamster, Muffin, had just died.
Nicki, 13 and an eighth-grader at Cannon School in Concord, didn’t realize she was starting a rescue program for rodents. But she now takes care of 10.
At first, animals were simply therapeutic for Nicki. She became ill with pneumonia at the end of seventh grade and, after suffering from a mystery illness all summer, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in August.
The pain stopped her from drawing, one of her favorite pastimes, said her mother, Dale Cusumano. Nicki instead took pleasure in spending time with her cat and her hamster.
“I had Muffin for six months, but she got a tumor and died. That was really hard because when I was really sick, I couldn’t do much, but I could still spend time with my hamster,” Nicki said.
Then Nicki found the advertised brother and sister, Russian dwarf hamsters, on Craigslist. Their owners had been trying to give them away for at least a month, after realizing their children were too young to take care of them, Cusumano said.
Nicki realized there were a lot of small furry animals that people didn’t want. So she posted in local classifieds that she would take in such animals, and got two guinea pigs from a shelter.
“I’m willing to accept any kind of small, furry animal,” she said. “Of course, Mom’s not huge on rats.”
Jessica Young, a veterinarian at Mallard Creek Animal Hospital, said it’s very common for “pocket pets” to be unwanted shortly after they’re purchased.
Young said she sees a lot of parents buy them without realizing how much work they are. “It’s more than putting them in a cage where they just exist,” she said.
Young said she doesn’t euthanize a lot of healthy pocket pets, but that finding shelters that take hamsters and gerbils can be difficult. (Many do take guinea pigs.)
She recommended advertising locally to see if someone might take in their pet.
Before rescuing unwanted animals, Nicki researched proper care and figured out funding. She had the space for animals, because she had recently moved into her family’s unused bonus room. She read about different cages, foods, allergies animals can develop and the best stimulation.
Nicki had some money from an art contest she’d won, and she sells drawings on commission.
Paying to keep 10 animals – Nicki now has two guinea pigs, two gerbils and six hamsters – costs about $15 to $20 a month, she said.
Every weekend, Nicki cleans out the animals’ tanks, sometimes twice a week if needed. And every night, she goes through a checklist of caretaking, her mom said, which includes playing with them, changing bedding, refilling food and water and cleaning dirty chew toys.
“Because it’s something I enjoy, time doesn’t matter. It seems to go pretty quickly,” she said. And the guinea pigs “actually come to greet me. They make these adorable sounds.”
As nocturnal animals, the crew starts getting active around 8 p.m., Nicki said. “It’s just this perfect time of night: They come out and start coming on their wheels and eating.” While her mom hears them when she walks by Nicki’s room at night, Nicki said she’s a sound sleeper and isn’t bothered.
Nicki said she’d like to expand her rescue, but can’t afford it now. She’s considering some kind of fundraiser this year, but isn’t sure what.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be a long-term career. I really love science, and I picture myself doing something more in the medical field.
“But it’s my goal to do this rescue for the next five years of my life.”
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