Harriet Houdini, originally Harry Houdini, is the face of classroom neglect. The first three years of her life are an unknown outside of knowing she was a classroom “pet” that was ignored, abused, and neglected.
My youngest fell in love with her and only got to see her 45 minutes a day. She would make it a point to be the one to get her out of her aquarium and hold her, offering her kind words and compassion – only being forced to put her back at the end of the class. Many days Harriet wasn’t so lucky – my youngest told stories of the kids taking her and chasing eachother around while holding her, calling her a rat, and being disgusted at her general presence.
Unfortunately, there was not much that could be done until approximately 3 weeks ago from the post date of this blog. My youngest texted me and said the room was in chaos – the teacher was yelling at students to leave Harry alone and to “just let him die.” My daughter was heartbroke and didn’t know what to do. She texted me as a last resort – and got in trouble for doing that. I am glad she knows compassion – because she definitely would not be learning it from that teacher.
Harriet’s story proves it only takes one person to care to drive change.
My daughter cared enough to get in trouble multiple times to ensure someone outside of that classroom knew that Harriet was in trouble. Harriet (then Harry as the teacher said she was male) was laying in her container struggling for breath and unable to walk. It took several phone calls on my end but within 3 hours the teacher had signed over Harriet to me and I was on my way to a vet for emergency care.
The teacher refused to pay for care holding strong to the statement that the hamster was
old and was just going to die. The school refused to pay for her care. I insisted on the hamster being surrendered to me to take her for care. I left my place of employment and picked up Harriet and her living space (which we later found to be absolutely atrocious). When I got to the school I was handed a small aquarium with a furry little black dot buried in the bedding. Site unseen until I got to the vets office, I had no idea what we were walking into.
The vet was the first to pull her out of the aquarium. When we removed the lid, the smell of ammonia overtook us both. I could not believe how bad it was. How could anyone not notice this smell? Her little body was limp in the hands of the vet. She was given fluids for dehydration and a shot of antibiotics to help, just in case there was infection. I left that day with a borrowed pet taxi for Harriet because no one in that office, myself included, wanted to put her back in that horrible living condition.
Side note: When the vet had her back giving her fluids, I was poking around her aquarium space. The bottom of the aquarium was about 1 inch deep of compacted bedding and urine. It seems as if the idea of cleaning the tank was only throwing new bedding on top of the old. It was caked together, almost like a brick, which I documented in a short video after Harriet was brought back to the room. This video, along with a couple others of Harriet, can be viewed on our Instagram and Facebook accounts (linked on the right).
Her diagnosis that day: malnutrition from incorrect feed, dehydration, upper respiratory infection, and agitation due to neglectful living conditions. If she lived through the weekend, then we knew that she could go on regular antibiotics.
If she passed within 48 hours I had decided it would be neglect and her age. But she didn’t pass. After 24 hours her breathing normalized and her activity levels increased. She was put on an oral antibiotic and continued to improve. Her eyes brightened, her coat got shinier, and her curiosity skyrocketed. Getting sick was Harriet Houdini’s greatest escape. She escaped the classroom into retirement at Willowbrook Farms Animal Sanctuary.
Every night she would come out to visit everyone, especially Mabel, our great dane/shepherd mix. I loved that they would touch noses to just say “hey” to one another. During the daytime hours, she provided hours of entertainment to her neighbor, Sheldon. When she wasn’t sleeping, her would fiddle around in her space, making sure every bit of bedding was in the right place. He would get up right next to the dividing walls, his head moving back and forth, following her every movement. Most of the time we would laugh because it seemed as if he was telling her to slow down! I think he got wore out just watching her work.
Harriet was with us approximately 3 weeks before she passed. She began breathing heavily again and had started picking at her food and water. But this time was different than the last – she was taken to the emergency vet and followed up with her doctor via phone the next morning.
I think it was just her time this time. When I picked her up, she laid down gently in my hands and her breathing slowed. She looked at me and I offered her love and comfort. I’m sure her previous living conditions attributed to her lifespan, but it was not the absolute cause of her death. It would have been – but it wasn’t. Not this time. This time she was not in a room full of noisy teens or a screaming, heartless teacher – she was held close to my heart with soft loving words to let her know it was ok. That she was loved.
Her life mattered and although it hurts to lose life, the truth around death is that life does go on – and there are others out there that need Willowbrook Farms as their voice. For Harriet, I will be trying to create some procedural changes and possible laws (we’ll see how far this can go) on how classroom animals should be receiving care.