Over the years, I have successfully withstood suggestions that we get a dog by pointing out that getting a dog would be like getting a fourth child. Some years ago we got a calico cat and now when the subject of getting a dog or some other pet comes up I also say that we can't get another pet because we already have a cat.

This worked fairly well until my daughter the naturalist came along. Up until then, we had some fish in my older son's aquarium and the cat and that was it. This spring, however, my daughter returned home from a trip to the country with approximately 5,000 tadpoles and some lake water. The empty aquarium was moved into her room, the tadpoles and water were put in it and we waited patiently for them to turn into frogs, which they did. Then, they started eating each other or dying in various other dismaying fashions. For a child who befriended cicadas, this was a tough introduction to nature.

A few days before her eighth birthday in August, I decided that a child who liked animals as much as she does ought to have some. I figured that for her birthday we could renovate the aquarium and buy her some fish. I also decided to buy her a gerbil or a hamster. By the time I'd parted with a small fortune at the pet store, I had an entire new aquarium set (it was on sale), everything we needed to refurbish the old aquarium into a home, and two very small gray animals who were called rare Siberian hamsters. One male and one female. The pet store employe told me that they have such a hard time getting this breed that if by any chance they should produce offspring, the store would buy them from us. I had instant visions of my daughter going into the hamster business and financing her way through college.

By the time I got home, however, I couldn't remember whether we had gotten rare Siberian hamsters or rare Siberian gerbils. They were, however, a great hit and for a couple of days we simply called them gerbil-hamsters.

The aquarium was set up in the family room and the fish were installed. The next morning was Aug. 17, the actual day of my daughter's birthday. The first thing I heard that morning was a wail that began in the family room and ended by the side of my bed: "TWO OF MY FISH ARE DEAD."

Disaster had hit the aquarium again. One fish had its head caught in the filter. The other was on the floor about three feet away from the aquarium. The only way it could have gotten there was by jumping out of the aquarium, which we later learned can happen. My daughter sat down on the sofa, folded her arms across her chest and announced: "This is just great. The first day of my eighth year starts with two dead fish."

A few days later, we went to the beach. The lady who lives with us and takes care of the children after school reported that while we were gone the female hamster died, but the pet store had replaced her. My daughter handled this loss very well. She noticed, however, that the new hamster was fatter than her predecessor. "Maybe she's pregnant," she said.

"These are rare," I said. "There's a reason for that."

Saturday night, just as I was about to serve dinner, my daughter came flying into the kitchen hollering at the top of her voice:


Two tiny embryonic creatures were in the shavings in the hamster cage. I had no idea what to do, but I recalled horror stories of hamsters eating their young.

My daughter's friend from next door was with her. I dispatched her to get her mother. This is a family that has lots of pets. I took the male out of the cage. Then I saw the female pick up one of the babies in her mouth. I took her out. Then I realized that the babies needed her to live. I put her back in. She got on her exercise wheel. Then she started fooling with the babies again. Back on the wheel. Back to the babies. Suddenly there was another baby. She carried that to where the others were. Then she went back on the wheel. Our neighbors arrived with helpful advice and then lent us another aquarium to house the male and screening to keep the cat out. We kept a vigil. Suddenly, the female started burrowing into the shavings. Then she started carrying the three babies in her mouth into the nest and the next thing we knew she had covered herself and the babies with shavings and that's where she is spending most of her time.

It was close to 10 p.m. before the event was over. We have more than I bargained for in the family pet department but the hamsters gave us a night to remember.

There's nothing quite like the beginning of life.

The prospective merger of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, representing 12,000 American Airlines attendants, and the Association of Flight Attendants, with 23,000 members on 13 carriers, was greeted with considerable enthusiasm in my column that appeared on Sept. 2. The merger had been approved by the boards of both unions. On Sept. 22, the APFA announced that its members had voted against the merger. The union ballot certificiation committee has refused to certify the balloting, claiming company interference. The merger is not a done deed.