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AN ENDANGERED SPECIES?


At the rate things are going, there will soon be more hamsters in commercials than in pet stores.

Where have all the hamsters gone? You see Syrian hamsters in movies and TV commercials, on greeting cards and calendars. Everywhere but pet stores.

Where are they? What's happening? Where have all the hamsters gone?

Let's begin with recent events.

A family friend in another state recently bought a very young Syrian hamster. The hamster was so immature that it was impossible to tell the gender for sure. At first, the hamster seemed healthy - eating, running in a little hamster wheel, staring curiously out of the cage ... and then ....

The little hamster just died.

Heartbroken, our friends returned to the same store. There were seven hamsters left a few days earlier when they got theirs. But when they returned in less than a week, there were none.

At the rate things are going, there will soon be more hamsters in commercials than in pet stores.

Where did all the hamsters go? Did all of them sell that fast?

I don't think so.

We all suspect they died.

But another branch of the same store had hamsters. So all seemed well. They got another one. Again, this hamster was so small they couldn't tell if they had a male or female. To make a long story short, in a few days this one died, too. And, as you may expect, there were none left at that store, either.

Where have all the hamsters gone?


Four baby Syrian hamsters playing in an adult-sized running wheel at just under three weeks of age.

These people live in a large city in the Midwest. They've called everyone within an hour's drive and can't find a single Syrian hamster. One store even told them that they ceased carrying our species because Syrian hamsters "are not a popular pet anymore."

Not popular with pet stores, anyway. So where exactly have all the hamsters gone?

THE MARYLAND INCIDENT

Now lets go back a few years - to late 2005 and early 2006. Something similar happened on the east coast, in an rural part of southern Maryland. A family there acquired a very young hamster at the nearest pet shop, a Petco located in the next county. The hamster was tiny but beautiful. All seemed well for a day or two. Then she abruptly stopped being active, retreated to her nest where she oddly slept all night.

In the morning, she was dead.

It happened again a month or so later with another female hamster from the same store. Petco had been very good about separating hamsters by gender, by the way. And this one thrived for a while, even seeming to grow. All was well... or so everyone thought.

Then she, too, was found dead of no apparent cause.

A third hamster from the same store, who arrived in January of 2006, was the smallest yet, weighing a mere 1.6 ounces when brought from the store. But on the advice of someone at that Petco store, she got a special treatment - BeneBac, a probiotic that strengthens the immune system of young hamsters.

This tiny female, named Lolly, survived - quite possibly because of the probiotic - and managed to live an incredibly long life.


The incredible Lolly (2005-2008)

SRYIANS DISCONTINUED AT THE CHAIN STORES

Before long, all the big pet stores in Colorado - the chains like Petco and Petsmart - had stopped carrying Syrian hamsters at all, selling only the cute, but far-less-friendly dwarfs. They cited the high incidence of "wet tail" as cause.

Wet tail is a disease that affects young Syrian hamsters. It's common in youngsters and highly contagious. But of the four deaths mentioned above, in only one case was there evidence of possible wet tail.

Now the trend seems to be that the chain stores all over the country have decided not to sell Syrians. That leaves the small "Mom and Pop" pet shops.


LAST RESORT: INDEPENDENT PET STORES

This past fall, when our GFO (Great Furless One, as humans are called) was looking for a bride for me and for my second cousin Spencer, she had to call several independently-owned pet shops, some of them quite a distance away. One of them advertised Syrian hamsters on their web site, but told the GFO that they had none, had been trying to get them for quite some time, but were unable to find any at all.

Where have all the hamsters gone?

After calling two or three other places, she found one on the west side of town, a good 45 minute drive from here, that had a few Syrians hamsters, including what the GFO specifically asked for - a black female.


Bitty, who arrived weighing 2.6 ounces, nearly died of pneumonia a few days later.


A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE

She brought home two. One, Bitty, my bride, weighed in at 2.6 ounces upon arrival at home. The other, Cropsie, who eventually married my cousin Spencer, weighed 3.4 when brought home. All seemed well for a couple of days. Following what is now protocol around here, they were given probiotics for their two days with us.

But that wasn't good enough.

To make a long story short, Bitty had pneumonia. She nearly died and was only saved after being rushed by "hambulance" (the black pickup truck in our driveway) to a prominent animal hospital a half-hour drive away (it's the one in Aurora, Colorado that they show on Animal Planet). A strong antibiotic, Enrofloxacin, pulled her through, even though for the next two days it seemed that Bitty couldn't possibly survive.

But recover she did. She gained back the weight she lost and went on to become a decent-sized female. We were finally married on the 18th of January, we honeymooned the 11th of March and our children were born on the 27th of that month.


SO WHAT IS WRONG?

Syrian hamsters are disappearing. We are the classic hamster, the ones you see on car commercials and beer commercials and calendars and greeting cards.

And yet in a metropolitan area of almost four million, we could find just one store in late 2011 that even had Syrians. And in another large city farther east, there are none!

Where have all the hamsters gone?



You can't turn on the television without seeing something hamster. But it's getting harder and harder to find a real one.


PROFITS

The problem begins with the breeders.

Have you ever seen a newborn hamster? They are so tiny at birth that it literally takes fifteen of them - fifteen - to weigh just one ounce. While it's true that they grow up fast, it's ridiculous to think that a barely weaned infant is going to thrive taken away from its mother.

Unless they remain with their mothers for a week or so after being fully weaned, and unless they are allowed additional time to socialize with their littermates, their immune systems will not be mature enough for them to be thrown into a pet store display case with a bunch of other, unrelated young hamsters. They are poorly equipped to fight off disease and the result is a lot of sickly hamsters who die of neglect in pet stores or in homes that aren't prepared to pay the cost of treating an ailing pet.

(Lolly, at 1.6 ounces, probably wasn't a day past three weeks! When we weighed one of Cropsie's female babies at three weeks of age, she tipped the little postage scale at 2.2 ounces.)

And what about the parents that the breeders use? Are the mothers too young, too old, have had too many litters? Is the father related to the mother? These are crucial questions. Nobody has ever seemed to ask these things.

So where have all the hamsters gone?

With a predictably unhealthy stock of Syrian hamsters, pet stores start to see them as a liability, not profitable to them.


ONE ADULT, ONE CAGE, NO EXCEPTIONS

Making matters more difficult is that the young hamsters mature enough and strong enough to be taken to stores are close to that stage of maturity when they have to begin living alone. They have to be sold in a week or two - at most - or each one will require a separate enclosure.

We Syrians are solitary creatures. One cage per hamster.

And that, of course, makes it still more expensive to properly house young hamsters at stores.

And let's face it. Pet stores don't make a huge profit on hamsters. Most sell hamsters somewhere between $5 and $12. For the breeder to make enough money to keep them until they reach a proper age and for the pet stores to sell them even when they're old enough to need separate cages, the price would have to rise to at least $30 or $35 each before anyone makes a profit.

But what's wrong with that? Anybody who wants a pet should be willing to pay at least that much. After all the care and feeding of a hamster over a lifetime of two to two-and-a-half years is going to run many times that - in food, housing, litter and, when needed, veterinary care.



OBSOLETE: HAMSTER HOUSING

The problem didn't begin just with sickly, immature hamsters shipped out to pet shops. Even before the national chains started having their hamster problems, decent housing became all but impossible to find.

Until the early 2000s, there were numerous options available at retail stores, everything from the complicated "Habitrail" cages - the ones that require an hour to take them apart, an hour of soaking to clean, and another hour to reassemble every other week - to more sensible options like sturdy, roomy wire cages with heavy plastic bottoms.

Today, the odds you'll walk into a pet store and find a decent, safe, convenient, and affordable hamster cage are just about zero.


Bene-Bac is one form of probiotic, a vital health supplement that helps young hamsters survive the stress of being shipped to store and relocated to homes. Probiotics come in several forms - powder, tablets that dissolve in water, and more.


TIME FOR A CHANGE

I wouldn't mind seeing the cost of pet Syrian hamsters rise to five or ten times what stores are asking - the few, that is, who still sell Syrians. And I'll go beyond that. Make the cost include a two or three day supply of a probiotic diet supplement for the hamster. Throw in also a simple but adequate set of instructions for proper care.

Pet stores should, as a matter of policy, be able and willing to disclose the source from which they obtained their hamsters. They should ask potential buyers a few qualifying questions before selling. Do you have a proper cage? Do you understand that this hamster has to live in his or her own cage - alone? Do you agree that you will take this hamster to a veterinarian if it becomes sick?

And that'll be $40, please.