Hamster History

The “Hamster Rat”

So how did a desert rodent – detested and despised by farmers – transform its reputation into a cute, cuddly and simply loveable pocket pet (so named because these guys can literally fit in your pocket!)

I’m glad you asked.

Let’s go back in time to the 19th century – specifically 1829. That’s the year George Waterhouse, a British zoologist, stumbled across one of these small creatures in the Syrian city of Aleppo. For reasons unknown, he called the rodent Cricetus auratus – or golden hamster. He brought the animal back to the United Kingdom where they were enthusiastically greeted as pets. But their popularity wouldn’t last.

It appeared that owning a small hamster was merely a trend – a craze, if you will – and before you could say “hamster wheel” the rodents disappeared from the landscape of the nation.

But that wasn’t about to end the importation of this guy into the realm of domesticated pets. Fast forward to the 20th century – 1930 to be exact – when another zoologist, this time Israel Aharoni from Hebrew university in Jerusalem, discovered a female hamster complete with twelve offspring in the Syrian Desert.

The hamster who rocked the zoological world

Who would think that a discovery like this would rock the zoological world? But indeed it did. For those who took their study of rodents seriously – and professionally – Dr. Aharoni had just delivered quite a coup.

Few professionals – let alone laymen – had even heard of the hamster. Those who had, knew that not one had been spotted in nearly 100 years. The natural assumption among the professionals was that the species had become extinct. The professionals now learned with this discovery that the animal was merely elusive – preferring to live the life of a hermit, out of view. He actually thrived in the tunnels they created.

Dr. Aharoni did what any respectable zoologist would do – he took the newly discovered family back to Jerusalem with him. Unfortunately, he knew far too little about what was needed to keep them alive. Only a quarter of the litter survived. But he was able to breed those who did survive. But the road to celebrity status was not to be an easy one for the hamster. And he had to endure some years of hardship.

As you may know, it wasn’t very long ago that the hamster was used for the longest time as a laboratory animal. While this may not have been a humane fate for this tiny creature, his status helped to teach us ultimately how to keep the animals healthy in captivity. And as you might guess, this knowledge would be essential later when he becomes a popular pet.

You can still find an occasional lab hamster, though not nearly as many as a generation ago. Today, he’s the revered pet of many a household.



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