It all began one spring day back in 1930. Eight feet below a field of wheat in Aleppo, Syria, lived a wild hamster and her 11 newborn pups. Worn out from caring for her babies, she curled up in her burrow to go to sleep.
Unbeknown to the hamster, a group of men led by a biologist named Israel Aharhoni were on a mission to find and capture her young. They succeeded. After a lot of digging, much to the irritation of the farmer who owned the field, the team found her nest, took the mother and her eleven babies, and placed them in a box together.
As hamsters do when they get stressed or their nest is disturbed, the mother started to cannibalize her pups. Fearful that she might eat them all and spoil the success of their mission, a local hunter from the group took the mother and gassed her with cyanide.
When Aharoni returned home to Jerusalem with ten orphaned baby hamsters, he likely had no idea that the descendants of two of these baby wild animals he had captured would one day live in the homes of people around the world. His friend Saul Adler, a Professor of parasitology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, thought that the hamsters would make suitable models for studying human illnesses, and so the plan was to breed them for use in research experiments.
Aharoni’s captives apparently had a different idea. They all made a break for it. But their newfound freedom was short-lived. Nine of the ten were successfully found, at least for a while. Five of the hamsters later gnawed their way out of their cage and disappeared — never to be seen again.
Following that, the only-remaining male hamster attacked and ate one of his sisters, leaving the scientists with only three hamsters. Just when it was beginning to look as though the plan wasn’t working out, the male and one of his remaining sisters finally mated, and the world’s first-ever recorded captive-bred litter of Syrian hamsters was born.
As it turned out, Adler wasn’t the only scientist who thought that Syrian hamsters would be useful for experimenting on. By the late 1940s, the descendants of those first two captive hamster parents were being bred, experimented on, and dissected in research laboratories around the world. They are still widely used in animal research today.
In 1931, Adler brought two male and two female Syrian hamsters from the university in Jerusalem to the UK, where he gifted them to his close friend and fellow parasitologist Edward Hindle. From these four hamsters came most, if not all, companion Syrian hamsters in the UK today.
Over the next few years, as Hindle bred and distributed them to various institutions, including London Zoo and Glasgow University, the hamsters continued to multiply. By the mid-to-late 1930s, scientists seemingly had more hamsters than they could use and began to sell them off. Before the end of the decade, Syrian hamsters could be found in pet shops across the country.
While keeping hamsters as pets seems to many people like a harmless idea, the practice is deeply rooted in the cruel commodification of animal lives. Hamsters should arguably never have become pets, but now that they are, the least we can do is give them the best possible care.