Friday, 17 March 2017

Teddy Bears and Hamsters: A 1900s Pet Scam

Still on the European Hamster (Cricetus cricetus), I came across this story in The Zoo Story by L.R. Brightwell, a history of London Zoo published in 1952.



Leonard Robert Brightwell (1889-1962) was a well-known and prolific author and illustrator. He had strong zoological connexions since he illustrated The Science of Life for the authors, H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley and G.P. Wells.

In his chapter covering the decade 1901-1910 and under the heading of one of his drawings showing how Fellows of the Zoological Society were dressed at the time while looking at a far more intelligent Chimpanzee, he wrote on the appearance of a new toy:
     …A matter of unscientific interest also was the arrival from U.S.A. of that still popular nursery potentate, the Teddy Bear…It is now generally agreed that the toy was really inspired by the Koala, or Billy Blue Gum, an Australian marsupial. But we are all full of Teddy Roosevelt, his famous range of dentures, fire-eating speeches and highly coloured hunting adventures. Whatever the nursery favourite's real origin, it is from the irrepressible "he-man" president that it took its name. The toy's immediate and tumultuous popularity led to a strange development in the animal trade. Certain livestock dealers—with a shrewd eye for what the public evidently wanted—gave it the "Teddy Bear Rat". This was the hamster, a chubby, handsomely marked beast not unlike a guinea pig and so abundant in some parts of the Continent as to be a plague. This is the rodent said to have eaten the cruel bishop in the Rhenish “Mouse Tower". To launch such a dirt-cheap creature on the public at an extravagant figure seemed to the business mind elementary common sense. But the hamster unfortunately combines with the guinea pig's chisel teeth a very unguinea-pig-like temperament. It led to so many complaints and damaged fingers that the police eventually prohibited its sale. The Zoo soon had to refuse offers of Teddy bear rats, so eager were disgruntled householders to part with their spiteful pets.

The European Hamster has always had a terrible reputation for biting its keepers in captivity and for defending itself in the wild. George Jennison in his Natural History Animals of 1927 wrote:
     It is an irascible creature, a bold and determined fighter with its own kind and against vultures and smaller birds, dogs, cats and the lesser carnivores that prey upon it.

The UFAW Handbook 6th edition says European hamsters are capable of inflicting serious bites but that at the Hannover medical school they have been tamed by frequent handling and personal attention to individuals such that ‘a large degree of tameness can be achieved in successive generations’. That is also true of the other hamsters kept as pets and in labs, the Syrian, Chinese and Djungarian but the European is that much bigger and a braver (wo)man than me would be needed to start the process.