Meredith got a new pet a couple of months ago. He’s a Russian hamster and his name is Mr. Hammy. He’s extremely gentle. When she first brought him home, I was stunned by the size of his “nads” in comparison to the rest of his small body. Apparently, this is a common physical trait of male hamsters. All that aside, he is an extremely sweet, affectionate little fellow, and only in slight danger from being eaten by Badger while recreating on the floor. Hammy is descended from a small tribe of hamsters discovered in the Syrian desert 70 years ago, and all of his positive traits as a pet have led to the adoption of hamsters as one of the most popular small pets worldwide.
Hamsters aren’t in any type of danger, but many other small rodents are. This is a cute video of a Jerboa. Jerboas are nocturnal rodents distributed throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. Some people say they resemble miniature kangaroos. Their long tasselled tail helps to balance them when they jump — they can jump pretty high and cover distances quickly. Jerboas are regarded as endangered. The animal was known of, but not much-studied until 2007. The BBC has an excellent report from December 2007 on Jerboas, thanks to an expedition to the Gobi Desert funded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). Dr. Jonathan Baillie, who led the trip, said that jerboas were “the Mickey Mouse of the desert,” extremely cute and comical. As a nocturnal animal, the jerboa is endangered as a result of habitat destruction more than anything else – they were only recently studied because they were as a rule, not often seen.
But here is another animal that everyone knows in America: the prairie dog. A number of prairie dog species are endangered, and efforts to protect these animals (which are regarded as lower than gophers – which is like, how low can you go? – by many ranchers) are on the increase. Prairie dogs, which entertain children endlessly in zoo environments and on television, are social animals that live in towns – laid out with neighborhoods, various rooms, and they have an elaborate system of protection. The warning barks of “lookouts” earned them the nickname prairie “dog” upon encountering English-speaking people settling the wide-open spaces of the American prairie.
Issues related to the prairie dog, its relationship to one of its main predators, the black-footed ferret, and the interests of ranchers have become increasingly controversial. Poisoning, trapping, shooting, and a flea-spread plague killing both prairie dogs and ferrets have arisen in recent years. The black-tailed prairie dogs that live in South Dakota’s “badlands” are those under the greatest threat and controversy. I’m pretty sure that this article, written by nature writer Paul Tolme, might even be the exact article that inadvertently provided some of disgraced romance novelist Cassie Edwards’ “material” for her Native American-“inspired” books. If not, it’s pretty similar to the one that did.
Naturalists estimate that there were as many as 4 billion prairie dogs in the United States a hundred and ten years ago. One giant prairie dog metropolis found in Texas in 1900 spread over 250 miles in length, and 100 miles in width, with an estimated 400 million residents. There are far, far fewer prairie dogs today. Those are truly impressive numbers and certainly do not represent anything like endangerment. However, today, ranchers, environmentalists and communities clash over prairie dog management.
What do I think? Well, mass-poisoning is never a good option for animal control. And anybody who’d think shooting small, defenseless “watchdog” prairie dogs for sport, then leaving their bodies to rot fits in the wretched subhuman category for me. By the same token, like rabbits in Australia, it’s within the realm of possibility that prairie dog numbers can skyrocket causing environmental and economic damage. However, the prairie dogs are definitely in retreat today, and the brutal sport of popping prairie dogs for fun, or poisoning them en-masse, is completely insupportable.
Why do we find small mammals so cute? From an evolutionary perspective, small mammals resemble their own – and our – warm-blooded, furry, mammalian ancestors. Many early mammals lived in burrows and existed socially, much like prairie dogs and nearly all other small mammals today. Little, adorable Mr. Hammy is affectionate, sweet-tempered, gentle and likes to chew whatever he comes across. It’s a funny thing to think, but I wonder if people’s tendency to eat mindlessly (i.e. TV – hot cheetos, whee!) and Hammy’s chewing fetish don’t have more to do with each other than we might think. It’s notable that prairie dogs and hamsters are a little on the chubby side – all the more to survive the lean winters in one’s burrow. And it’s just too bad that we don’t have those winters any more, isn’t it?