I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. After recommending a holiday pet gift that suggests you shove your hamster into a “Hamtrac” racecar, snap the plastic door shut and watch him run circles around a miniature racetrack, I got to thinking (and it didn’t take much): Something about that vision just ain’t right.

After confessing this sin to my mother, who vehemently agreed (or so it seemed over a bleary-eyed breakfast the other day), I confronted a few of my friends, colleagues and co-workers on the subject.

Surprisingly, this topic got everybody going. Nearly all of the animal-loving kindred spirits I queried seemed to have shared the same defining experiences as children:

1-The hamster or gerbil in the glass-sided tank with its obligatory wheel.

2-The multi-colored “Habitrail” (to varying degrees of elaboration depending on family income).

3-The harrowing death experience: misguided toilet funerals, surreptitious replacement of creatures by injudicious parents and the occasional terrifying death by accidental dropping or smothering. (No picture necessary.)

So you understand, none of these reminiscences melted our animal-loving hearts. Most of us were horrified to relive the cruelty visited upon the poor creatures in question—by our own hands. I think we all wanted to block out this ignominious past of ours, and yet we were gratified to know we had not been alone in…

1-starving our creatures for long stretches of time when our parents turned a blind eye to our ten year-old responsibilities (“of course I fed him, Mom, he just eats fast”),

2-enticing our feline or serpentine family members to join in the Habitrail-stalking enterprise we’d devised, or

3-otherwise managing to thoroughly undermine our love of animals through our own personal, rodent-sacrificing tactics.

To this day, whenever I envision the now-ubiquitous hamster-ball rolling about a room, I wonder whose child is tempting their cat to chase it about willy-nilly. And what must that beset creature be thinking…? It’s a wonder they don’t succumb to prey-shock more often.

To that end, I retract my top-ten nod to the “Hamtrac racetratck.” In fact, in light of my recent reconnaissance of young children’s small rodent keeping histories (which correlate so well with my own), I have to wonder whether such a practice would be better off outlawed outright.

Alas, as much as I love animals, this vet cannot recommend that small rodents be provided children as a training ground for future pet responsibility. Ultimately, it typically ensures that guilt and remorse plague a thinking child’s soul. And it certainly isn’t worth sacrificing a feeling creature’s life to recruit a child’s empathy following a series of his/her juvenile misdeeds. 

I sure hope small rodent-keeping has changed in the years since I harbored my “Hamsties” I through V, but I’m not sure I’m capable of believing that humanity has changed that much in twenty or thirty years. After all, the “Hamtrac Racetrack” is a top seller. I mean, can such a device really be in the best interest of a rodent better suited to the protective undergrowth of a tropical forest? Hmmm….