Prof Dr Raf de Bont holds the chair History of Science at FASoS, and currently runs the research project Moving Animals: a History of Science, Media and Policy in the Twentieth Century, funded through a VICI grant of the Dutch Research Council (NWO). The project seeks to break new ground in studying the changing relationship between humans and ‘wild’ animals. He is the recipient of the 2019 Dr. Hendrik Muller Prize for his contributions to environmental history and history of science.
In March 2020, in the midst of the Covid crisis, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave a press conference. He called upon his compatriots to stop hoarding canned food, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. The word he used to describe such behaviour was ‘hamstering’ (in Dutch: ‘hamsteren’) – a term that refers to the habit of hamsters to collect grain stocks in their underground burrows. Rutte explicitly denounced such hoarding as ‘unnecessary’, ‘unkind’, and ‘nasty’, and his sign language interpreter reinforced the image by impersonating a particularly ghastly-looking animal. This mobilization of hamster images might surprise, given the fact that, today, the animal seems particularly associated with cuteness. Yet, in order to understand the morally charged meaning of the term ‘hamstering’, we need to move beyond the hamster’s current reputation and explore human engagements with the animal over the long term.
At present, the wild European hamster (Cricetus cricetus), which can still be found in the province of Limburg, is a much-beloved object of conservation in the Netherlands. Over the past few decades, the dwindling hamster populations have mobilized local and international organisations. It also moved subsequent Dutch governments to invest millions of euros in its protection, breeding and reintroduction. At the level of the province, furthermore, European hamsters have become a source of local pride. The Gaia Zoo at Kerkrade, which is engaged in the breeding program, presents them as ‘unique Limburgians’ and exposes the animals in a special ‘Limburg House’ devoted to local wildlife.
Such a strong affection might seem self-explanatory. Apart from the much-touted biodiversity value of the animal, the European hamster has a strong charisma. Its physical outlook seems predestined for wildlife campaigns. With bulgy cheeks, soft fur, relatively large eyes, short limbs and clumsy movements, hamsters come across as intrinsically endearing. Ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz explain the appeal of exactly those bodily characteristics in evolutionary terms. They talk about a ‘cuteness response’, which would be triggered by animals with ‘baby-like’ features. In their interpretation, cuteness leads to parental instincts of nurturing. This suggests we care about animals such as hamsters, simply because it is hard-wired in our brains. If this holds true, this human response to European hamsters has been with us for hundred thousands of years.
Yet, the historical record seems to show that this type of framing is relatively recent. If we go back in time, we encounter entirely different representations of (and interactions with) the wild hamsters of Dutch Limburg. It is also to those that we must turn to understand the ways in which Rutte’s sign language interpreter impersonates the animal.
The first references to the species in the Netherlands date from the late 1870s. At that point, European hamsters did not make the press as cute representatives of the indigenous fauna, but as an ‘alien’ pest. According to contemporary observers, they had crossed the border from the German Empire to rapidly increase in numbers and cause major damage to grain harvests. Deemed a disaster for agriculture, several municipalities introduced bounties for killed hamsters. Journals came with advice on how to exterminate the species, including methods such as smoking hamsters out of their burrows with burning sulphur-dusted rags, poisoning them, drowning them, trapping them, catching them with ferrets, or digging them up with the help of rat dogs. The fact that the late nineteenth-century saw the rise of state-sanctioned institutions for applied agricultural science did certainly not help the hamster. This new science saw the control of pests as one of its main objectives, and, alongside mice and rats, European hamsters belonged to the targeted species.
The late-nineteenth-century media coverage about hamsters hardly triggered a feeling of affection. Newspapers as well as specialist publications referred to them as ‘big rats’, described their behaviour as ‘extremely aggressive’, and designated their movements with military metaphor as ‘invasions’. They, furthermore, typically framed their habit of grain collecting as a form of hideous parasitic behaviour. As a result, the term ‘hamstering’ caught on to condemn morally repulsive human actions. During periods of crisis and scarcity such as the World Wars, the verb was specifically used to refer to the secret and illegal stashing of large stocks of foodstuffs. In this way, descriptions of human behavior reconfirmed the repellent reputation of a middle-sized rodent in the Limburg fields.
Occasionally, the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century writings about hamsters show attention for the animal’s physiognomy and the emotional reactions it elicited in humans. What such sources describe is a far cry from the ‘cuteness response’ as conceptualized by Lorenz. In an article entitled ‘A little monster’, for instance, a journalist of the Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad wrote the following about the hamster’s looks in 1911: ‘It seems as if nature has marked this criminal. In its outward appearance, it has nothing of the gracefulness and the cheerfulness of past native rodents and its broad face with its piercing eyes, the strongly developed lower parts and the always threateningly exposed violent teeth unmistakably contribute to an expression of nastiness and hatred’. Not so cute, indeed.
The repute of the European hamster as a nasty and hateful pest only started to change in the 1960s and 1970s. In this period, an additional mechanization of agriculture resulted in the implosion of hamster numbers. Such a population decrease would have been applauded just a decade before. Against the background of the rise of the Dutch environmental movement, however, the press, scientists and local activists increasingly presented it as a loss to local ecosystems. Simultaneously, the hamster became part of provincial identity building, and, as such, was presented as an integral element of the ‘traditional’ Limburg landscape. Finally, its rehabilitation also benefited from the fact that during the post-war period domesticated hamsters (of the species Cricetus auratus) had spread through the Netherlands as companion animals. Inspired by British and American dealers, Dutch pet sellers marketed the latter as soft-hearted and indeed cute additions to the household. This aura would be partially transposed to its wild relatives. Both journalists and preservationists, after all, gradually presented the European hamster as a ‘big nephew’ of the better-known pet.
In short, it seems that our ‘cute response’ to wild hamsters is not hard-wired in our brains, but that it results from a recent cultural history. The turnaround has been so spectacular that only the negative verb ‘hamstering’ reminds of the animal’s former reputation. This, I think, should be a comforting thought for conservationists. To date, most wild animal species are hardly considered ‘charismatic’, and thus generate little to no emotional attachment in humans. In the future, however, they just might.