The most beloved rodent in show business-Mickey, of course-is getting a little friendly competition. Disney's new movie, Bolt, features a true tour de force: the plucky hamster Rhino, who heeds the call of duty to become super-dog Bolt's pint-size sidekick.
While Rhino, rolling thunder inside his trusty plastic hamster ball, gets the big-screen star treatment, his real-life cousins are all too often treated like trash.
All those "Rhinos" you see for sale in pet stores come from massive breeding warehouses-similar to puppy mills-where they are kept by the tens of thousands in deplorable conditions. Hamsters, mice, rats, gerbils and other small animals are bred and raised in filthy cages that are so cramped and crowded that cannibalism is the norm, not the exception.
Animals routinely go without fresh food, clean water, veterinary care or socialization. They are shipped to pet shops-sometimes trucked for long distances-in tiny, cramped containers, often with nothing but a slice of orange to nibble on so that they don't dehydrate and become sick or die. But not all of them make it, and those who don't are just part of the pet trade's "daily dead log": animals who have perished because the industry cuts corners to make a profit.
Regulation of breeding mills is lax or non-existent, leaving breeders to police themselves-and leaving animals to suffer the consequences. PETA confirmed this when we went undercover at a massive animal mill in Texas that supplies small animals to national chains PetSmart and PETCO. Our investigator documented routine neglect and flagrant abuse that would horrify even the most heartless Disney villain.
Animals were thrown against the hard cement floor in an attempt to kill them, and live hamsters, mice and rats were routinely dumped into trash barrels-sometimes intentionally-when employees emptied the dirty bedding. PETA's investigator was told that employees sometimes threw loose live animals away if they didn't want to bother figuring out which cage the animals should be returned to.
Many animals were denied veterinary care, including a guinea pig with a broken hip and hamsters with potentially deadly "wet tail," which causes abdominal pain, watery diarrhea and rapid weight loss. In her more than two months of employment at the breeding mill, PETA's investigator never once saw a veterinarian visit the facility.
Other animals at this facility also suffered, including rabbits who were crudely neutered by an employee using a dull razor and a baby Goffin's cockatoo who wasted away for weeks and eventually died from an undiagnosed, untreated illness.
To pet shops, small animals are expendable and represent a negligible profit. The real money comes from the accessories that go with them, such as cages, bedding and food. The animals' frequent deaths are part and parcel of the business, just a minor loss, and the appalling conditions that they are forced to endure in breeding mills and pet stores reflect this.
Hamsters and other small animals will continue to suffer unless consumers stop supporting the stores that sell them. If you share your home with an animal companion, stock up on necessities at shops that sell only supplies, not live animals. If your kids are begging for a "Rhino" or "Mickey," stick to the plush-toy variety, or visit your local animal shelter or Petfinder.com to adopt a homeless hamster, mouse or other tiny friend. These simple steps will help give real rodents the chance to have a Disney ending.
Daphna Nachminovitch is the vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' Cruelty Investigations Department, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.HelpingAnimals.com.