A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

French Hamster Sets Wheels of Justice Spinning

As courts ponder, an endangered animal’s future is in the balance

These endangered wild hamsters face extinction in France. Photo by Katanski.

Jean-Paul Burget has always loved elephants. But now he loves hamsters, too – the kind who live in the wild in the Alsace region of France.

Burget used to work at a zoo, but he quit five years ago. Now he sweeps streets in the morning to help pay for his efforts to save the Great Hamster of Alsace, whose numbers have dwindled in the region, from about 4,000 in 1979 to fewer than 500 last year.

The hamsters, roughly 10 inches tall and weighing just more than a pound, hibernate for nearly half the year, and make their homes in fields. They do best in fields with tall crops and wooded areas with tall grass that offer them some protection from predators. But their habitat has been decimated by suburban sprawl, and their preferred foods – barley, lucerne and cabbages – have been ousted by endless fields of more profitable crops that leave the hamsters in full view of foxes and birds of prey. Until 1993, when they were declared a protected species, they were considered a nuisance by farmers, who used to pay children to kill them.

Burget, however, is used to campaigning for animals. He once posed as an ivory dealer to catch elephant poachers in Africa. Now he’s taken his case for hamsters to the European Court of Justice, which in January released a preliminary opinion, saying the existing laws guarantee protection to endangered animals like the Great Hamster of Alsace. If the final ruling, due in April, confirms the earlier one, then France could face fines up to $24 million and be required to subsidize farmers to grow crops that protect the hamsters.

Meanwhile, Burget and a handful of staff, mostly volunteers, are busy at their sanctuary caring for hundreds of hamsters during the spring breeding season. Their aim is to raise the number of newborns who can be released into the wild. But at the sanctuary, males and females can’t just be put together in cages. Females often fight off the males, and this can be deadly. So couples have to be introduced carefully to each other.

In working for the hamsters, Burget has taken on a case that extends way beyond simply the hamsters he’s caring for. The upcoming decision of the European Court will have implications for many other kinds of animals who are also losing their homes as a result of modern farming practices and the pressure for them to make big profits for the companies that own the farms.