Hamsters on a wheel: the world’s cages are growing smaller as the powerful plague the powerless

Driving to campus this morning, an East Coast Radio DJ mentioned that in Switzerland it is illegal to own a single hamster: one has to have at least two. Hamsters (and various other species of pet, including guinea pigs and parrots) are considered social species, and thus must have friends.

Intrigued, I checked it out. The Swiss animal rights code is pretty strict: on the third offence of being found to own a lonely hamster, one could serve jail time. And don’t dare flush your sickly goldfish down the loo – it must be euthanized with special chemicals. Anglers – those who catch fish with hooks – must attend a course on humane fishing. (Cats, however, don’t seem to have it so easy – apparently it is still legal in Switzerland to skin cats and sell their pelts).

I had a wonderful vision of Hamster Police, here in the rainbow nation, battering on front doors and demanding to check if one’s hamster wheel is in good working order, and whether Harry the Hamster has a Harriet to keep him company. Such first world problems seem incongruous in a South African situation, where many folk eat guinea pigs and would probably eat goldfish too, if the little fellows provided any sort of decent meal. Animal rights tend to take second place in countries which don’t have a particularly good record of human rights, or where poverty levels are high.

And hamsters have always reminded me of academics in many ways. The dear little furry creatures often bear a distinct resemblance to many academics (think long grey beards and moustaches, hairy legs and armpits, wild and wacky hairdos), and I firmly maintain that many academics have large cheek pouches not just for retaining food until the end of the month, but for stockpiling various anti-anxiety pills or varying quantities of alcohol.

Dr Google says that when adult male hamsters are kept together, they will become violent and attempt to kill each other, which in my experience, applies to the academic species as well. In addition, they are naturally nocturnal, another similarity to their human counterparts. They also have a relatively short lifespan, in particular the domestic variety raised in captivity. Academics are only as good as their last publication: get the picture?

Concerning habitats, hamsters “should occupy a secured home as they like to squeeze through spaces and escape for new ground”.  If one substitutes “office” for “home”, this is a definite description of the current South African academic, most of whom tend to scarper for the safety of off-campus whenever possible, and legions of whom occupy themselves with fantasies of saner campuses in outer Siberia.

Robert Black sums this up perfectly: “The problem with working, I mean not self-employed, is that you have to get up and routinely do something that you do not want to do, plus you get talked down to, ordered around by twats, you know you are better than. In reality, you are no better than a slave, no better than a hamster running on a wheel. You could say the hamster likes to run on the wheel, the hamster runs on the wheel by choice. But do not forget, the hamster is always in a cage, and will never be anything else, but a hamster running on a wheel inside a cage, unless it escapes the cage.”

The world’s cages are growing increasingly smaller, and the commodification of education is closing those bars on academic cages. Students are “clients” and the customer is always right, so we duck flying furniture as students walk out of a test because it’s “too hard” and then keep quiet about it so the media doesn’t get to hear of it and thus further degrade the reputation of the institution.

We tick boxes relentlessly and without complaint: we accept the ridiculous definitions of what “counts” as research and allow all creativity to be dismissed as second-rate. We allow our postgraduate students to be forced to produce without thinking, clambering onto the wheel and clinging to the back of a comatose hamster until they emerge on the other side with a doctorate.

Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky, a professor of biology, and neurology and neurological sciences, argues that humans are intrinsically imperfect and their own worst enemy, with the powerful constantly plaguing the powerless.

“If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don’t mess with you much. What that means is you’ve got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop.

“So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They’re just like us: they’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.”

All too depressing. Perhaps those in the academy should negotiate with management for their wheels to be swopped with hamster balls, for at least then we would have the illusion of freedom.

This article first appeared as part in The Witness newspaper as part of The Travelling Supervisor column series, in October 2018.

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