As promised, on Saturday I went to the Tysons Corner Petco to watch their “1st Annual” Hamster Ball Derby. The event was scheduled for 2 PM, with warm-ups at 1:30. I arrived about 1 PM and walked in the door, to find four hamster ball tracks set up on tables, all set for the Derby. Since I had time to spare, I wandered to the back of the store where a cat adoption event was taking place, and spent some time chatting with a very pleasant black and white cat. I like cats but I’m highly allergic to them, so there was no impetus for me to adopt the b&w cat on the spot. I hope someone did because it was a nice cat.
I then noodled through the store, which was relatively quiet. I visited the small animal section, which had hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, ferrets and chinchillas, but alas, no rabbits. I spent some time in the bird area and had a nice one-on-one with a parakeet (one of these days I’ll have to tell you about my parakeet-keeping days and the saga of the Three Charlies). 1:30 rolled around and I went back to the front of the store, where contestants for the Derby were just beginning to arrive.
First through the door was a family of three kids and their mom. The kids ranged from about seven through eleven, and each child carried a plastic hamster ball in one hand and a sturdy cardboard box in the other. The two older children went confidently to the racetrack table, placed both balls and boxes on the table, and opened the boxes, revealing the racers themselves: a large golden hamster and a large spotted hamster. The racers were popped into their balls, the balls were placed on the tracks, and off they went. The children hurried from one end of the table to the other as there was nothing to keep a rolling hamster ball from exiting the track and crashing to the floor.
The youngest child of the family, a boy, was carrying a smaller pink ball. His mother opened the remaining cardboard box, and within it was a very small white hamster. The boy put the hamster into the pink ball and placed the ball on the track. The hamster squatted inside, unmoving. “C’mon, Snowy,” the little boy said, and tapped on the ball. Snowy didn’t even flinch. The boy gave the ball a push; Snowy slid up the side of the ball and down, a white-furred dead weight. “He won’t run,” the boy observed to his mother. She pulled Snowy out of the ball and looked at him. “He’s got his cheeks stuffed,” she said, and indeed, Snowy appeared to be carrying half his body weight in his cheek pouches. He looked like he had the mumps. Mother and son put him back in the ball. They made kissy noises, tapped on the ball, gave it a few gentle pushes – but Snowy only turned his back. Meanwhile other children were arriving and some Petco employees began registering the racers as more hamster balls were placed on the track for warmups. Since Snowy remained sullen and moveless, Mom and son put him back in his box to make way for other racers.
John arrived and we spent some time picking out our favorites for the Derby. I was partial to a large parti-colored hamster being raced by a boy in a yellow t-shirt; both boy and hamster had a determined air and the little racer went back and forth, back and forth on the tracks with great gusto. John selected a much smaller hamster, run by a much smaller boy, which displayed startling speed when placed on the tracks. The registration process and warmups continued as more racers arrived; John wandered around the store and I was distracted by a cockapoo being trimmed in the grooming area. The trembling ‘poo fixed me with a pleading stare as the trimmer was run over its flanks.
Meanwhile there was a near tragedy as the very small, very fast hamster made one last practice run and ended up rolling off the track and clean off the table. “Someone catch my hamster!” its owner cried wildly, and many hands stretched out, but the ball crashed to the floor. There was a worried confab between the small owner and a Petco employee; the racer lay flat on his belly in the bottom of his vehicle, looking stunned. The onlookers were quiet as we waited to see if the hamster would recover. After a few moments the very small hamster got up on his feet again and seemed to be okay, but it had been a heart-stopping moment and the young owner was chastised by his mother for being inattentive.
Eventually all the racers were signed up and confusion reigned while the Petco employees (not much older than some of the competitors) struggled to fill out the heat charts. Some racers were registered under their own names; some under their owner’s names, which made for interesting times (“Next is Ricky and his hamster Scott!” “No, I’m Scott – his name is Ricky.”). The Petco employees begged for ten minutes to organize themselves and urged the children to look around the store for a while; stubbornly, most of the kids remained underfoot. Then the Petco employees insisted on boring them with Interesting Facts About Hamsters and a few little commercials for the sponsoring companies’ products; John started rolling his eyes, I watched the cockapoo getting his toenails clipped and the children made those rumbling noises that bored children somehow manage to make with their feet. Eventually the call came for the racers to line up, and for all observers to “take a giant step backward.”
In this photo, you can see my favorite, the older boy in the yellow t-shirt, and to the right in a light blue t-shirt, the owner of Snowy (in the small pink ball). The first four racers were called to the table, and the Derby began.
Many of the hamsters did exactly as their owners wished, and took off down the track as if being pursued by cats. A few started off well, then inexplicably turned around inside the ball and went back the other way. To my dismay, Yellow T-Shirt Boy made a poor showing; perhaps his hamster was worn out from all the practice runs, for it was reluctant to start and once started, moved at a stroll. The hamster who’d crashed in the practice round also did poorly; all the mickey knocked out of him, I guess.
But it was Snowy who gave the most embarrassing showing. His young owner was clearly excited when his turn came – look at that hopeful expression! He placed Snowy up on the track, the Petco employee shouted “one-two-three GO!” – and Snowy made not one move. There were two fast hamsters and one slow hamster in his heat, but even the slow hamster made it across the finish line eventually. Snowy didn’t even leave the gate. He sat motionless in his ball, Buddah-like, cheeks heavy with booty. The boy pleaded with him and tapped on his ball, but to no avail. Snowy would not run. Finally he was removed from the track to make way for the next heat and unceremoniously dumped into his cardboard box; his humiliated young owner sought comfort in Mom’s arms, while John, bored with the whole thing, looked on impassively.
Some hamster named Scooter won the Derby (I’d transferred my winning hopes to the single gerbil in the competition, but it didn’t even place). I wish the thing had been organized a bit better; the Petco employee making most of the announcements couldn’t be heard above the crowd most of the time (and the kids were remarkably well-behaved, considering their excitement). Next time, at the very least, they should put some kind of barrier at the finish line so there’s no repeat of this year’s crash. The top four winners got prizes provided by the sponsors; the others received “Certificates of Participation” because everyone’s got to go home with something. I hope all the competitors got to go home to their cages and go to sleep, but I have a feeling that Snowy is going to be in the doghouse for a few days.