The Hippo


May 25, 2020








Rabbit hopping at the 2015 Stratham Fair. Photo by Jean Ann St. Pierre.

For perfect hamsters

In New England at least, hamsters don’t usually participate in shows like other common small house pets, such as gerbils, rabbits and guinea pigs, primarily because they’re nocturnal (and, as such, are better suited for grown-ups than children).
But even without the motivation of a pet show, there are plenty of ways to turn your hamster into a trophy pet, starting with handling, said Paula Parisi, manager of human education programs at the New Hampshire SPCA.
“Hamsters don’t like to be turned over on their backs,” Parisi said. “Their stomach is their most vulnerable part. And they don’t like to be grabbed around the middle, either. The best way is to scoop the hamster up and have it sit right on your hand.”
The critters function best if they sleep during the day and are let out for a bit in the evening.
“You need to handle a hamster every day, even if it’s for only 10 minutes,” Parisi said. “They have short memories, these little animals, and so if you handle them, say, on Saturdays, they’re likely not going to be as easily handled as a hamster that gets out every day.”
As for diet, commercial food is fine, but you can also supplement that food with about a quarter cup of fruits or vegetables a day (romaine lettuce, peppers, strawberries, apples and cucumbers are all good choices). For water, go for the bottle over the bowl, and for exercise, go for a wheel, but one that’s smooth on the inside, not made with wiring where feet can get stuck.
It’s not a lot of work to keep your hamster clean and presentable because, for the most part, they clean themselves and don’t need to be bathed, unless they somehow escape and become dirty that way. Their nails don’t need to be trimmed, and their teeth remain healthy when they have things to chew on — Parisi suggested sticks from apple trees — and their fur can be combed with a simple toothbrush.

Little pets, lots of love
How locals show off rabbits, gerbils

By Kelly Sennott

 Animal competitions aren’t just for large animals — there are shows for small fuzzy animals like rabbits and gerbils too.

Rad rabbits
The smallest animal you can show through 4-H is the rabbit. 
Rabbits are often paired with cavies (guinea pigs) in organizations and shows, but there’s not as much cavie action in New Hampshire as in other states, especially those out west. Cavies are more delicate and can’t be exposed to cold temperatures, wind or draft. Rabbits, on the other hand, are more durable and often act as good house pets. They’re not quite as smart as cats and dogs, but they can be litter box trained and are very friendly.
“A rabbit as a pet in the house is wonderful,” Jean Ann St. Pierre, who’s been showing rabbits 27 years, said via phone. “And they socialize really well.”
St. Pierre, of Nottingham, said that for her club, Cottontail 4-H, the Stratham Fair is the big event each year. The club includes seven members, ages 8 to 15, and is the only one in the state affiliated with the American Rabbit Breeders Association, St. Pierre said. 
The Stratham Fair rabbit show, a combined effort of 4-H and ARBA, is a four-day event that starts with a purebred competition with licensed ARBA judges. They must be knowledgeable about all 49 rabbit breeds, each of which has a standard of perfection in terms of color, weight, shape and fur texture.
It’s not a very expensive hobby, but kids learn soon it’s a lot of work to prep animals for showtime. It requires a lot of training, because show rabbits need to develop good temperaments for when they’re handled. They’re judged on how well their body types match the ideal standard and on how well-kept they are — clean, free of stains, with clipped nails and well-groomed fur.
You can’t change the body type of your rabbit, but, just as in a beauty pageant, you can teach it how to pose or perform correctly to accentuate its best features. 
“There are different poses for different breeds. Some are running breeds, and they have to run back and forth in front of the judges. Others have to stand with their front legs straight and their heads held high,” St. Pierre said.
Showing also requires a lot of knowledge from owners. During a showmanship class, they must take a rabbit through a health check in front of a judge. They must also be able to correctly identify different breeds and be studied up for a written exam and rabbit quiz bowl, complete with buzzers.
St. Pierre said there’s a lot of fun incorporated in between, like rabbit hopping contests.
“Rabbit hopping is extremely big in Europe,” St. Pierre said. “They do it like an equestrian jump.” (Wikipedia says the highest rabbit jump is 39.2 inches.)
On the last day of the fair, kids dress up with their rabbits. One year, a girl and her pet dressed as Dorothy and Toto from The Wizard of Oz. Another year, a boy and his rabbit wore matching leather motorcycle jackets.
There’s effort to get more rabbit shows in other parts of the state. Christine Whiting of Lancaster is trying to organize a 4-H competition at the Lancaster Fair. She said via phone there are lots of kids in the area with pet rabbits who want to participate in the show scene, plus a few adults who already do — she pointed to Colebrook Academy Principal Mark Fiorentino, who Whiting said has been helpful in getting the movement started, and who shows all over the country. 
“It’s work, but it’s like a fun kind of work. Rabbits are easier to keep than the larger animals, and you’d be surprised at how many adults are involved in showing rabbits,” Whiting said.
Gerbil love
New Hampshire’s actually a very important state in gerbil show culture. The country’s first gerbil show was in Merrimack, a “sanctioned match” held by the American Gerbil Society, said AGS member Donna Anastasi, a gerbil enthusiast who still has photos from that event, taken by her sister Ellen Bellini.
New Hampshire is still often home to a large gerbil gathering, the New England Gerbil Show, but this year the event happens out of state. It’s one of four big gerbil events held every year in different parts of the country. Sometimes people travel from as far as Canada to compete. (And for owners who can’t travel, there’s a late summer virtual show.)
Anastasi will soon be prepping for the New England competition, which is slated for June, though she said she likely won’t choose her 12 competitors (among her 40-plus gerbils) until just before the event. She’ll need to choose the animals that are in the best form and best condition, which is different for every breed, Siamese to Burmese. Some are supposed to have white bellies and solid-color fur, while others should have spots and patterns. Gerbils are constantly growing a new coat, so you also want to pick an animal molting at just the right time.
She’ll try to find her best-fit gerbils, because judges also look at build. Males should be bulky — think linebacker, muscular but not overweight. Females should also be muscular but petite — think a figure skater. Eyes are supposed to be bright, clear and shaped like almonds. Tails should be fully furred, straight and with a fluffy tuft at the end, and just as long as the animal’s body. And, as with any other animal, judges look at how soft, dense and clean fur is, which is evidence of a healthy diet.
Gerbil owners must work to train their animal so it’s tame and friendly, which should come naturally, Anastasi said.
“A lot of these things about gerbils make them unique show animals,” Anastasi said. “They’re bold and friendly and fearless, and they’re not nocturnal. Another animal might be stressed out in show experiences, but gerbils are up for the adventure.”
Outside of aesthetic judging, gerbils in shows perform in chewing contests, races, mazes and obstacle courses.
Anastasi is biased, but she said showing gerbils is a way to get into pet show culture without the cost of taking care of larger animals.
“Gerbils are a desert animal. They’re easy to take care of,” Anastasi said. “And with gerbils, you get a lot of the same excitement and fun — with the ribbons, and being able to meet people from different parts of the country — without the cost. It’s an easy hobby, and an inexpensive hobby.” 

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