Ladies and gentlemen, imagine, if you will, that you discovered that the park in your neighbourhood was home to unicorns, or talking, friendly dragons that roast hot-dogs for you on command, spiders that write messages in their webs and baby elephants that can fly with their giant ears.
That might begin to capture the extent of my delight one evening several weeks ago. I was dining with my friends Félicie and Yann for dinner at a local Brazilian restaurant. We were joined by a couple of former colleagues of Yann’s, one of whom works for the regional agricultural authority. I don’t remember through precisely what route the conversation took to get to his work, but I am eternally grateful that it did, for during that dinner, I learned about the existence of the most wonderful, fantastical creature that I could ever imagine.
Not far south of Strasbourg, the autoroute south splits in two. One highway continues pushes west, past Molsheim and into the Vosges mountains, on to St Dié and beyond. The other goes straight south, to Colmar, Mulhouse and on to Switzerland. Astoundingly, given this route’s importance, for two kilometers after the split it meanders through the countryside as a narrow, two-lane rural road before becoming a proper four-lane divided highway once more.
As I sat, entranced but disbelieving, Yann friend explained why this should be. He said the highway in this section could not be completed because the land in the immediate vicinity is home to one of the last populations of the endangered Grand Hamster Sauvage d’Alsace.
Giant. Wild. Hamsters. My jaw dropped.
It took my friends all night, and a subsequent Internet search, to convince me that they were not, in fact, pulling a fast one on the gullible Canadian. Giant Savage Hamsters exist, they are real, and I want, more than anything, to see one before I leave Strasbourg.
The Alsatian population is the only one in all of France, and comprising just 600 or so animals. Before 1993, when they were listed as a protected species, hamsters were hunted as a nuisance, to the brink of extinction. Most of the remaining hamsters cling on the edge of oblivon in the immediate vicinity of Strasbourg. However, local farmers have switched in recent years from the grains the rodents need to survive, instead growing maize and cabbage. The animals are still deeply threatened.
Those that are left are considerably larger than the ones you might remember from the one that lived in your Grade 2 classroom: full grown, they’re about 30 centimeters long, with distinctive white paws and brown and black fur.
There are organizations dedicated to protecting these rare and noble creatures. It is my intention, if at all possible, to contact them and see if I can, like Diane Fossey, observe these noble creatures in their natural habitat, before their magnificence is lost to us forever.
Image from www.DNA.fr