I wanted my son to adopt a hamster because small animals need help, too

When adorable baby animals stare at you lovingly from inside their cages in the pet store, it’s hard to resist making a purchase. But what do you really know about that meowing, barking or squeaking ball of fur on the other side of the glass and how they came to be there? For starters, if they are for sale at the pet store, they are being exploited for profit. The dogs probably came from a puppy mill and were kept in horrendous conditions, and the cats could have been from an unlicensed breeder, where they are forced to mate and travel hundreds of miles in a crate without proper food and water. But what about small animals like hamsters? You don’t often hear about the horrible conditions they are born into, but they don’t fare any better than cats and dogs that are being sold in stores. The sad truth is that rabbits, guinea pigs, reptiles, birds, mice, gerbils and hamsters are all exploited by pet stores and breeders.

Times are slowly changing, and more people are becoming informed about the horrors animals go through before they end up with a large price tag around their neck. Some cities in North America like Toronto and Hollywood have a legal ban on the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores, and actually encourage adopting cats and dogs from shelters, or host adoption days for animals in need. Unfortunately, small animals are often overlooked and neglected.

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Four years ago, my son Noah and I had two rescue cats, but he really wanted a hamster. As a mom, I want to teach Noah about kindness and compassion for all living creatures, not just certain ones. Hamsters, mice and gerbils might be small, but they have unique personalities and don’t deserve the bad things that pet stores and breeders do to them. Many of these small animals arrive at the pet store dead, overstuffed in boxes and dirty crates. Some small animals die from starvation, dehydration, shipping injuries, sickness or from being shoved around like products. But it doesn’t have to be this way. All you need to do is stop buying animals at pet stores.

A good place to start looking for a rescue hamster is Petfinder. This website allows you to enter your location, and links to local shelters in your area.

Image: Miriam Porter

More: Rescue dog’s dramatic transformation is heartwarming

When we adopted Fluffy, a male Syrian hamster, we loved him instantly. I taught Noah what Fluffy needed: a big enough habitat, healthy fresh food, exercise and playtime outside the cage. Fluffy was super friendly and enjoyed having dinner with us — he even loved tofu. Hamsters are nocturnal and they sleep during the day, so if your child wants a pet to play with during daytime hours, perhaps a gerbil, mouse or rat is ideal. (Yes, rats are actually great pets and very clean.) Hamsters may nibble on occasion, so are probably better for a child that is a bit older.

We weren’t looking for another hamster, but I saw a Facebook post in a rescue group I belong to that a tiny dwarf hamster born with three legs was going to be killed. So we adopted her too. She couldn’t live with Fluffy, so had her own habitat. She was a bundle of love and energy. Having three legs only added to her need for speed. She ran, climbed and cuddled, and if she could have understood she was saved from death, I am sure she would be grateful. We named her Hope.

Fluffy and Hope lived long lives (for hamsters, that is), but our time with these little souls is always too short. Both of them passed away last year. Enough time passed, and Noah wanted to rescue another. We decided to adopt our next hamster through the Toronto Humane Society.

If you check out your local animal shelter, chances are they have small animals for adoption too. Noah searched their website for weeks until he found Rosalie, a 6-month-old furry black teddy bear hamster from Montreal. We had an in-person interview at the shelter, and Noah signed a contract agreeing to take care of Rosalie forever and provide everything she needs to have a good life.

More: The vile practice of selling kittens for bait needs to be exposed

Rosalie loves watching television with Noah, playing in boxes, chewing sticks and eating peanuts.

In the process of saving three lives, Noah has learned how to treat and care for animals with compassion and love.

Rosalie, Fluffy and Hope are three lucky hamsters. We all have the power to save a life and not contribute to an industry that abuses and exploits animals the next time we decide to add a furry member to the family. After all, the best way to teach children about pets is to rescue one.